What do we mean by Research-informed Teaching?

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

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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.

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Nicky Turnbull

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The HEPPP research network is principally for colleagues at UWE but we are pleased to connect and collaborate with researchers from elsewhere. This week we welcome Nicky Turnbull from Newcastle College as our Featured Researcher.

Hello – I’m Nicky Turnbull and I’m Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College Group (NCG), which one of the largest providers of HE in FE in the UK. I’m currently a doctoral candidate at Newcastle University, and researching and writing a thesis on pedagogical praxis, particularly exploring the philosophical basis of caring teaching and its practical implications.  After graduating with a degree in Sports Science I worked in local government providing leisure opportunities for individuals from deprived communities and in my spare time I was a fitness instructor, outdoor enthusiast and sports coach.  My obsession with activity and fitness led to me becoming a sports teacher, in 1995 I moved into the FE sector teaching adults, increasingly specialising in teaching HE in FE. On the way, I studied for and gained a PGCE, a DMS (Diploma in Management Studies), a PGDip in Sociology, an MA in Lifelong Learning and I was a national finalist in the prestigious FE STAR awards for excellence in teaching.  After a number of curriculum management and leadership roles, I became Director of Higher Education at Newcastle College in 2018.

I’m passionate about the remedial role that further education colleges play in ameliorating disadvantage and levelling up opportunity and access, and my doctoral thesis is a phenomenological study that investigates the relationship between HE students and teachers (in HE and FE). Most specifically I’m exploring how pedagogies of care enacted and modelled by teachers resonate with students and whether this has implications for teaching, student outcomes and the institution.  

This research interest grew out of a professional concern for the comparatively low levels of student retention within low-tariff institutions (like HE in FE) and a search for a ‘holy grail’, where more students, specifically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, would persist with their studies in order to benefit from the transformative effects of higher education. I’m especially interested in exploring the nature of teaching within HE in FE, and how the ‘dogma of skills’ with the focus on training for a specific job has arguably led to transmission models of teaching and the ‘passing on’ of skills or professional competencies by dual professionals (teacher-trained industry experts) rather than the development of the student as a whole person.  My study has already raised questions about notions of ‘good teaching’ in vocational contexts, the disposition and values of the teachers and, also how relational care as a reciprocal ethic of care benefits the students and the teachers. As a phenomenological study, my research explores the experiences of those HE in FE vocational teachers who identify as caring and inclusive, and it asks how their students conceptualise this. 

Contextually, the study is complex and quite controversial: in Higher Education teaching, the concept of ‘care’ is certainly problematic.  It is under-theorized and under-researched (particularly outside compulsory schooling).  It is also not easily defined and whilst no teacher wants to identify as ‘uncaring’, there are those who believe that the deontological duty to care is complete at the end of compulsory education, and therefore caring has no place or purpose in HE.  In this framing of care, students are expected to develop individual autonomy, resilience, and be exposed to ‘tough love’ in preparation for the world beyond HE, which therefore necessarily precludes a deeply relational experience of teaching, such as care.  This extends even to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are seen as more fragile and must be quickly ‘levelled up’ using scaffolding from adjunct support rather than subject, discipline or even vocational experts. Also, there is a view that the affective and cognitive domains are immiscible and that by showing concern, paying attention, listening to students or even providing safe spaces, there is somehow a view that this constitutes adjunct pastoral support and that in doing so, such students can’t be challenged and intellectually stretched. There is therefore an implicit assumption that students have individual differences that are somehow fixed, and that if a student is fragile, then they are always fragile, and their abilities must be immutable, and they must therefore be handled with care, as if they were permanently on a hard shoulder of pedagogic frailty, rather than being scaffolded back into the main highway of academic expectation. In some ways, the construction of the fragile learner is similar to the ways in which inclusive education has been constructed within schools as a result of educational ‘statements’ after the Warnock Report: it was never intended that accommodations were to be fixed and lifelong, yet the possibility of withdrawing them has become conflated with being less supportive, and less accommodating, and arguably, less caring. But in higher education, there are other seemingly contradictory pressures:  this resistance to caring is also borne out of the rampant commodification of higher education.  Now, the focus is on institutional customer care and the requirement to provide value for money as a transactional ‘having’ or ‘getting’ relationship between the student and the institution, rather than a nurturing, fulfilling, ‘becoming’ relationship between teachers (who understand the benefits and obligations of teaching as a ‘people business’) and students (who all feel like they really matter and are able to flourish and indeed are expected to flourish).  As a senior leader within higher education, I believe that it is critical that my research benefits the students, the institution and particularly the staff.  Teachers have cited a lack of time due to intensive teaching commitments or large class sizes as the reason why they are unable to ‘pay attention’ to students in HE in the way they want.  I hope that my research will illuminate practice which shows that enacting pedagogies of care is not about going ‘above and beyond’ and risking the teacher-burnout that sometimes ensues, but teaching in a caring way to benefit the students, the people they become and the communities in which they live. 

