The Reflections On Teaching Education Essay

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This report summarises the literature I have read and reviewed on the teaching and research nexus and the closely related topic of enhancing research-based graduates attributes. I firstly review the literature on teaching-research links, question if these links are inherent in the curricula and discuss current barriers. I will discuss current policies and practices that aim to have a vertical and horizontal research and teaching theme throughout programmes. I will then focus specifically on Information and Mathematical Sciences and reflect on personal experiences of teaching and research linkage at the individual and institutional level.

Introduction to Teaching-Research Nexus

The concept of the teaching and research nexus as a core element of Higher Education Institutions (HEI's) was clearly set out in the Magna Carta Universitatum (the "constitutional chart" of European Universities) in 1988. The impetus for the Magna Carta Universitatum was to increase awareness of the roles that universities would need to adopt in order to cope with a changing and increasingly international society. A key principle of the Carta was that: " Teaching and research in universities must be inseparable if their tuition is not to lag behind changing needs, the demands of society, and advances in scientific knowledge." (Magna Carta 1998). This is supported by views that what really distinguishes Higher Education is its focus on supporting students' understanding of how research is continually reshaping our knowledge of the world and a distinct set of graduate attributes. Ron Barnett (2000) has argued that the world we live in is 'supercomplex' where not only knowledge is uncertain, but also that how we seek to understand such complexity - for example, soil as a Carbon sink - is itself contested by different research approaches and the abundance of information. He argues that the role of Higher Education is to help students and the wider society cope with that complexity, and that the key to this lies in teachers adopting 'teaching approaches that are likely to foster student experiences that mirror lecturers' experiences as researchers' (Barnett 2000). In other words students should learn and be assessed in ways that come as close as possible to the experience of academic staff carrying out their research. Other more pragmatic benefits of cohesion between teaching and research include enthusing students about the excitement and challenges of exploration. Understanding the research process itself is as critical as comprehending the detail of the discipline's current cutting-edge research which may be too dynamic to keep up with, or too cumulative in nature (Land et. al. 2008). Healey (2005) state that "engaging students in research and inquiry is one of the most effective ways to help students think like a scientist or historian, which is one of the most important graduate attributes for most-discipline based degree programmes". If the concept of a 'knowledge economy' has any validity then undergraduate education needs to include some understanding of, and ability to do or use, research. Calling this undergraduate research and making explicit to students the fact that this may well aid their employability, can both help them to appreciate better the role of research in the university and support their future employability. Students are also likely to gain most benefit in terms of depth of learning and understanding when they are actively involved with research of all kinds. Learning activities linked to research develop portable skills including the judgement to distinguish reliable from unreliable information, the patience to follow longer arguments, synthetic ability to recognize patterns in unfamiliar contexts and the flexibility to work across disciplinary and cultural boundaries to generate innovative solutions. The work of Barnett (2000), Healey (2005) and the philosophy of the Scottish QAA (Land et. al. 2008) purport the notion that research and teaching should be inextricably linked and this link is valuable in terms of the connection that research led teaching has to knowledge and understanding at advanced levels of learning. The question arises as to how links between research strategies and activities can be embedded in the curriculum to best support the student learning experience in ways that can enhance learner achievement of research type attributes.

Are T&R linkages embedded in the curricula ?

Most people accept that integrating teaching and research in HEI is beneficial to learners as it may enable students to cope better with rapid socio-cultural, political, economic and technological change in the future. In the UK, recent policy-orientated research by Gibbs (2001) and JM Consulting (2000) indicates a failure of institutional strategies to link teaching and research effectively, or at least to do this in a purposeful and explicit manner. There are several proposed reasons one being that in the UK separate funding steams drive teaching and research and these are essentially driving them apart. A landmark study of the US higher education system (Boyer 1990) argued that the institutional focus on 'discovery research', i.e. research that is RAE'able in the UK, has devalued the system-wide need for attention to quality teaching and in effect decoupled teaching from research. The institutional constraints imposed by policies together with other political drivers such as the publication of The Future of Higher Education published in 2003 in which it was highlighted that research in the UK should be concentrated at particular universities to promote international excellence resulted in a rift between teaching and research activities. The UK Government has since changed its perspective and now acknowledges the graduate attributes that student involvement in research-based teaching can develop, and to a point to the importance of the curriculum in realising those attributes.

