Teaching-led research, using teaching activities to drive forward research

Wednesday 30th January 2018, 1.00pm to 2.30pm

Speakers: Anna Bramwell-Dicks, Theatre, Film and Television
Location: Room LMB/025, Law and Management, Campus East

Workshop Summary

Teaching and research are, fairly obviously, both important activities for most academic. These activities are often considered as separate entities, in that academics are either doing research or they are doing teaching. Research-led teaching is a well known concept, where our cutting edge, high quality research is used within and as a basis for our teaching. Many academics are also conducting pedagogic research about teaching. However, the idea of teaching-led research – that is using our teaching to drive forward research in other, potentially seemingly unrelated, areas is somewhat rarer.

Following in the footsteps and under mentoring from Dr Paul Cairns (Department of Computer Science), I had the opportunity to use Teaching-Led Research in my PhD research where I was investigating The Effect of Music On Transcription Typing Performance and Experience. The data for 2 of my largest experiments came directly from experiments using Teaching-Led Research with undergraduate students from Computer Science, and allowed me to collect a lot of data in a relatively small amount of time.

In this workshop, I’ll explain how I adopted this teaching-led research approach in my PhD work, and how I have continued to use this approach, which varying successes, in other studies while employed on Teaching and Scholarship contracts both in Computer Science and Theatre, Film and Television. I’ll reflect on the pitfalls and difficulties, including the Ethical considerations, and consider how to approach this style of working to maximise both efficiency and quality of research. We will also explore whether there are opportunities for other colleagues to adopt this style of research within their own teaching activities in contexts other than psychological-style experimental work.

Workshop Report

by session chair, Ben Poore

Anna began the workshop by saying a little about herself as a Lecturer in Web Development and Interactive Media, with a background in Computer Science (and as someone who taught herself coding!). We then introduced ourselves: there were colleagues from Computer Science, Health Sciences, Biology, the Centre for Global Programmes, Environment and Geography, the Academic Support Office and TFTV, among others. Anna asked us a question to warm up: if we could have one superpower, what would it be, and why? There was an extraordinary degree of agreement on this: almost all of us wanted to manipulate time in some way, whether than was by freezing time, moulding time, multiplying ourselves or being able to have parallel lives. This wish, we agreed, reflects our common perception that it’s difficult to find enough hours in the day or week to be constantly pursuing ground-breaking research and teaching, as well as staying on top of our academic citizenship responsibilities. Anna encapsulated all this in the problem she identified: ‘Not enough time for all the fun shiny things’. Many of us spend more time than we mean to on teaching and administration, as we want to do the best job possible; many of us are on contracts that limit research time to one-third of teaching time; and even if this research time were used with maximum efficiency, it is difficult not to be distracted from core research concerns by new projects and ideas.

The proposed solution to this time-squeeze is teaching-led research. Anna was careful to differentiate this from teacher-led research (predominantly found in schools) and pedagogic research. She was introduced to the idea by Dr Paul Cairns at the Department of Computer Science, and she has used it extensively since. Teaching-led research turns the familiar concept of research-led teaching on its head. Anna’s doctoral thesis was ‘Music while you work: the effect of music on typing performance and experience’. Initially in lab-based experiments, participants were asked to transcribe text while different pieces and variations of music were played, and their speed and accuracy were measured. The research also measured the participants’ experience, gathering feedback how difficult the task was, and how distracting the music was.

In showing how a teaching-led research approach could be used to gather research data and also deliver innovative teaching, Anna used an example of a first-year, core Computer Science module, Human Aspects of Computer Science, where students are introduced to research methods for understanding user experience with computers, which typically involves running controlled experiments. In one practical class, early in the module, students work in pairs to get to experience what it is like to be a participant in an experiment, and how to run an experiment themselves. Anna prepared for this by trialling the instructions and the process with three pairs of Masters students, which helped her identify a number of issues to be rectified. In the classroom experiment, students worked in pairs with one student playing the experimenter and one the participant, and then swapping over. They were given precise instructions to read to each other, and the experiment itself was standardised: participants typed into a website that Anna had made, the music was played through the website, and the data on speed and accuracy was collected automatically by the website.

Asking students to participate in experiments that Anna had originally designed for her PhD was beneficial to the students in helping them to understand the human aspects of experiment design, but it was also very useful to Anna in understanding how students behave in these situations. Most, she found, do not read instructions, even if they think they have, and some will try to game the system: they are not as invested in the integrity of the research as the designer is! Equally, the activity allowed Anna to reflect on the research data obtained in this way. She recognised a need to check the data carefully and be ready to discard any that looks suspicious, and recognised how hard it is to give up control and allow the students to play the role of experimenter with material so close to Anna’s own research identity. Furthermore, Anna reflected, the balance between providing enough information to perform the experiment correctly, but not too much that the students ignore it, is a hard one to achieve. However, these issues can be outweighed by the advantages of this kind of teaching-led research: Anna was able to obtain a lot of data very quickly. Though building the website took a lot of time, this method was more efficient and easier to scale than the lab-based version of the experiment.

Anna then talked us through a current example of teaching-led research on the Interactive Media BSc, the third-year Experience Evaluation option module, which she has been running for the past three years. The real opportunity that Anna has identified for teaching-led research here is in the assessment. Students are required to design, perform and analyse data from a controlled experiment ‘investigating the effect of something on user experience with interactive media’. The brief is open, but Anna finds that because she mentions her own research quite a lot, often the students choose investigations on the use of sound and music. Anna sees these assessments as a series of pilot studies: if the students identify interesting results based on questions from their work, she can use it as a starting point for her own research. The advantage of this approach on the module is that marking becomes genuinely interesting, and some of the work that the students produce is publishable as submitted. Other work is close to publishable quality, but simply needs a little more data, a stronger literature review and background section, or revisions to the writing style. The teaching-led research approach is influencing practice within TFTV, Anna explained; a colleague, Dr Jenna Ng, is planning to use teaching-led research in the development of a new module, The Future of Storytelling, where each week of the module’s teaching will be focused on a different topic area and will eventually contribute to a chapter in a monograph.

In our group discussions, considering the question of how we ourselves could incorporate teaching-led research into our practice, we agreed that there was certainly scope to do this across a range of subject areas, and that in some cases we might reconsider whether practices that we had always considered part of our ‘research-led teaching’ were actually working the other way, as teaching-led research. In achieving the kinds of synergies that Anna had outlined, we agreed that this offered the prospect of ‘magically making time’ – the superpower that we had all identified at the start of the workshop.

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