Connect with me via Email

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Fabia Jeddere-Fisher

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A Room of Voices

Now firmly into the first semester of blended learning, I realise how accustomed I’ve become to entering a virtual room of disembodied voices, and aurally recognising each student. These auditory interactions are now our primary method for the lecturer-student relationship and I’ve been fascinated by the role of our voice for online teaching in the specific context of higher education.

Since starting my current role, as Senior Lecturer in Building Services Engineering, I’ve always looked for opportunities to use digital learning tools to enhance the student’s experience, so, when we moved to online teaching, I quickly got to know my Menti from my Miro. However, I became alarmed by the growing obsession with the virtual learning technology and I wanted to provide a simple antidote. Something to hold on to for the times when technology fails.

The Voice: Tone, Pitch, Pace, Identity, and Authenticity.

The role of a lecturer is distinctively different from other forms of public speaking, as we must build long-term positive relationships with our audience: the students. Therefore, we should not aspire to be the slick public speaker, but rather we should feel comfortable to show our human side.  

So why not hone the skill of vocal confidence in mastering the techniques of online teaching. Looking back, I think I developed this interest, not in the workplace, but through my hobby of hosting radio shows on student, and later, community radio stations. Before online streaming and automatic “listen again” functions, it was a labour of love to hear my shows again. Before setting out to the studio to broadcast, I would tune my home radio, set my minidisc recording, and hope no-one in my house was going to re-tune to another station. After each show I would listen back, enjoying the music I loved to hear, and to see how I sounded to the listeners. It’s quite a shock the first few times, I didn’t sound like “me”, and I could hear my nervousness exposed through the airways. But show by show, my voice mellowed into the rhythm of it. My enjoyment and passion for the music could be heard.

In summer 2020, I led a peer-group CPD session, subsequently presenting the work at the HEPPP Expertise symposium: Developing Your Online Voice for Teaching [YouTube video]

The CPD 3-week programme was structured with short pre-recorded videos, and peer-group discussions to explore the concepts and share experiences. The group size was small, yet still representing a wide range of disciplines and teaching formats. The topics each week built on concepts of building relationships using voices.

  1. The Voice Forms the Relationship: The voice is the essence of someone’s personality, where the word itself comes from “persona” which is the Greek word for the mouthpiece of the face masks used by actors in ancient drama. As a group, we listened to a range of speakers and posed possible reasons why we build positive or negative relationships with them.
  2. Your Relationship with Your Voice:  The first time you hear your own voice played back, you confront a new version of yourself. Yet, our brains have never been programmed to hear that version, as physiologically, our ears receive vibrations transferred internally, as well as sound transferred through the air. This vocal confrontation has been explored by Rousey and Holzman (1967) and they showed that by hearing our primary emotions exposed in our voices, we respond with negative association. Ok fine, but how do we change that? I proposed that we can address this simply through practice of listening back to recordings, aiding the neural reassignment of what our voices sound like. In addition, this would be paired with a healthy self-esteem, allowing us to show our vulnerabilities through our voice, using this as a positive tool in relationship building, rather than a weakness.
  3. The Voice Creates the Learning Environment: If we’re now in agreement that our voices are powerful tools to build positive relationships, then we can now apply this to the higher education learning environment. I used the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, D, 2011) to define what a “learning environment” is: social, cognitive, and teaching presence. This framework helped to guide our discussions through the different styles of teaching. These broadly covered:
    – Size of cohort;
    – Student profile;
    – Session type;
    – Skills developed.
    For each of these, we discussed how the Voice sets the tone of the virtual room, and not necessarily the first slide. It that it is the Voice that will decide whether we keep, or lose, control in the virtual room.

