Want to teach undergraduates well? Research how to do it

Image: Shutterstock/Nestor Rizhniak

We have just founded a Physics Education Research Group in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds. This is exciting and challenging – and, above all, timely.

With the advent of the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), to run alongside the research equivalent, REF it’s now crucial that universities, and the schools within them, can demonstrate the high quality of their education to the government and to potential students.

To achieve this, it’s a logical step to have a group of academics within a school of physics focusing on research and development in student education. Over the past year or so there has been significant increase in activity and collaboration in this area, strongly supported by the Institute of Physics, and starting such a group is not as daunting as it might appear.

Creating our research group was a natural progression from previous activity in the school. The academic staff in the group had all previously held, or currently hold, major teaching roles, or had run small projects and activities related to student education in physics. As such, the group was self-selecting. The major step was to constitute us as a research group, rather than expect that we do these activities in our spare time.

This formal recognition gave a real confidence and motivation boost to these staff, showing that research and development of teaching is a credible activity and career route in a university. It also raises the profile of physics education among students, and allows for projects to be undertaken jointly with them, creating a real spirit of partnership between academics and students – something that Leeds University puts at the heart of its provision.

Such developments do not come without their challenges. The major one is funding. There are few sources of financial support for discipline-based education research in the UK. Such research can be undertaken with very modest sums in comparison to scientific research, for which equipment, infrastructure and large teams are required. Grants of the order of £5,000 – £20,000 would allow many education projects to flourish. Funding for PhD students requires larger sums, but is virtually nonexistent at the moment. Such a funding stream would make a major difference, allowing in-depth research to take place over several years, meaning changes could be researched, implemented, evaluated and disseminated.

Other challenges are less crucial, but include the need to persuade staff who have been teaching for many years that new practices may be more effective – and this is where evidence-based discipline research is vital. And there is still the perception that education research is not as worthy as scientific research, but, in the new regime of REF and TEF, UK academics should work to ensure both are valued.

Much is changing within the UK secondary and higher education systems, and the more we can respond with research to gain a good understanding of how students learn our subject, the better placed we are to provide excellent education.

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Alison Voice

Alison Voice

Alison is the director of student education in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds, and head and founder of their Physics Education Research Group. She is a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy, with a PGCE and 30 years’ experience of teaching physics. Her interests in student education are wide ranging, with particular focus on collaborative learning /peer instruction and engaging students in physics as a discipline and not as disparate modules.
Alison Voice

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