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Implementing research-based education at UCL - a practical introduction

25 April 2014

A new paper written by Visiting Professor of Higher Education Carmel McNaught explains both the theory and practice of research-based education. She shared her views on what lies ahead for UCL

carmel mcnaught implementing research-based education

There is no question about the importance of research-based education at UCL. Attendees at the Teaching and Learning Conference held in April heard President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur call its implementation “mission critical” for the university.

What is a hot topic for discussion, though, is how to turn the idea into a reality, institution-wide. To help initiate this process, Visiting Professor Carmel McNaught was invited to sketch out a practical introduction to the concept and its key terms.

A taste of things to come

“My aim was to provide a framework for using authentic learning in course design”, she said, “and to enable colleagues to work within communities of practice. It’s a taster – something to set the ball rolling.”

Having spent four years supporting UCL’s Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) – and having also worked with similar centres in several Australian universities and The Chinese University of Hong Kong – Professor McNaught is well placed to give form to the theory.

Authentic learning and communities of practice

In her view of research-based education, authenticity is crucial. Student learning should be connected to what happens in real life. Courses should use scenarios, examples and problems that are important both in the workplace and in society in general. The benefits are two-fold, she says.

“It’s important because it help students develop capabilities they need when they finally graduate, and it also aids the learning process. We all learn by making connections and, if what you are trying to learn is based in the real world, then connections are easier to make.”

Her paper also clarifies the role of communities of practice, which she defines as “a group of people who recognise a shared interest and purpose, and then consciously look for strategies to sustain and enhance the work they do together”. 

At UCL there are plenty of communities of practice to be found – research groups, departments, the institution itself. As well as ushering students into these communities as researchers, Professor McNaught believes UCL staff should work within them to find rigorously researched solutions that work for them.

“Building relationships of trust is vital”, said Professor McNaught, “because it’s hard for people who are smart to say ‘I don’t know’, and you have to do that when you are trying something new. You need to ask others for clarification and play with ideas.”

A wide-scale change

There are already plenty of examples of research-based education to be found at UCL, including eight Teaching and Learning Portal case studies referenced in the paper. But, as Professor McNaught explained, UCL isn’t the only place where people are trying to implement this approach to teaching.

“I think it’s something that, basically, everyone is still working out. The hold of the traditional bounded disciplines and the apprenticeship model of inducting students – I think that is embedded in higher education worldwide. It’s a challenge that everyone is facing.”

Predictions for the future

Professor McNaught is positive about UCL’s prospects of making a successful transition. Having seen a groundswell of enthusiasm at the UCL Teaching and Learning Conference, she feels the next 12 months will be critical.

“The sea change is happening,” she said. “There were 350 registrants at the conference. It was a wonderful affirmation that things are really changing. In a year’s time, though, I would expect to see a lot of things in process. Things like a streamlined quality-review cycle, and an internal journal that enables people to take the enthusiasm we saw at the conference and turn it into publicly available scholarship.”

“At the moment we have enthusiasm, we have commitment, we have good will; now I think it’s a question of bringing in streamlined processes and applying that element of scholarly enquiry to teaching and learning.”

Further information

Page last modified on 25 apr 14 10:37

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