4. Vocal Gymnastic Linguistic Acrobatics: We all can appreciate the toll that many hours of teaching takes on our voices. To ensure that we are in command of our Voice, we need to treat it kindly. Each week we ended with a few short exercises, which would keep the vocal muscles supple. This ranged from breathing exercises to tongue twisters!

In summary, the following key themes run throughout my work:
1. Vocal Confidence: Developing the mind’s relationship with the Voice, to deliver authentically.
2. Vocal Resilience: Ensuring the body is fit for the vocal workout, to avoid vocal fatigue.
3. Vocal Interactions: Honouring the dawn of communication as turn-taking, rather than one-sided, and assisting a conversation, rather than a performance.

Feedback from the participants was that these methods have helped them prepare and structure their sessions, as well as gave them a peer-support-group to reflect with as we entered this most challenging semester.

Thank you for listening.
Connect with me via Email, Twitter: @FabiaP or the UWE website

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Ciaran Burke

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When writing this piece, I undertook the slightly scary process of counting how many years it has been since graduating with my PhD; I am fast approaching my first decade of post-graduate life after graduating in 2012. A native of Belfast, I attended Queen’s University studying single hons Sociology, and, subsequently, I won a Northern Ireland Department of Employment and Learning PhD studentship which allowed me to pursue my doctoral research full-time. The focus of the thesis was examining the role of social class on graduate employment trajectories. Upon graduation, I was appointed as a lecturer in Sociology at Ulster University, a process that sounds quite straightforward but one which I will always feel very lucky to have gone through. It was at Ulster University that I started my teaching career, completed my Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and Practice and gained my fellowship of the HEA. From Ulster, I made my way across to England, working initially as a lecturer in Plymouth University and then as an Associate Professor in University of Derby before finding my home at UWE.

At UWE, I am an Associate Professor of Higher Education within the Department of Education and Childhood. Like many of us, my role spans a whole range of topics, including teaching and supervising undergraduate, masters and doctoral students. In addition, I am heavily involved in curriculum development, and I sit on several committees and boards, including Faculty Board. Through my roles as UWE, I am fortunate to be able to pursue and apply my research interests into my teaching, supervision and wider University responsibilities. I have developed a broad range of research interests since graduating with my PhD which all sit within the broad remit of widening participation and social justice. I have continued to research issues around graduate employment including undergraduates’ understanding of the labour market and support required from universities, the graduate pathways of dancers and actors to think more broadly about the impact of the growing trend of portfolio careers and to conceptualize a critical understanding of “graduate resilience”. In addition, I have been lucky enough to be involved in pedagogical research on formative feedback and the impact of student peer review, research on post-16 education choices, widening participation in higher education, careers policy and support for service pupils in primary and secondary schools.

One research passion that sits outside of my main focus (what I get invited to talk about or what I get invited to examine a doctoral thesis on) is ableism and method within social sciences. In a non-book-plugging fashion … I have an edited book coming out at the end of this month with Dr. Bronagh Byrne (Queen’s University Belfast) entitled “Social Research and Disability: Developing Inclusive Research Spaces for Disabled Researchers”. In the book, we discuss what I’ve termed “epistemic ableism” – effectively, we argue that all social science methods, whether influenced by Positivism or Interpretivism, are inherently ableist due to the narrow concept of rigour. We suggest that social science has not really moved on since the establishment of the discipline in the late 19th Century in terms of its pre-occupation with rigour to demonstrate its scientific credentials. It is not to say that I or anyone else in the book does not see the merit of rigour; however, in its current form, this is a disabling and exclusionary set of criteria. I make the point in my own chapter that this issue is more acute for early researchers – in particular, doctoral research – in establishing the rules and expectations of social research. Instead, we advocate for a rethink on what constitutes rigour, and this starts with university departments approaching how we teach methods and, importantly, how we assess and examine research. 

