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Research-teaching relations: disciplinary

Central to work on the Research Teaching Enhancement Theme was a related set of discipline based projects. The background to these projects was provided by the way research-teaching relations are conceived and enacted. However, competing positions exist that underlie disciplinary contexts. For some, the context is largely shaped by individuals' conceptions of teaching and research (Brew, 2006) and/or departmental and institutional learning and teaching regimes (Trowler and Wareham, 2007). For others, it is the way research-teaching relations are shaped by disciplinary and multidisciplinary cultures and practices (Jenkins, Healey and Zetter, 2007).

An interesting point was raised in the booklet on the Physical Sciences, which referred to the danger of 'information overload' in traditional courses which have a long history. It points to the danger of adding layers of knowledge on top of an already crowded curriculum. The result is that teaching more and more information prevents the introduction of research because there is no time. Read more about the recommendations in the Physical Sciences booklet.

In the booklet on Engineering and Built Environment this phenomenon is given the name of 'curriculum creep' (Webster, 2002) caused, in this context, by the external prescription of course content. '(Webster) argues that the need to fulfill the requirements of accreditation has led to less time available to devote to the development of traditional research skills. The irony here is that the employers require the very 'graduate attributes' in their employees that are associated with the 'traditional' research-teaching links.

Development of these research attributes may be reduced if not minimised in order to satisfy the specific skills required in the workplace. The professional bodies have recognised the value of research in the education system and have started to acknowledge this through their accreditation process. Research and research-type activities are becoming more evident in the criteria for courses at both postgraduate and undergraduate levels.'  Further details are availble in the Engineering and the Built Environment booklet.

The importance of the disciplinary approach is in part tactical - many staff have strong allegiances to their disciplinary community and are probably more likely to adopt practices from that community. Also, disciplinary communities vary in how they conceive what research is, the effective forms of teaching, and, for some, their practices are strongly shaped by professional bodies (see above).

More significantly to the focus on student graduate attributes, there is growing evidence as to how the student experience of research, and the attributes they develop, are shaped by the disciplines they study. For example, a study of student experiences of research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, revealed significant disciplinary forces shaping the student experience of research.

Students studying physics saw the importance of research to the discipline, but were clear that such research was beyond their experience and their 'capabilities', while students studying English experienced research as something that was part of both the content of the curriculum and the pedagogy of their discipline (For a diagrammatic representation of competing views of students studying Physics, Geography and English on what constitutes 'research', how visible it is, where it is located and who does it.

In Nursing, research suggests that students find learning about research difficult; they don't always see the relevance of research to practice and it tends to compare less favourably with other topics in the curriculum. In G21C, a case study organised at the University of Stirling used peer teaching to help nursing students develop a more realistic and pragmatic view of research, which should encourage better engagement in the research process.

In the USA, many institutions are trying to ensure that all or many students have two of more 'high impact activities' during their undergraduate degree. These are activities which research indicates have strong impacts on retention and intellectual development. (Kuh, 2008). Many of these initiatives are what we in the UK would identify as supporting effective research-teaching linkages. These include first-year courses which focus on exploring discipline-based academic practice and are taught by a full-time academic in small classes; courses with a strong academic, but community-engagement focus; and undergraduate research programmes where students learn with strong faculty guidance in ways that are close to the faculty experience of research.

'Undergraduate research' was identified as a high impact activity but principally where students were actively engaged in practices such as 'designing studies', 'reviewing literature' and 'analysing and interpreting data' rather than 'collecting data'.

This research is pointing to departments and institutions 'making it possible for every student to participate in at least two high impact activities during his or her undergraduate program, one in the first year and one later in relation to the major field' (Kuh, 2008).

Modified source: Research-Teaching Linkages overview

Also see George Kuh's presentation at the 7th Annual Enhancement Conference: Preparing Graduates for the 21st Century: What Works.

The University of Strathclyde reported on their interns@strathclyde programme for the G21C Enhancement Theme. Each summer the University offers funded research internships for undergraduate students in their penultimate year. For them, the ability to apply knowledge in practical and applied ways through research and enquiry is central to a response to issues such as globalisation, sustainability and security, and also contributes to the development of graduate attributes.

The application process for the programme is competitive and students apply from all faculties. The internships vary each year, providing opportunities to interact with established research groups or external professional partners in industry and business. In addition to the actual internships, students on the programme (and others involved in externally funded research internships) participate in a newly designed undergraduate researcher development programme to introduce them to different aspects of research activity, including communicating research, building research networks and engaging with current debates on research impact.

This encourages them to think about how they could build upon the experience to undertake further postgraduate study or pursue a research or enquiry-focused career. Students submit a written report on what they cover in their project and a reflective statement on the impact of the programme. They also present posters of their work which are judged by an academic panel and prizes are awarded by the Principal.