Students’ Expectations of a Research-Based Curriculum

Authors

Abstract

This paper is the result of work carried out by a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Brookes. The Reinvention CETL is attempting to re-create the notion of an inclusive academic community where learners, teachers and researchers are all seen as scholars in the common pursuit of knowledge. More specifically, the Centre is helping to promote Brookes’ commitment to the development of research-based teaching and learning. In November 2006 an online survey of first-year undergraduate students was conducted with the primary objective of establishing the expectations of students with respect to a research-based curriculum. A total of 548 students replied to the questionnaire and display broadly the same personal and study characteristics as all 4,191 first-year undergraduates at Brookes. The respondents overwhelmingly agree with six statements about different ways in which research should feature in their learning at university. Agreement scores are formed for each of the statements and it is shown that students’ age and mode and subject of study have a small influence on their views about research and learning. The paper concludes that the survey has gone some way towards allaying the fear that students, or prospective students, may react negatively to research-based learning.

Background

As part of the 2002–03 move from terms to semesters Oxford Brookes made a commitment to establish a specific, explicit link between research and teaching. A further development, in 2005, was when Brookes succeeded in its joint bid with Warwick to become a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), one of 74 such Centres established by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The CETL is called the Reinvention Centre because it is based on developments in the USA stemming from the publication of the Boyer Commission (1999), which advocated ‘reinventing’ the undergraduate curriculum. The aim of the Centre is to attempt to re-create the notion of an inclusive academic community where learners, teachers and researchers are all seen as scholars in the common pursuit of knowledge, through the promotion of research-based teaching and learning. (See http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinvention for more information).

Apart from the possibility of creating true communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), there are a number of other powerful arguments in support of research-based teaching:

  • Arguably it is the ultimate form of inquiry-based learning, in a spectrum from project work to problem-based learning, with all the same pedagogic arguments for its possibility to develop critical thinking, and analytical and evaluative skills (Wieman, 2004)
  • These skills are what employers of graduates are increasingly looking for, and hence there is a link to the employability agenda, and also to better equipping students for the lifelong learning agenda. (Brew, 2006:14 and Scott, 2002:13)
  • There is emerging evidence from the USA that it has improved retention and completion with non-traditional students, and has increased the aspirations of students, with an increased likelihood of continuation to postgraduate study (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005: 406-7)

There are a number of practical ways in which research-based learning can feature in the undergraduate curriculum as suggested by, for instance, Castley (2007) and Jenkins et al (2002). However, for all the theoretical arguments that favour research-based teaching and learning, there is no evidence to confirm that students actually find the approach appealing. The attitudes of the student are clearly critical to the successful delivery of any approach to learning and teaching and this study set out to try and test these attitudes. Thus, a questionnaire survey was devised to try to establish the expectations of new, first-year students with respect to different features of a research-based curriculum.

Methodology

In November 2006 a short online questionnaire form was completed by 548 first-year undergraduate students at Oxford Brookes University, representing a response rate of 13.1%. A total of 4,191 potential respondents were sent a short email message that invited them to take part in the survey. A link in the email message took them to a webpage that comprised the questionnaire form they were being asked to complete.

The principal purpose of the questionnaire was to gauge the opinion of new students on the inclusion of research-based teaching and learning in the undergraduate curriculum. Students were asked to express their level of agreement with six statements on the importance of research in their studies:

  • ‘At university I will want to
    • learn about current research issues’
    • learn how research issues are investigated’
    • learn how I can critically appraise research’
    • learn about research done by lecturers’
    • learn by helping lecturers with their research’
    • learn by carrying out my own research’

The survey additionally contained seven questions on some of the possible factors that motivate students to enter higher education. Respondents were asked to express their level of agreement with seven statements on why they decided to come to university:

  • ‘I came to university
    • for the experience of being at university’
    • to get a degree’
    • to get better qualified for a job’
    • to pursue my interest in my favourite subject’
    • because my friends went to university’
    • because my parents went to university’
    • because I was not sure what else to do’

In order to contrast the replies of different kinds of students the questionnaire also asked for some factual information on personal and course characteristics:

  • Whether studying full-time or part-time
  • The HEA Subject Centre under which their course is classified
  • Age group and gender

Methodological issues

Before presenting the detailed results of this study we should draw attention to a number of methodological issues that have been raised by the data collection and analysis.

(a) Studying expectation rather than experience

In this country the issue of undergraduate research is relatively new and student attitudes to it have been studied only by Wuetherick et al. (in submission). Furthermore, their survey was concerned with experience rather than expectations. Clearly, in any question about an aspiration the researcher has to make a number of assumptions ab
out what the respondents perceive to be the alternatives and their relative merits. The questionnaire might therefore have achieved a more robust set of results if students had been asked to respond to a range of learning and teaching styles.

