Focus on pedagogic research: PedR’s PR problem

This issue’s focus on pedagogic research (PedR) explores the traditional image problem PedR has faced, but how that is now changing. LITE’s Research Assistant, Andrew Moffat, talks through some of the issues and how they are being overcome here for SEB.

Pedagogic research is more important now than ever before. 

Modern universities are student-centered and impact-driven, and fee-paying students have every right to expect that their education is continually honed, refined, and researched. 

On top of this, the pandemic has caused a seismic shift in teaching patterns right across the sector, and the need for evidence-based practices that underpin and reinforce the continued excellence of higher education (HE) teaching has never been more urgent.

In spite of this clear mandate, PedR still struggles to shrug off an image problem that has afflicted it for the past two decades. 

‘Different hats’

The field has historically had difficulty establishing itself as an area of serious academic study. 

There are a number of reasons for this, but PedR advocate Tansy Jessop characterises the underlying problem as the field being “at home everywhere and nowhere”.   

RESEARCH ASSISTANT: LITE’s Andrew Moffat.

PedR is inherently trans-disciplinary in nature. 

All academics – or at least all those with teaching responsibilities – are professional education practitioners as well as experts in their discipline. 

As such it seems only natural that they might be inclined to extend the intellectual rigours of their research to an exploration of their teaching.  

But the strong bifurcation of teaching from research in academia requires academics to wear quite different hats for each of these roles.  

Some researchers find that their PedR hat finds less favour than their discipline-specific ‘hat’ in discipline-based recognition and reward structures. 

Impact 

Then there is the problem that pedagogic research projects, especially those that gather data from within the HE institution in which they are undertaken, risk being seen as introspective and lacking in external impacts. 

As impact continues to grow in importance as a measure of research value, projects without such ‘real world’ effects struggle to attain recognition. 

This was cemented in the wording of the REF 2014, which stated that ‘[i]mpacts on students, teaching or other activities within the submitting HEI are excluded’

While the guidance added that: ‘[o]ther impacts within the higher education sector, including on teaching or students, are included where they extend significantly beyond the submitting HEI’, the grey area between these two statements was enough to discourage PedR submissions to the REF, and as a result only 9% of submissions in the Education Unit of Assessment focused on HE. 

 While it is true that unsystematic projects surveying in-house student populations, without the methodological rigour or theoretical foundation to connect with what Jessop refers to as the ‘big conversations’ in education, would indeed lack academic credibility, a glance through some of the many leading international PedR journals demonstrates that this simply isn’t true of a vast amount of pedagogic research. 

Change 

Fortunately, attitudes do seem to be changing. 

The wording of the submission guidance for the REF 2021 has more detail and nuance than its 2014 counterpart, opening the door for PedR to attain greater recognition in this most crucial of measures. 

This 2020/21 year is likely to be remembered as a watershed moment for teaching practices in HE. 

It is vital that the changes to come are guided by insightful, impactful research, and that such work is given the respect and recognition that it deserves.  

The Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE)  provides a space for such research, enabling our Fellows to explore the nature of teaching and learning in today’s rapidly evolving HE landscape, and working in partnership with departments across the University to maximise the value and impact of PedR at Leeds.