February 1, 2011, by Teaching at Nottingham

Alan Jenkins on mainstreaming undergraduate research

Video >>
Alan Jenkins: “The serious issue is that the relationship between people’s interest in their teaching, and commitment to their teaching, and the role of research in the university is now a massive issue, as universities try to grapple with handling those two roles.

“We’re also interested in the fact that there is cutting edge research, wonderful phrase, isn’t it? cutting edge research? over here, and there is academics and librarians and all those sorts of people over here. And then over here, there’s a body of people who are called students. And some of them are undergraduates, some of the postgraduates on taught courses and some are doctorates. And what’s the relationship between that cutting edge research of that thing over there? Okay, that’s what we’re into.

“As I take it, undergraduate research is where the learning is as close as possible to what research looks like in your discipline.

So we have different conceptions of research in our disciplines but we believe strongly in that research. You’re in Nursing, yes? So think of what research means in your discipline. And the aim is to pull undergraduate research, undergraduate learning as close as possible to that. And you’ll see I’ve set up a statement there, “undergraduate research is for all students”. Do you strongly agree? Well, won’t you discuss it for the next three or four minutes with people around you.”

Audience in discussion.

Audience: “In principle…”

Alan: “In principle, ah.”

Audience:” …we agree with this. Across the professions that we’re representing and the areas that are representing, how close we are to that at the moment is variable.”

Alan: “Is variable.”

Alan: “What’s the principle? Why would you argue that?”

Audience:” Because we think it’s, I think this is representative of the group’s opinions, anyway, that, it’s better for students, it’s a better way to learn than just being spoken to. So certainly from that point of view, but, actually, doing it.”

Audience: “We all felt that, across the board, that undergraduate research is for all students and that it does form an important part of the learning. However, we felt that shouldn’t necessarily be focussed entirely the undergraduate experience on research-intensive methods and that it does, there is a level of background and other learning that would complement research itself.”

Alan: “Maybe you could see why in the postgraduate world, you’re getting even closer between that connection, between that cutting edge research over here, and the student learning over there. But I think there’s some interesting issues there about what do we mean by undergraduate research, there’s issues about our principles of what we wish it to be, with what we want it to be, and how can we get it. I also heard in your statement and maybe I’m reading into it, the issue you said of different professional areas and disciplines, does it refract differently in areas such as Nursing or healthcare than it does, say, in History or Archaeology or wherever. So what are the sort of needs and the attributes you’re wanting to engender in students in those sorts of areas?

“By mainstreaming, I’m not wanting it as some small little programme outside the mainstream curriculum, I want it right there in your mainstream curriculum. Discuss.”

Audience in discussion

Audience: “We think it would be extremely difficult. We’re coping with two and a half thousand students, in training at any one time.”

Audience: “We’re not saying that research, it depends on how you define research, it’s not important, but for our students, it’s about being able to read other people’s, to be able to do literature reviews, to be able to apply that research. Rather than after three years, being able to go out there and do it. Because they need to be able to do the nursing. And, it would be extremely difficult, we’d probably need a longer training. And also, we have regulating bodies that we’re answerable to.”

Audience: “In our fourth year, the four year degree programme, the second semester is purely devoted to the research project, so it’s sixty credits. I would argue that sixty credit module is quite mainstream. But actually, that’s only an eighth of the programme. Or less. So is that, would you call that mainstream part of the curriculum. If you go through that further and look at the word enquiry, we talk about research and everyone’s used to, I have a project, I have a method, I’m going to carry out some form of data collection, we’ll generate the results, some analysis and discuss it. Enquiry is much wider than that.”

Alan: “One of the hard issues is what is research? It’s an issue many of you have been grappling with through the last RAE.

“So calling it undergraduate research even indicates it’s not at the level of research, that cutting edge stuff over there. Okay. So is issue, for what counts as research is utterly critical.

“You can see this statement here, a friend of mine, Angela Brew, University of Sydney, and she’s arguing that that, some form of research and enquiry is what makes higher education higher, the professionals of the future.

“We live in a world where, this is Ron Barnett who’s a thinker and a writer on higher education, we’re assailed by so much evidence, we’re assailed by conflicting research paradigms, how do we make sense of that world? That’s what makes, he would argue, that’s what makes higher education higher.

“notice that statement by Angela, research and enquiry is not just for those who are going to pursue an academic career, it’s for everybody. You don’t have to agree. You have to think.

“But when we say bringing teaching and research together, I think we mean something like this. One is, we’re learning about the research by other people. Including of course, research by people in this institution.

“But is it okay if I just speak it? Or do I also have to pull you into what’s research methods inside my discipline and get you totally comfortable about it, you know.

“But also, what I’m trying to push is learning in research mode. And to me, and we’ll leave about the fourth one, the fourth is obviously where you make, you research on to your own teaching and learning. But to me, all those three approaches are attempts to bring teaching and research together.

“Do we start, do we just have it in the final year? And I think it would be interesting, would it help to rename the dissertation the research project? It’s a rhetorical question. Or can we start in year one?

“I think the critical discussion is the discussion inside yourselves and in your own heads. Is this something I’m already doing? Would it help to shift some of my courses this way? Which shift helps to shift some of my students to see that this is research.

“What we found in this study was that research was organised, teaching was organised, virtually nothing was done to put them together. I think one interesting issues now, I think you’ll increasingly see in institutional teaching strategies, an attempt to pull in the role of research. How many research strategies in the universities ever mention undergraduates? Or taught postgraduates? Should they? It’s a rhetorical question. So I’m trying to argue, undergraduate research should in some respects be for all students. It’s an interesting issue what we mean by that. But, what do you think?”

Audience: “I mean, we thought it should be achievable, we agreed with the statement but it may not be always the people in a kind of hands-on practical way (…) literature based research would be achievable in most disciplines if not all.”

Audience: “We came up with, again, I think the question is (…) what is undergraduate research?”

Alan: “If that means giving the students the tools of understanding our research (works) so teaching them how to approach a problem, the question when it’s arising, how to research around it, what is known about it, what is yet to be discovered, and how to critically evaluate the work that’s already out there, then, in this term, so indeed for some disciplines more from a literature point of view.

“Let’s be realistic about class sizes. And the pressures of the profession. But how can we get it as close as possible to that? And, well, you can see what I’ve argued. I think that’s where I end.”

Alan Jenkins
Oxford Brookes University

Alan was the invited plenary speaker at the University’s Fourteenth Learning & Teaching conference (January, 2009).
This article was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

Posted in Research-informed teaching