Although it is acknowledged that teaching and research linkages should be part of university education there is current debate regarding whether teaching and research, are in fact, inextricably linked in Higher Education teaching. Hattie and Marsh (1996) researched the various models of the relationship between research and teaching and concluded: "Based on this review we concluded that the common belief that teaching and research were inextricably intertwined is an enduring myth. At best teaching and research are very loosely coupled". Gibbs (2002) states that "most people, including myself, believe that research can benefit teaching". However, "in practice, it is pretty clear that, on average, it does not". This he suggests is because institutional strategies for research and teaching have tended to treat research and teaching as completely separate matters. This is exemplified by some institutions offering teaching only appointments and this clearly undermines any claim that research is a prerequisite for high-level teaching (J M Consulting and Associates, 2000). The current challenge is for institutions to develop policies and practice that embed teaching-research linkages into the curriculum. One way to develop teaching-research linkages is via graduate attributes, indeed some linkages, e.g. to critical thinking, are about a graduate attribute, which is one subset of employability issues. Enhancing research-graduate attributes can be considered one of the ways of development of research-teaching linkages. During the period 2006-2008 the Scottish Sector considered the topic of enhancing graduate attributes through research-teaching linkages Error: Reference source not found and reported on ways in which teaching and research linkages can be embedded in the curriculum for a number of disciplines, illustrated by a range of case studies which show cased some of the techniques and teaching activities that promoted teaching and research linkages. The work undertaken by the QAA HE (Land et. al. 2008) in assessing the Teaching-Research linkages across Scottish Universities highlighted a number of issues including: little evidence of a structured approach to research-teaching linkages to develop graduate attributes in practice based curricula; challenges surround the delivering of research-teaching linkages to develop graduate attributes in practice-based curricula; was little evidence of student involvement in, or knowledge of, the process of linking research and teaching or, even more significantly, its purpose; a tendency for the research community not to engage in learning and teaching developments; reward structures do not necessarily encourage innovative work in research-teaching linkages and negative effect of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) on promoting research-teaching linkages. I will now describe some of the institution polices that are in place to embed teaching-research linkages and overcome some of the hurdles identified above.

Interventions - Institutional Role in research-teaching linkages

The link between staff research and student learning is not automatic, and has to be built systematically into the curriculum, departmental, institutional and national planning. The linkage might once have been readily assumed or delivered with small classes, selective student entry, and staff with time to teach and research effectively. Paul Ramsden (2001) stated: "the main hope for realising a genuinely student centred undergraduate education lies in re-engineering the teaching-research nexus.Re-engineer' suggests that even if once the linkage did exist, it now needs significant 're-inventing' to ensure it is in place. There is much that individuals, course teams, departments, institutions and national systems can do to forge these links (Jenkins et. al. ., 2003). The key focus now is for individuals, departments and institutions to progress effective research-teaching linkages to support the development of research type graduate attributes to further enhance their disciplines practice and policies. Briefly the institutional approaches for embedding research-teaching linkages into current practice may include:

· Procedural and structural approaches such as course approval procedures that are in place to monitor teaching-research links,

· Contractual/reward mechanisms that include rewards structures and incentives to encourage staff to develop teaching research links,

· New policies and strategies to drive and develop embedding of research-teaching linkages,

· Enhancing Graduate Attributes by development of graduate attributes distinctive to HEI and the degree to which there exist potential synergies with teaching and research linkages and

· Disciplinary Cultures the extent to which cultures within the HEI might foster or inhibit the development of effective research-teaching linkages.

I will now describe, although it is not inclusive, how University of Abertay has gone about embedding research-teaching linkages.

New policies and strategies

New policies and strategies developed by University of Abertay Dundee include the White Space project designed to heighten awareness of teaching, research and learning and aimed to remodel the whole University around some key skills: interdisciplinarity in research and Complex Systems. Arising from White Space came a new teaching and learning plan, a facility that promoted casual and non casual interactions amongst staff and students, team working and exposure to interdisciplinary research (Whitespace studentships). The Whitespace studentships are designed to ensure real creative thinking across a range of disciplines.

Enhancing Graduate attributes

The University's work on graduate attributes has also served to enact the linkages between teaching, research and learning strategies to engender graduate attributes. University of Abertay Dundee are working to refine a list of qualities that should be common to all graduates of the institution, see Appendix A. The list contends that Abertay graduates should be four things: confident thinkers, determined creators, flexible collaborators and ambitious enquirers. The end result should be that its students have the skills to "challenge complexity" in whatever they go on to do when they graduate.

Overcoming Disciplinary cultures

In terms of disciplinary cultures for some disciplines especially in the areas of hard sciences it is difficult to foster teaching research linkages before the 4th year this is due to the cumulative and hierarchical construction of knowledge. Students need to have the necessary background on concepts and principles before they can engage in research-based activities and are able to understand the results of research. This makes it difficult to incorporate research findings or one's own research in undergraduate courses, in particular in the first two years' (Fasli, 2007). Projects within the University of Abertay such as Project X, a first year module, seeks to overcome this.

In addition to institutional drivers individuals also have a significant effect on teaching-research linkages which I will describe below.

Interventions - Individual Role in Teaching Research linkages.