(b) The strength of emphasis in opinion questions

In any kind of opinion survey great care is needed over the emphasis of questions and the interpretation of the answers supplied. One would intuitively expect that any differences in emphasis would produce rather different patterns of answers. For instance, ‘I will want some of my learning to involve carrying out my own research’ would produce a different response than ‘I want all of my learning to involve carrying out my own research’. Because of our uncertainty about how newly arrived undergraduates would respond to the prospect of undergraduate research, our questions were relatively cautious and produced a generally positive set of responses.

(c) The meaning of ‘research’

An opinion survey needs to ensure that the terms used in the questionnaire are understood by the respondents. In this survey the meaning of ‘research’ is clearly central but is often understood differently from one discipline to another. Thus, it might be argued that a proper understanding of the replies can only be gained by examining them with a knowledge of the respondents’ subject of study.

(d) Response rates and bias

All social surveys are bedevilled by the problem of low response and the undoubted, but unknown, bias in the results. For ethical reasons the survey here guaranteed students anonymity and no reminder messages were sent to try and improve the response. The results below show that the personal and study characteristics of students were the same as those in the general student population. However, it is probable that the respondents are likely to have been those who possessed the greatest understanding and interest in the subject of the survey.

(e) Reinvention as the sponsor of the survey

Any positive bias towards undergraduate research will be increased, at least to some extent, by the fact that the Reinvention Centre was the sponsor of the study. Thus, in conducting a survey of research and learning it might be argued that more reliable results would have been secured by a more independent surveyor.

Results

The 548 survey respondents displayed the same general pattern of characteristics as all 4,191 first year undergraduates at Brookes with respect to age, gender, mode of study and subject of study (for specific details see below).

Personal characteristics of the students

In the survey there was an under-representation of the ‘19 or under’ age group with 39.5% compared to the Brookes figure of 51.2% with small over-representation in other age groups. There was also a slight over-representation of female students with 64.6% compared to the Brookes figure of 57.0% (See tables 1 and 2.)

Table 1 – Age Group
Online Survey Brookes First Year
Respondents Undergraduates
No Percent No Percent
19 or under 216 39.5 2144 51.2
20 to 24 150 27.4 968 23.1
25 to 29 63 11.5 328 7.8
30 to 34 33 6.0 211 5.0
35 or over 85 15.5 540 12.9
Total 547 100.0 4191 100.0
No Reply 1
548
Table 2 – Gender
Online Survey Brookes First Year
Respondents Undergraduates
No Percent No Percent
Female 337 64.6 2395 57.0
Male 185 35.4 1803 43.0
Total 522 100.0 4198 100.0
No reply 26
548

Study characteristics of the students

With respect to mode of study the survey contained the same mix as all first-year students at Brookes, and there was a good representation of subjects across all Schools. (See tables 3 and 4.)

Table 3 – Mode of Study
Online Survey Brookes First Year
Respondents Undergraduates
No Percent No Percent
Full-time 472 86.8 3525 84.0
Part-time 72 13.2 673 16.0
Total 544 100.0 4198 100.0
No reply 4
548
Table 4 – Subject
Degree Subject School
Online Survey Respondents Brookes First Year Undergraduates
No Percent No Percent
Applied Social Science 38 7.0 Arts & Humanities 363 8.6
Arts 28 5.1 Built Environment 453 10.8
Bioscience 30 5.5 Business 679 16.2
Built Environment 93 17.0 Life Sciences 226 5.4
Bus, Managt, Accoun & Finance 64 11.7 Education 757 18.0
Education 50 9.2 Health Care 720 17.2
Health 72 13.2 Social Sciences & Law 557 13.3
Humanities 39 7.1 Technology 444 10.6
Science 55 10.1 Total 4198 100.0
Social Science 49 9.0
Joint Course 28 5.1
Total 546 100.0
No reply 2
548

Reasons why students come to university

The respondents overwhelmingly expressed the view that they had come to university to reap the benefits of higher education rather than because they were influenced by family or friends. The strong reasons for coming to university were clearly ‘to get better qualified for a job’ and ‘to get a degree’, closely followed by ‘to pursue my interest in my favourite subject’ and ‘for the experience of being at university’. The weak reasons for coming to university were clearly ‘because my friends went to university’ and ‘because I was not sure what else to do’. (See appendix, table 5.)

Table 5 – Strength of agreement with statements about reasons for coming to university
Online survey respondents
I came to university… Strongly disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly agree Total
…for the experience of being at university 47 72 124 180 117 540
…to get a degree 10 6 34 150 337 537
…to get better qualified for a job 7 8 28 144 353 540
…to pursue my interest in my favourite subject 7 19 81 203 227 537
…because my friends went to university 234 172 87 31 12 536
…because my parents went to university 292 144 63 28 7 534
…because I was not sure what else to do 282 104 76 58 14 534

Students’ views about research and learning

By overwhelmingly agreeing with a number of statements concerning the involvement of research in their learning, students expressed the strong view that their curriculum should be research based.

