Time to teach?

01 November 2017 - By: Caroline Wood

Time to teach?

Credit Ros Gleadow
Monash University plant ecology students assessing the damage caused by deer at Lake Mountain, Victoria, Australia Photo: Ros Gleadow

By Caroline Wood

Has there ever been so much pressure on researchers who teach? Students expect more and more for their tuition fee, but time spent developing high-quality learning resources is time away from generating research outputs, publishing papers and writing grants. During the SEB+ session ‘The Teaching-Research Nexus’, organised by Graham Scott and George Littlejohn at the SEB Annual Meeting in Gothenburg, we discussed inventive ways researchers can balance this see-saw of responsibilities.

When time is tight, it’s easy to pull a tried-and-tested practical off the shelf but, as Ros Gleadow (Monash University, Australia) argued, ‘follow a recipe’ protocols simply don’t prepare students for the real world. “We have to remember that our students grew up in the post-financial crisis so have very different attitudes to work and employability”, she said. Students focused on grades and qualifications can view practicals merely as exercises in ‘getting the right answer’ rather than opportunities to learn the theory of doing science properly. The challenge is to generate authentic experiences that develop both autonomy and the skills valued by employers. But preparing this sort of learning experience takes considerably more time – time that many researchers simply don’t have.

One solution could be to bring your own research into your practicals. Susan Rowland described the approach she uses at The University of Queensland, Australia to allow students to self-select between two different practical class streams. One of these, LEAPS (Laboratory Experience for Acquiring Practical Skills), contains ‘standard’ practicals that help students build confidence and proficiency in common laboratory skills. The other, ALURE (Authentic Large-scale Undergraduate Research Experience) gives students a degree of autonomy to conduct a project as part of a wider research programme – in this case, investigating venom protein toxicity from funnel web spiders. “These projects are part of authentic research initiatives with the results communicated to someone who actually cares”, explained Susan. Students with a real interest in research appreciated the opportunity to participate in a genuine project, including troubleshooting and overcoming failure1. There was also an unexpected benefit, with a decrease in complaints about the ‘standard’ practicals – presumably because LEAPS students recognised that they had been allowed to choose the ‘easier’ of the two streams!

Sara Brownell presented a similar type of project, which is increasingly common in undergraduate biology labs in the United States, called Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs)2. “We are not trying to get researchers to fight between teaching and research, but to celebrate their research in a CURE”, she said. For academics, the benefits of involving undergraduates in their current research include generating more meaningful data and even the possibility of running a pilot experiment too risky to offer a PhD student. But some feared that undergraduates could be exploited and used simply as an extra pair of hands, or that faculty members would select the most capable students over those who would benefit the most. However, Ros Gleadow demonstrated how authentic experiences can also be designed outside the lab by recasting  field projects as work-integrated learning packages through partnering with external organisations. In her example, students worked with park rangers in the Victorian Alps to identify solutions to problems such as feral deer, climate change and invasive weeds. “The students’ field reports included an executive summary and management recommendations which were sent back to the rangers, who were really pleased to get real data”, she said.

But it’s not enough to simply replicate an authentic research experience: students need to recognise and articulate the skills they develop for these to be worthwhile. However, research carried out by Dominic Henri (University of Hull, UK) has shown that undergraduates fall victim to the ‘moving goalposts model’ when it comes to evaluating their personal development. “We found no shift in the students’ self-perceived autonomy as they progressed throughout the course”, he said. According to Katharine Hubbard (University of Hull, UK), truly authentic research experiences are only completed by providing the opportunity to present the results and receive feedback. “Too often in student projects, dissemination of results is only done at the very end to a limited audience”, she said. To counter this, the Sport, Health and Exercise Science degrees at the University of Hull have introduced a ‘Student Thesis Conference’ event which involves students at all three levels of the course. Crucially, students of all abilities, not just the ‘high-achievers’, engaged fully with the event, with many reporting greater confidence in presenting their work to a public audience. “This was especially true of females, which indicates that this model can help to reduce the gender gap in perceived confidence that contributes to the ‘leakypipeline’ effect of women in STEM subjects”, said Katharine. Final year Animal Science students at Newcastle University have gone one step further, as Sara Marsham described: “The students organise their own conference, including inviting external speakers. Students participating in conference organisation commented that they enjoyed the sense of responsibility and felt proud to be part of a team that worked well together”.

Of course, some institutes take a different approach by splitting their faculty between teaching-focussed and research-focussed staff. But this brings its own problems, as Anne Tierney (Edinburgh Napier University, UK) explained. Her interviews with teachingfocused academics in the UK have revealed that many worry about becoming ‘de-skilled’ by no longer being active researchers in the discipline. “Some expressed doubts that the currency of their disciplinary expertise was enough to supervise a Masters project because they feel their knowledge is ‘time-bound”, said Anne. One solution could be to offer teaching-focussed staff ‘research sabbaticals’ where they can return to the lab for a few months to get up to speed with the latest methods. Alternatively, teaching-focussed and research-focussed academics could form partnerships to design practicals that reflect current research practices.

During discussions, some argued that authenticity can only be predetermined to a limited extent, because students do not perceive laboratory learning the same way that academics do3. “Authenticity doesn’t always happen by design – it really should be an emergent property of the interaction between the students and their teachers”, advised Susan. “The most important thing is to give students the opportunity to perceive and articulate the authentic aspects of what they do”. Ultimately, whether our students become researchers or not, we should aim for them to be confident individuals who can embrace and manage failure – the key skills for success in any career.

1. Rowland, Susan L., et al. “Is the undergraduate research experience (URE) always best?: The power of choice in a bifurcated practical stream for a large introductory biochemistry class.” Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40.1 (2012): 46–62.
2. Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602–606.
3. Rowland, Susan L, et al. Do We Need to Design Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences for Authenticity? CBE Life Sci Educ. (2016) Winter;15(4). pii: ar79.


Category: SEB Gothenburg 2017
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.