Below I will present and reflect upon several personal experiences in which I have tried to use research as a driver for teaching with the aim of enhancing the student experience and to the depth and breadth of student learning. In all my teaching I seek to foster a research-mindedness in the students. I believe that students at any stage of their programme can be exposed to teaching-research linkages however the nature of the interaction must be appropriate for that level and I have used the framework developed based by Healey (2005b) which has been exploited by Levy (2007) to guide this interaction (Fig 1).

Figure 1: Curriculum design and the research-teaching nexus from Healey (2005b, p.70).

We can categorise the teaching activities used to enhance the teaching-research nexus based on the nature of the research process and the interaction with students. Generally there should be a move from research-led to research-based as students progress from level 7 to level 11 of their programme. The research-tutored mode reflects the classic tutorial structure where the students are taken through recent publications and invited to discuss/debate their understanding of the activity. Research-led follows current research where students are exposed to concepts/developments in the field of study. Research based corresponds to enquiry based learning. Students are given a task which requires them to use and develop skills (practice and understanding) which are equivalent to those used in authentic research. Finally Research-oriented aims to teach the process of knowledge construction. Typically found in capstone courses where students undertake some research activity, individually or as a group.

Students can be engaged with current research in their discipline in a variety of ways, including lectures, academic staff-led seminars, practicals, student projects and course work. The examples below are based on personal experiences where I focus on strategies that attempt to put students in active mode as they encounter current research the Mathematical and Information Sciences.

1. MSc Computer Games Technology Project Execution (research oriented)

This research teaching activity involves supervising a research led masters project in the area of Computer Games Technology. The students are encouraged to think as creatively as possible to identify a research question that they can explore and develop in a capstone project. At the beginning when developing the research question I guide them to recent articles that have been published and that are aligned with their area of interest. I also ensure that the masters students are aware of the ongoing research work at the University which helps to contextualise their learning within 'real life' projects. I also give advice and support on the research process.

The UAD graduate attributes that may be developed include: A comprehensive understanding of their primary field and its structure; Informed by current developments in the area; Initiating and managing creative process and Working flexibly and effectively with ambiguity, uncertainty, and error.

2. MSc. in Interdisciplinary and Systems Approach to Environmental Challenges (ISAEC) (research based)

I am part of the programme team of the new ISAEC programme that will run in 2011 and has been developed around three themes.

1. Interdisciplinary and Systems Approach to Environmental Challenges.

The complex nature of the environment requires an interdisciplinary and systems approach to understanding contemporary environmental challenges. The ISAEC programme will introduce students to a wide range of scientific disciplines relevant to environmental science, demonstrating how they can combine to form a better understanding of problems and lead to novel and practical solutions.

2. Fundamentals of Environmental Science.

Fundamental to understanding the environment is a strong understanding of basic ecological principles, how scientific research should be undertaken and analysed, how processes could be modelled, and how recent developments in technology could be applied to understanding contemporary issues and the development of solutions. The ISAEC programme will introduce students to the principles of ecology, to research methods and techniques, statistics and modelling, and advances in technology relevant to this interdisciplinary field.

3. Problem-Based Learning Approach.

Rather than using the traditional lectures, the ISAEC programme will teach students through the problem-based learning approach where groups will undertake extensive and in-depth analyses of contemporary environmental challenges. This approach teaches self-directed research and group skills, essential for meeting future challenges long after skills and information learnt at University may become outdated.

I have developed one of the study projects based on recent research that I was involved in with Aitkens global who were commissioned by the UKWIR to investigate management options (interventions) of Phosphate at water treatment works. The case study I have designed is based on current issues in environmental science and addresses the three themes above and is described below. This is how the problem would be presented to the student team who will work in groups to come up with a solution that they will present orally and in the form of a written report .


The lack of adequate levels of phosphorus in agricultural soils limits crop growth and productivity in many areas. The application of phosphorus has been going on for decades, and contamination of ground water, rivers, lakes, estuarine and coastal waters is now recognised as a major environmental concern. Management of phosphorus within the environment is providing a major challenge for regulators and industrial practitioners. Given regulatory challenges, i.e. environmental quality standards, it is essential that phosphorous life cycle is reviewed and suggestions how phosphorus can be managed in the most cost effective way to ensure long term regulatory compliance. The output of this study can be used to inform the Water Industry of how to manage phosphorus in the long term. In the consideration of the management of phosphorus across Scottish landscapes and river systems, the study project will address the following areas/questions:

Principals of Ecology (BN1101A): Impact of human activities on natural environments, pollution and sustainability. Ecological impact of phosphorus in rivers. Bio-solid treatment of phosphorus and returning it to the land.

Research Methods and Techniques (BN1102A): What kind of sampling, survey and/or monitoring is required to inform debate about the management of phosphorous levels in the environment? What kind of laboratory or field experiments should be undertaken to support the development of techniques to support the management phosphorous in the environment?

