Course design as a research project

How to get more buy-in to teaching and learning from time starved research academics

Higher education is a complex setting. Attracting top quality researchers into a university is a priority. It’s a priority because it brings in research dollars, but more importantly augments a university’s reputation, which is needed to attract students. Students are attracted because they believe they are going to be taught by the best minds on offer in their chosen field. But the irony is that the researchers rarely have sufficient time (or sometimes the inclination) to teach those students to the extent that the students expect. The allure for such students to the reputable university can end up being a false promise. Of course, this is not the case for all academics, and many understand, including those employed by a university specifically just to teach and not research, that without successful students, the university, and thus the facility for research, would likely dissolve. Such academics thus make it a point to become an excellent teacher, and I have been fortunate enough to work with such people, but I would like to see EVERY teaching academic be driven by such a goal.  

So, how can we get more buy-in from time starved research academics to improving their teaching and learning whilst at the same time producing quality research? This is what I’ve been thinking about: by promoting course design as a type of research project and supporting its running as a noble and important pursuit.

Course design as a research project

If you think about it, designing and delivering a curriculum is a lot like running a research project. You begin with a background literature review (professional development) which leads to a hypothesis: students are going to learn this, this and this (outcomes), a methodology (pedagogy) is employed to facilitate the learning, data is collected to determine the results of the learning (assessment), and at the end a discussion is had to see if the way the course was designed actually supported the hypothesis (evaluation). Like in all research, a failed hypothesis is not ideal, but it can also inform the researcher and inspire them to consider different approaches to achieving the hypothesis compared to what was originally thought. But the testing out of the hypothesis is key, and few researchers worth their salt would test a hypothesis, ignore the results and continue with the same hypothesis or methodology the next time – which reminds me of a quote Einstein never said.

Of course, the number of variables in teaching make the analogy less robust, but sometimes in university teaching, despite the failure of a significant number of students to achieve a course’s outcomes over several years, not much changes in the way a curriculum is designed and/or delivered. It’s not a deliberate thing, but it’s also not right to let it continue. The heavy-hand top-down approach is not likely to work, so we need to create a culture where the design and delivery of a course is equated to what research academics are best at: research. If academics applied their research training to the designing and delivering of their courses, and equated the import and reward of helping students learn to the results of a successful research project, it could be a way to eliminate such a predicament and improve the seriousness with which academics applied themselves to the trade.

A teaching and learning culture

The ideal scenario would be for universities to adopt such a model and promote the benefit of every academic undertaking at least one research project related to their teaching every 5 years. It would be especially useful to new academics and for those who have consistently had trouble translating their knowledge into student success. It would show everyone associated with higher education, students included, that the notion of research is inextricably tied to all aspects of its operation. We wouldn’t expect papers to be published based on the teaching of every course in the world, but by facilitating this context, a significant amount of ‘new’ understanding about higher education would result, understandings that would most certainly be worthy of publishing, and understandings that would make the university’s promise of a top class education a reality.  

Bringing about such a change in culture is certainly no mean feat, but as this report details and suggests a framework for implementing change, there are universities around the world who are attempting to recognise teaching and learning significantly more.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too

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