Agreement scores on research and learning

Using agreement scores from a Likert scale with scores recorded as 0–100 (where 0 is where all respondents would ‘Strongly disagree’ and 100 is where all respondents would ‘Strongly agree’) and the total scores averaged, the statements about research and learning which students agree with most strongly are ‘learn by carrying out my own research’ (75.78), ‘learn about current research issues’ (74.08) and ‘learn how I can critically appraise research’ (73.81). These are closely followed by ‘learn how research issues are investigated’ (70.92) and ‘learn about research done by lecturers’ (68.20). Respondents are least in agreement with ‘learn by helping lecturers with their research’ (61.78). (See table 6.)

Table 6 – Agreement Scores on Research and Learning
…learn about current research issues 74.08
…learn how research issues are investigated 70.92
…learn how I can critically appraise research 73.81
…learn about research done by lecturers 68.20
…learn by helping lecturers with their research 61.78
…learn by carrying out my own research 75.78

Research and learning by age group

Broadly speaking, the results demonstrated that as age increases so the respondents are in stronger agreement with the statements about research and learning. The scores for the ‘19 or under’ age group are all 4 points or more lower than the figures for the Total column. The agreement scores for the ‘20 to 24’ age group are much the same as the Total column. The scores for the ‘25 to 29’, ‘30 to 34’, and ‘35 or over’ age groups are all higher than the Total column. (See table 7.)

Table 7 – Agreement Scores on Research and Learning by Age Group
19 or under 20 to 24 25 to 29 30 to 34 35 or over Total
…learn about current research issues 68.26 75.67 79.37 79.69 80.29 74.13
…learn how research issues are investigated 63.77 73.67 77.38 78.13 77.08 70.96
…learn how I can critically appraise research 66.55 74.83 81.75 81.06 81.85 73.81
…learn about research done by lecturers 64.58 70.13 72.22 69.53 70.48 68.19
…learn by helping lecturers with their research 57.94 64.17 65.57 66.41 62.95 61.81
…learn by carrying out my own research 70.81 78.36 79.84 78.23 80.00 75.78

Research and learning scores by gender

For all the views on research and learning the scores were similar for males and females. (See table 8.)

Table 8 – Agreement Scores on Research and Learning by Gender
Female Male Total
…learn about current research issues 75.30 72.03 74.13
…learn how research issues are investigated 71.06 70.65 70.91
…learn how I can critically appraise research 74.18 73.50 73.94
…learn about research done by lecturers 69.01 66.44 68.10
…learn by helping lecturers with their research 61.93 61.14 61.65
…learn by carrying out my own research 76.88 74.32 75.97

Research and learning scores by mode of study

Part-time students displayed higher scores than full-time students on all scores with the greatest difference on ‘learn how I can critically appraise research’ with 82.14 compared to the full-time score of 72.62. (See table 9.)

Table 9 – Agreement Scores on Research and Learning by Mode of Study
Full-time Part-time Total
…learn about current research issues 73.24 80.21 74.17
…learn how research issues are investigated 69.85 77.11 70.80
…learn how I can critically appraise research 72.62 82.14 73.85
…learn about research done by lecturers 67.48 72.54 68.15
…learn by helping lecturers with their research 61.67 63.93 61.96
…learn by carrying out my own research 75.27 79.23 75.79

Research and learning scores by degree subject

All subjects expressed similar strong agreement on ‘learn by carrying out my own research’. On the statement ‘learn about current research issues’ rather stronger agreement than the Total (74.13) was expressed by Health (81.94) and by Bioscience (79.17) with the weakest agreement shown by Arts (63.39). On ‘learn how I can critically appraise research’ (overall 73.85) there was less agreement shown by Arts (64.29) and Science (66.36). On ‘learn how research issues are investigated’ (overall 70.96) and ‘learn about research done by lecturers’ (overall 68.23) there was a uniform level of agreement across subjects. On ‘helping lecturers with their research’ almost all subjects returned the same kinds of scores as the Total of 61.81 with the exception of Bioscience with a rather higher score of 70.00 (See table 10.)

