What do we mean by Research-informed Teaching?

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Catherine Hobbs discusses what she’s discovered about integrating research and teaching.

Education, Light Bulb, Idea Generation, Board, Space

We hear a lot about the vital links between research and teaching.  The argument is frequently made that in order to deliver high quality higher education, it must be taught by research-active staff.  But how in practice does this play out?  In what ways does a lecturer with a research background really enhance the student experience?  It’s a question I have wanted to answer for a long time.  When asked, academics often say things like, ‘I refer to my research when I’m teaching undergraduates so that they can see what I’m teaching is used in research,’, ‘I teach a final year module based on my research interests,’ or ‘In their final year projects students can have the chance to study a research topic.’.  I’ve felt that this is not enough, and that surely there must be deeper ways of integrating research and research skills into the curriculum if we are to justify the need for academics to be researchers as well as teachers.

I come to this topic as a typical academic.  My research background is in pure mathematics.  I came into academia because I wanted to continue my research, but found that teaching was a dominant part of my role for many years.  In fact, I discovered that I love to teach – I get enormous enjoyment from it and have ended up applying a lot of my research skills to improving the ways I teach.  This certainly seems to me one way in which being a researcher has informed my teaching.  I read the literature, think about how I can apply new ideas to my teaching, use the classroom as my laboratory and then evaluate the results.  But what do others do?

To address this question I teamed up with colleagues from across the University to explore how our different perspectives on the subject can produce fruitful cross-fertilisation.  Our team includes Dr Petia Petrova, who has expertise in the field of research-informed teaching, Dr Jeanette Sakel, a researcher in linguistics who now has a leadership role in teaching and learning, and Dr Emma Weitkamp, a science communicator whose practice-based research is integrated with her teaching.

Having found our own multi-disciplinary conversations interesting, we decided that a way to explore the subject might be through further conversations with other colleagues we know to be doing interesting things in research-informed teaching, both within UWE and externally, as well as some of our own students and to record these as a series of podcasts. So what did I learn?  Firstly, that I’m not the first person to have pondered this subject.  There is some excellent literature out there on the relationship between research and teaching eg [Brew, 2007].  Secondly, that there are many facets to the subject.  Ways in which colleagues integrate their research with their teaching fruitfully include:

  • Co-creation with students – even from first year, inculcating the ideas of posing interesting questions and seeking out the answers through existing literature, experiment and exploration.
  • Sharing research skills with our students – not just the basics of literature review, quantitative and qualitative analysis, but the concepts of formulating good questions and being rigorous in answering them.
  • Sharing the creative process of research with students – helping them to understand that not all knowledge is already known, and that what they read in a textbook may represent a highly refined description of what took years of research to establish.
  • Supporting students to understand that through research activities they are building skills that can apply in other areas (this is a useful point for researchers who become teachers themselves – you can use your research skills to become a more effective teacher!).

I’ve come away from this experience with lots of ideas to try out for myself.  I hope that listening to the podcasts may inspire others to do the same and to think about how the potentially deep relationship between teaching and research can be brought to the fore in their own practice.  A motto to live by is ‘Do what you love, love what you do’ – if you love research, think about how you can bring this joy to your teaching using the skills you already have and by learning from others – just as you would in your own research discipline.

Further reading: Brew, Angela, 2007 “Research and Teaching: beyond the divide”

Prof Catherine Hobbs is Associate Dean (Research and Enterprise) in the Faculty of Environment & Teaching at UWE Bristol, and is also a National Teaching Fellow.

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