Modelling and Statistics (BN1103A): Modelling the fate of phosphorus in rivers with different sources for effective regulation.

Advances in Technology (BN1104A): How to monitor phosphorus in river systems. Use of bio-solids in water treatment plants. How to communicate and visualize the results to a range of stakeholders including UKWIR.

The graduate attributes addressed in this teaching-research linkage activity are:

Interpreting and responding to changing group dynamics; Defining and developing individual roles in teams of various formation and purpose; Enquiring and reflecting; Abstracting, refining, driving, and synthesising; An ability to identify the current boundaries of their subject field, a willingness to breach them, and the knowledge to work within the margins and Working flexibly and effectively with ambiguity, uncertainty, and error.

3. 3rd year CGT 3D Graphics Programming Module (Reasearch - led)

Applied 3D graphics is an active research area within the University of Abertay. A substantial research area is developed and a number of PhD studentships exist in this area which attracts regular visitors and seminar speakers and industrial partners and plays host to national conferences. The undergraduates are very aware of this and it provides a context and stimulus for the ideas explored in the module. Research done by SIMBIOS and White Space in terms of visualistion of complex systems is used to inform and update the application of the 3D graphical techniques described in the lectures. Students are encouraged to attend seminars where appropriate and are kept informed of opportunities within the group. As part of the assessments the students are to develop a particular technique or effect in 3D graphics. Students pick this based on a game screen shot they like or a new technique that has just been published in the SIGGRAPH or EuroViz journals that I discuss in the lectures. The graduate attributes that may be developed by undertaking this activity include: A comprehensive understanding of their primary field and its structure; Initiating and managing creative process; Abstracting, refining, driving, and synthesising; Working flexibly and effectively with ambiguity, uncertainty, and error; An awareness of the provisional nature of knowledge, how knowledge is created, advanced and renewed, and the excitement of changing knowledge.

4. Nuffield project (Research - oriented)

During the summer I supervised a Nuffield student project that was investigating the use of an emerging technology, augmented reality, in Urban Planning. At the beginning of the 6 week projects I sat down with the student and we discussed my research interests and the possible goals of the project and we came up with several experiments that would be undertaken to assess if augmented reality could be used in urban planning using commodity hardware. Once all the hardware and software was set up the student worked through the experiments. Although the student was in 5th year at school she felt part of the research process as we jointly discussed and decided what experiments we would run. I felt this was an important process in getting the student engaged with the research activity from the outset. It must be noted however that I was a little uncertain about this at the beginning as depending on the student's confidence this may have been an intimidating process but for this case it worked well. Attributes which may have been developed include: Informed by current developments in the area; An awareness of the provisional nature of knowledge, how knowledge is created,advanced and renewed, and the excitement of changing knowledge; The ability to identify and analyse problems and issues to formulate, evaluate and apply evidence-based solutions and arguments and An ability to deploy techniques of analysis and enquiry.

5. Master classes in Mathematics and Computing (Research - led)

For this 1 hour activity I try and stimulate the interest of primary 7 and 1st year pupils in Mathematics and Computing. I do this by concentrating on real-world problems that they can relate to i.e. how can we depict accurate motion and movements of 'things' in computer video games? I use many visual aids and towards the end I describe some of the key challenges that we need to address in the near future and link this to my current research and how this can help in other fields such as environmental sciences.


There are many barriers to embedding teaching and research within the curriculum. I have highlighted what can be done at an institutional level to alleviate this issue and described three institutional interventions employed by the University of Abertay including new policies, enhancing graduate attributes and overcoming disciplinary cultures. I have also described what I have done at the individual level. In conclusion at the individual level I feel that I try and incorporate teaching and research linkages at all levels of my teaching. I obviously do this for the students intellectual development but it is necessary for me to be interested and excited by what I am teaching and being aware of the latest developments is key. Research-teaching linkages may be easier for me to develop as I am research active although it is not the quantity of research that is associated with quality of teaching. For example a recent study by Prosser et. al. (2004) determined it is the overall conceptualisation of your subject matter that is associated with quality of teaching." It is not how active you are as a researcher, but what your activity is focused on". One criticism though is that I may not spend enough time making the teaching-research linkages explicit to the students. From mapping my teaching-research activities to the quadrants of Fig 1 it appears that I do not undertake research-tutored activities. I had not really considered this mode of teaching-research activity before but it could be useful in a number of contexts in which I teach. Given most of my teaching activity is at level 9 and above I do not encounter the known difficulties associated with applying teaching-research activities at level 7 and 8 (Fasli 2007). However I acknowledge effort is required to create a meaningful teaching-research relationship and work has to be done to make sure the link is explicit.