Table 10 – Agreement Scores on Research and Learning by Degree Subject
Appl Soc Sci Arts Bio Sci Built Env Busi Mant Educ Hlth Hum ties Sci Soc Sci Joint Total
…learn about current research issues 71.71 63.39 79.17 74.46 72.18 71.50 81.94 74.36 70.00 77.55 72.32 74.13
…learn how research issues are investigated 67.76 66.07 73.33 72.04 69.84 66.00 73.26 71.79 68.18 76.02 75.00 70.96
…learn how I can critically appraise research 71.71 64.29 70.00 77.45 74.61 73.50 76.74 74.36 66.36 78.06 76.79 73.85
…learn about research done by lecturers 63.16 66.07 70.00 72.04 66.67 66.33 69.79 67.31 65.28 71.43 66.96 68.23
…learn by helping lecturers with their research 55.92 58.93 70.00 63.33 60.48 58.67 65.28 58.33 60.00 66.33 58.93 61.81
…learn by carrying out my own research 76.97 80.36 81.03 75.82 76.59 72.50 74.30 77.56 73.18 74.49 76.79 75.79

Research and learning scores and reasons for coming to university

There were no strong correlations, the highest (0.23) being between the reason ‘to pursue my interest in my favourite subject’ and the view ‘learn by carrying out my own research’. (See table 11.)

Table 11 – Rank Correlations between Reasons for Going to University and Views on Research and Learning
…for the experience of being at university …to get a degree …to get better qualified for a job …to pursue my interest in my favourite subject …because my friends went to university …because my parents went to university …because I was not sure what else to do
…learn about current research issues 0.01 0.13 0.18 0.16 -0.11 0.05 -0.16
…learn how research issues are investigated 0.01 0.12 0.13 0.17 -0.12 0.01 -0.14
…learn how I can critically appraise research -0.02 0.11 0.17 0.16 -0.14 -0.04 -0.18
…learn about research done by lecturers 0.02 0.15 0.18 0.16 0.01 0.07 -0.11
…learn by helping lecturers with their research -0.01 0.10 0.08 0.10 -0.04 0.06 -0.06
…learn by carrying out my own research 0.05 0.13 0.08 0.23 -0.01 0.03 -0.12

Conclusion

The aim of the Reinvention Centre is to embed research within teaching and learning on undergraduate courses. In pursuing this aim we were sure that it was absolutely imperative to gain the positive co-operation of students and to establish whether they welcome the idea that research should be a strong feature of their curriculum. Our concern was that some or even most students may perhaps be intimidated or confused by research and in this survey we therefore framed our questions somewhat cautiously. However, we were pleased and somewhat surprised to find that our caution seemed to be misplaced since the first-year undergraduates in the study were overwhelmingly in favour of research, and this support was expressed uniformly across the range of disciplines, with no difference between the genders. It must also be noted, however, that there is a small but clear tendency for part-time students and those in older age groups to express a stronger view in favour of research-based learning.

Whilst we concede that the survey may have skewed the results towards a positive response, we consider that some of the sources of bias are no greater than in similar questionnaire surveys. Certainly, we have not yet uncovered any evidence to suggest that students do not welcome a research emphasis in their teaching and learning.

If there is one feature of higher education that is truly distinctive, it is research, and we would suggest that students strongly share this view. Indeed, other investigation by the Reinvention Centre is showing that undergraduate modules and courses do contain the kinds of research activities that students seem to be anticipating. It is also true to say, though, that academic staff are not always drawing attention to the research credentials of their undergraduate work. This apparent reticence may be for a number of reasons, but, if one of these is a fear of a negative student reaction, then we believe this paper has gone some way towards allaying that fear.

Author details

Pete Smith has been a lecturer in the subjects of Applied Statistics and Research Methods for over twenty years, running modules for undergraduates, Masters students and PhD researchers. He has recently brought this expertise to the newly created Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research, a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Chris Rust is Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate at Oxford Brookes University, and a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

References

Boyer Commission (1999), Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities, Stony Brook, NY: Carnegie Foundation for University Teaching.

Brew, A. (2006), Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Castley, A. (2007), ‘Professional development support to promote stronger teaching and research links’, in Kreber, C. (Ed), Exploring Researc
h-Based Teaching
, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 23–31.

Jenkins A., Breen R. and Lindsay R. (2002), Re-Shaping Teaching in Higher Education: Linking Teaching and Research, London: Kogan Page and the Staff & Educational Development Association.

Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. (2005), How College Affects Students Vol. 2: A Third Decade of Research, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Scott, P. (2002), ‘A lot to learn: we are all researchers now’, Education Guardian, 8 January, 13.

Wenger, E. (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wieman, C. (2004), ‘Professors who are scholars: bringing the act of discovery to the classroom’, presentation at The Reinvention Center Conference, November, 2004. Integrating Research into Undergraduate Education: The Value Added.

Wuetherick, B., Healey, M. and Turner, N. (in submission), ‘International Perspectives on Student Perceptions of Research: Implications for Academic Developers in Implementing Research-Based Teaching and Learning.

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