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Embedding research into teaching: practices, motivations and impacts

  • Project leader(s): Sarah Davies
  • Theme: Supporting students
  • Faculty: STEM
  • Status: Current
  • Dates: November 2021 to April 2023

Academics are often interested in using their own research in their teaching – this can be a valuable way of sharing their passion for their subject, connecting students with cutting edge research knowledge, and enabling students to experience authentic science practices. OU science research is often included in OU science teaching, but to date no-one has investigated its uses or impact. This project aims to explore the extent and different ways research is used in teaching, focussing on the environmental sciences, and the impacts of this research-teaching nexus on students and on staff.

An individual’s own research can be used in different ways in teaching; as knowledge or an information source (e.g., when students are directed to a publication), as authentic datasets (that students can analyse and interpret), as an authentic methodology (e.g., data collection through remote instruments) or technique (e.g., a computer model that students operate). In the environmental sciences, where urgent action and public engagement with rapidly changing science are important for issues such as the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, embedding research is seen as helpful for strengthening students’ connections with such issues.

Recently, a lightbulb icon has been used in some modules to highlight OU research to students; this was pioneered by S397 ‘Terrestrial ecosystems’ (30 credits, first presentation 2018) and has also been used in SDT306 ‘Environment: responding to change’ (60 credits, first presentation 2018). This is introduced to students as “Connections between OU research and teaching materials serve to enrich your learning experience”, as showing that “you are now very close to research” and with the aim that students will find this “inspiring for your own futures as scientists” (S397 and SDT306 module guides). Academics’ interest in embedding their research in teaching is high; in the OU, for example, Profs Neil Edwards and David Gowing have recently (Aug 2020) been running professional development workshops on ‘Embedding research into teaching’ for OU staff which received positive feedback and generated plenty of questions and discussion (pers comm). However, students’ perceptions of these research-teaching links and the impact on their learning has not been investigated.

This study will review the range of examples and types of research-teaching links currently in OU core environmental science modules, investigate the motivations and experiences of staff that have included their own research in their teaching, and explore the attitudes and experiences of students towards OU research in their modules and the impacts on their learning. The project will look to develop examples of use, experiences, and effective practices. Core environmental science modules (U116, S112, S/XF206, S397, SDT306, SXE390) will be reviewed for research-teaching links, with three specific instances being used as in-depth case studies to explore experiences of students and staff:

  • Modelling: students using a research-grade climate model (GENIE) in S397
  • Data: Real-time remote data collection by students using the instrumented tree in S397
  • Knowledge from research: use of module-team authored papers, e.g.  on food security and biodiversity and niche segregation on SDT306