Bridging the gap between teaching and research-focused academics

29 April 2018 - By: Anne Tierney

Bridging the gap between teaching and research-focused

By Anne Tierney, Edinburgh Napier University    

At the end of 2016 I was awarded a scoping grant from the Society for Research in Higher Education (SA1635) to investigate brokering activities between academics in Life Science departments in the UK. Brokering is described by Wenger (1998) as a process of exchange between individuals in communities of practice, and in my case, I proposed that teaching-focused and research-focused academics formed two related communities of practice within higher education that had the potential to trade pedagogic and disciplinary knowledge and expertise.


Academics in the UK are subject to competing pressures and metrics, notably, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the National Student Survey (NSS), Postgraduate Taught and Postgraduate Research Experience Surveys (PTES and PRES), and, in England, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Many universities have formally split the academic role, and a new group of Teaching-focused academics has emerged, which has received some attention4. These academics are employed on Teaching and Scholarship contracts, and tend to take over the majority of teaching, currently mainly at undergraduate level, but increasingly, as the role evolves, at postgraduate-taught level. However, previous work3, 7 identified that Teaching-focused academics teaching at honours and postgraduate level were aware that, as time passed, their disciplinary expertise and knowledge became dated. This was especially noticeable in Life Sciences disciplines where the pace of research and knowledge accumulation was rapid. The loss of currency in both knowledge and expertise resulted in anxiety, and individuals reported that they often no longer felt that they were able to support students in research-related activities.


I interviewed a group of twenty-three Teaching- or Research-focused academics from eight UK universities, concentrating on the ways that they exchanged pedagogic and disciplinary expertise.

Findings from the study were optimistic, as academics were able to identify a range of activities in which they exchanged expertise, and updated their knowledge. Opportunities identified were both informal and formal, the most productive of which were those that individual academics sought out for themselves, which could be tailored to match their expertise, while also giving them the opportunity to build on what they had done. Examples of productive opportunities were working in teams on evidence-based curriculum design and development, providing expertise in a funded research project, using research data in learning innovations, and supervising research students as part of a team.


Academics do not exist in isolation, and one of the enablers of exchange of expertise was the local, departmental culture. This is not surprising, as it echoes the findings of Roxå and Mårtensson (2011), who identified strongly performing academic groups at the micro level across a university in Sweden. I identified a range of cultures operating at different institutions. Some departments appeared to operate independently of institutional culture. This matches Roxå and Mårtensson’s (2011) description of a microculture of excellence. Other departments operated at a more strategic level, working to the strengths of individual academics, but always with an eye on opportunities for staff to be rewarded and promoted, also fitting Roxå and Mårtensson’s (2011) description. A third operational strategy was to foreground metrics and league tables as the focus for departmental decision-making. While the first two departmental strategies were supportive and encouraging for staff, the third strategy could be counter-productive as it resulted in decreased morale for the staff working in such a culture. My previous work7 suggests that the Head of Department (in this case, someone in a strategic leadership role) is vital for setting departmental culture, and this is borne out in the current study. A change in Head of Department may result in a change of departmental culture, which may be detrimental to academic staff working there. Conversely, a supportive Head of Department may save an under-performing department by changing the focus from metrics and league tables to the potential of staff.

Cultivating a supportive atmosphere within a department is important. The work of David Cooperrider1,2 which resulted in the development of Appreciative Inquiry5 is worthy of note here, as it can be used to promote a positive, creative atmosphere in which staff are valued and developed, both in terms of disciplinary research and scholarly teaching. This, in turn,results in a more positive learning atmosphere for students.


There may be advantages to splitting the academic role and, as the numbers of Teaching-focused academics is growing4, it appears to be a successful strategy, as it allows research-focused staff to concentrate on disciplinary research and REF, while teaching-focused staff concentrate on teaching and learning. However, if staff experience anxiety over perceived loss of disciplinary expertise, this is not something that should be ignored. It is vital, therefore, to provide opportunities and time for academics to exchange expertise. I am currently preparing a manuscript for journal publication, and I also hope to be able to share more detailed findings at SEB Florence 2018.

1. Cooperrider, D. (1986). Appreciative Inquiry: Toward a Methodology for Understanding and Enhancing Organizational Innovation (PhD). Case Western Reserve, Cleveland, Ohio.
2. Cooperrider, D., & Whitney, D. (1999). Appreciative Inquiry: Collaborating for Change. Berrett-Koehler.
3. Gretton, S., &Raine, D. (2015). Reward and recognition for university teaching in STEM subjects. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 41(3), 301–313.
4. Hubbard, K., Gretton, S., Jones, K., &Tallents, L. (2015). Challenges and opportunities for early-career Teaching-Focussed academics in the biosciences. F1000Research, 4(76).
5. Mohr, B. J., &Magruder-Watkins, J. (2002). The essentials of appreciative inquiry: A roadmap for creating positive futures. Pegasus Communications.
6. Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2011). Understanding strong academic microcultures - An exploratory study. University of Lund.
7. Tierney, A. M. (2016). ’More than just a Teaching Fellow’ : the impact of REF and implications of TEF on life science Teaching-Focused Academics in UK HEIs (Doctoral Thesis). Durham University, Durham. Retrieved from
8. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press
Category: Teaching and Learning

Anne Tierney

Anne Tierney is a lecturer in the Department of Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University, where she is programme leader for the MSc Blended and Online Education and thematic area lead for Scholarship and Supervision on the PGCLTAP. Prior to that, Anne spent seventeen years at the University of Glasgow teaching first year biology, entrepreneurship and employability for Life Science students. Her research interests are in how teaching-focused academics are valued within their departments and institutions, and how pedagogic and disciplinary expertise is shared between academics.

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