Vol. 7 - issue 2 - December 2015

Published: December 2015

Editorial: Evidence into policy: are we any closer?


The journey that research takes before it is noticed and converted into policy and practice always seems to be long and difficult; for higher education focussed research it seems even more tortuous. If for example, we take a concept like active learning, on which there are countless publications demonstrating its successful application and beneficial outcomes on learning, we could not help but be struck by the extent to which this concept and practice has failed to penetrate higher education policy and practice. We still for instance, build most of our classrooms as temples to didactic teaching.

This edition of BeJLT contains a range of articles representing contributions to the 2014 UK and Ireland Higher Education Institutional Research network conference held at Oxford Brookes. These articles characterise much of current institutional research. It spans from work describing methodologies to work challenging institutional research to move on. The articles range from those that showcase small-scale studies of classroom practice to those examining how subjects exist.

The work of van der Sluis and May, which examines whether an institution-wide policy has had an impact on pedagogic practice and student engagement, is important, particularly to help determine contextual constraints on the application of pedagogic theory.

At the other end of the scale, Ridley looks at teaching practice and the impact on student learning when practice is changed. Small scale studies such have this have proliferated, particularly since the advent of postgraduate certificates in HE learning and teaching which have encouraged more rigorous examination of what tutors do. We should take care that such studies do not divert research attention into the continuous testing of what we already know. Yet such studies do have a part to play, particularly as we start to consider applying the methodology of systematic review to collections of such studies, thus it is important that they are published.

In Pavlechko et al’s study we can see a particular and specific intervention being tested across a range of subjects and tutors. This study also highlights the emergence of standardised testing tools, in relation to the learning environment and its influence on both staff and learners.

Currant’s research represents an example of an in-depth descriptive study, providing insight into the complex and diverse experiences of Black Minority and Ethnic students. Such studies remind us that institutional context is vital in trying to unravel how the environments we help create generate particular learning behaviours and emotions within our student bodies. The question of course is how do institutions use these data to generate effective policy?

Brown and Jones challenge policy makers, HE researchers and institutional researchers to become better informed by each other. Their call suggests that HE researchers should work to foresee the needs of policy makers more, and that policy makers should need to use the evidence base better. Certainly the fact that recently the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) feels the need to launch its own research projects when it is formulating policy indicates that there is credibility in Brown and Jones’s argument.   There are however signs that institutional research is maturing: Freeman et al. (2014) recently published a systematic review of active learning; their study based on the many small studies that have gone before them. The systematic review is seen as highly credible evidence by policy makers in many areas and this approach should give greater traction on policy than hitherto.

Institutional research should also look to the national approach to enhancement used in Scottish Higher Education. Whilst imperfect, the Scottish Equality Enhancement Framework (SEEF) has a clear emphasis on evidence and its use to enhance and develop policy.


Freeman, S. Eddy, S.L., McDonough, M. Smith, M.K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H. and Wenderoth, M.P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America111 (23)   8410–8415, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

From this issue:

The Efficacy of Student-Led Seminars for Critical Thinking

Background During the second semester of the academic year 2013/2014) at Coventry University I was given the opportunity to design half a second-year undergraduate module, called Democracy and the Media, which is currently a core module on the English and

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Institutional Collaboration in Physiology Teaching in the UK

Introduction ‘We must have a new generation of bright physiologists able to pick up from where the molecular approach runs out’.  (Peter Newmark, Nature, 2012) ‘rising student numbers……..loss of physiology departments as a result of their merging with schools of

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Joining the dots: making connections between institutional research, HE research, policy and practice

Introduction Institutional research (IR) forms a very important part of the evidence base for decision-making in universities. Yet we suggest that often it is isolated research that neither draws upon existing educational research nor opens itself up for use by

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Development of a Quality Enhancement Process: The use of surveys as a stepping stone to action and intervention

The Learning & Teaching Development Unit (LTDU) within Cardiff Metropolitan University consists of a number of different aspects, working jointly to enhance the student experience and to provide exceptional learning and teaching. One area within the department is the Quality

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Strategies of Belonging: Counterstories of Black Students at a Predominately White University

Much recent international attention has been placed on the educational attainment gap of minority ethnic students in higher education, yet universities have struggled to reduce the gap and understand the complexities of the issue. Student engagement and sense of belonging have been identified as crucial element of success in higher education (Kuh et al., 2005; Thomas, 2012).
This paper draws on in depth interviews with Black students to identify the challenges faced in belonging to a largely white academic community. The paper uses the critical race theory concept of counterstories to express ‘composite’ narratives (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002) of Black students situated within the prevailing whiteness of many higher education institutions. Three different strategies for belonging in higher education were identified in the interviews and are presented in the narrative: post racial, academic and advocacy. The paper highlights the varying and complex nature of belonging for Black students and argues that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to engagement and belonging is insufficient to address the attainment gap.

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Tag to track? Analytics to measure the impact of educational policies

Analytics, or the utilisation of user data to enhance education, derives from business intelligence and has received considerable attention over the last few years (Cooper, 2012; Goldstein and Katz 2005). In the context of institutional research, it is argued that data can aid the decision making, implementation and analysis of policy and change (e.g. Saupe, 1990), and that new forms of online data collection make the incorporation of educational data more accessible and analysable for this purpose (e.g. Campbell and Oblinger, 2007).

An academic analytics approach has been used to evaluate the impact of two recently introduced educational policies designed to enhance the student experience at a London based university. These are a revised academic framework, which resulted in the redesign of most courses; and an online submission, marking and feedback policy. Each has had significant implications for the use and uptake of technologies to support learning, teaching and assessment.

The virtual learning environment of the institution has been used to collect longitudinal user data, including through customized page tagging, to enable the impact of the policies to be visualised and assessed. This paper discusses the findings.

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Research collaboration across the 1992 divide: the views of postgraduate research students from pre-and post-1992 institutions

Previously, it was shown that undergraduate student experience is enhanced by collaborations in teaching between institutions across the 1992 divide (Freestone et al., 2012) and thus postgraduate research experiences were hypothesised to be similarly enhanced. This study investigates the views of Ph.D students regarding collaboration between institutions. Ph.D students from a UK pre-1992 institution, the University of Oxford and from a UK post-1992 institution, Kingston University were randomly selected and semi-structured interviews, questionnaire responses and field notes were used. The opinions with regard to attending two collaborative research institutions were positive and optimistic from both groups, however, the reasoning and opinions differed. Kingston University, being a modern university was perceived by its students to have a more relaxed attitude in its research community. Collaborative institutions were favoured due to the more specialised laboratories however the travel between institutions may be a burden. Ph.D students from the University of Oxford are keen to establish international collaborations to enable more exposure to other laboratories abroad. They consider disadvantages to be about the intellectual property that comes with collaborative ventures. Both the pre- and post-1992 institutions studied mutually agreed that the expanded opportunity to learn additional novel research methods is an asset for the research graduate.

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