I wanted to end this blog entry by talking a little bit about what I do outside of the office and in my spare time, but I’m not sure many of us have that at the minute! I do have aspirations to read more Philip Pullman, and I’m counting my four-year old’s early interest in Fantastic Mr. Fox as a major win. I’d be really happy to talk with anyone about my research and, in particular, ableism and method.

You can find me on my UWE profile page and on Twitter @ciaranburkesoc

HEPPP Featured Researcher – Helen King

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I’m currently the Deputy Director of UWE Bristol’s Academic Practice Directorate (APD) and convenor of the HEPPP research network. I’ve been been working in educational development since I completed my geoscience PhD in 1996. I fell into my career through an opportunity to manage a UK-wide project to enable and support staff development in the Earth Sciences. Following this I became Assistant Director of the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences (GEES)(2000 – 2007). Moving to the USA for three years in 2007, I was able to take advantage of my international contacts and connect and collaborate with geoscience education colleagues in the UK, USA and Australia. On my return to the UK, I spent several months as a Senior Adviser with the Higher Education Academy (HEA) before taking up the position of Head of Academic Staff Development at the University of Bath. In 2016 I had the opportunity to explore a different angle of higher education, through a Senior Policy Adviser role at the Higher Education Funding Council for England and, in 2018, was delighted to join UWE Bristol and the newly formed APD.

My areas of work with UWE Bristol are wide-ranging and varied. I am a module leader on the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Professional Practice as well as teaching on two other modules in the programme and running workshops on learning design and our HEA Fellowship Scheme. I work with teams across the University to support the design and review of academic programmes through our Enhancement Framework. Amongst my other activities I am the Faculty Partner for Arts, Creative Industries & Education (ACE), review HEA Fellowship applications, and work with colleagues in the APD to deliver our Pedagogic Projects funding. And, of course, in my role as Deputy Director I spend a lot of time attending and contributing to committees and other meetings! I’m fortunate to be able to maintain external connections through the University Alliance Teaching & Learning Network, the Heads of Educational Development Group and in my new role as Vice-Chair of the Staff & Educational Development Association (SEDA). I am also external examiner at the University of Limerick, and have recently been appointed Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Queensland.

My research interests have previously been fairly broad and I’ve presented and published widely. Recently, however, I have particularly focused on my long-term passion of supporting professional development for teaching in higher education, and this has led me to explore the characteristics of expertise in teaching in HE. After conducting some small-scale research with National Teaching Fellowship holders I developed a model which connects the generic characteristics of expertise to the practice of teaching in HE. To explore this further I convened what was going to be a small, one-day, on-campus symposium and turned out to be a fantastically interesting and energising week-long live and asynchronous on-line event with over 500 registrants from the UK and across the globe! I am now working with the contributors to publish a book from the symposium, and am also writing a publication on ‘Improving your Teaching: professional development for busy academics’. Linking to my interest in professional development, I instigated and now lead the HEPPP research network to connect colleagues across the University and beyond, and I am second supervisor for an EdD candidate at UWE and informal / third supervisor for a colleague undertaking an education doctorate at the University of Exeter. And, of course, I practice what I preach and ensure I consider my own professional development, for which I’m proud to have been awarded a National Teaching Fellowship (2006), Senior Fellowship of SEDA (2006), and Principal Fellow of the HEA (2017).

Outside of work I’m a keen (but slow) trail runner, nascent Bluegrass banjo player, and leader at Steeple Ashton Girl Guides.

Connect with me via Twitter (@drhelenking #expertiseLTHE, #HEPPP_UWE), LinkedIn or my website.

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