Research-led teaching

The University's key mission is to provide excellence in research and excellence in education. These examples show how closely the two inter-relate and how their inter-relationship can be made explicit for the benefit of both students and staff.

Research-led teaching in profile

  • Tim Rakow, Department of Psychology

    Research-led teaching, teaching-led research

    Teaching students to be researchers and knowledgeable consumers of research

    Tim Rakow

    The majority of academic psychologists in the UK are probably content to describe themselves as quantitative social scientists or behavioural scientists, and this is heavily reflected in the curricula of UK psychology degrees. Therefore, in keeping with many colleagues, a large proportion of my teaching focuses on research methodology – in particular, on training students to analyse data. There are several ways in which my research informs this teaching. Most of the data sets that I use with students are actual data from research studies or are simulated to match the properties of data from published research. The aim is always to give enough details of the research so that data analytic skills are acquired in the context of the kinds of research questions that they are used to address. I also place a strong emphasis on acquiring the skills that researchers use.

    Using specialist knowledge and special interests to inform teaching

    Unsurprisingly, some of my favourite teaching experiences are when I teach the topics that I research and write about. I find the benefits are two-fold: recent research on judgement and decision making informs my teaching on this topic, but this teaching also informs my own research. The demands of presenting students with a coherent overview of my sub-discipline encourages a particular kind of discipline: I am forced to read more widely than I otherwise would – and often find that ideas encountered in my teaching preparation are subsequently used when I write. I also find that my experience of structuring those ideas for a student is then valuable for my writing: it helps me to consider how I should write for different audiences, and gives me strategies for unpacking ideas that may be unfamiliar to my readers. Not only does my research area inform the content of my teaching but, also, findings from my research area inform my teaching practice – something that I imagine could be the case for many social scientists: research on human judgement has much to say about the conditions under which reliable assessments are possible – this informs that way in which I structure and mark student assessments.

    Seeing students as research collaborators

    I research judgement and decision making, and feel fortunate that this research area lends itself to applications to which students can readily relate. I have had several positive experiences where an initial question from an undergraduate project student has been the catalyst for a successful research project that was subsequently published:

    • “Has anyone ever looked at these kinds of decisions with children?”1
    • “I’d like to be a clinical psychologist, could I research something related to that?”2
    • “I play poker – that involves probabilities and decisions – can I do my project on that?”3

    Often, we were able to extend the research project beyond the formal requirements of a final-year dissertation by continuing to work on the project in the period between the students' final examination and their graduation.

    Seeing research peers as teaching collaborators

    Observing others teach is a great way to improve one’s own teaching – but, unfortunately, one rarely gets to see colleagues teaching the exact topics that one teaches oneself. I have been fortunate to co-teach a module with a colleague whose research interests are closely aligned with mine. I have benefitted greatly from seeing him teach (and teaching alongside him): seeing new ways of presenting concepts and findings that I had previously taught to students, as well as gaining new perspectives on our common research area. Similar benefits have come from being involved in co-organising student conferences that focus on my research area. Working with colleagues at several London universities, we have brought together our undergraduate students for several one-day Student Conferences on Judgement and Decision Making. The aim was to give our students an experience having some of the features of the academic meetings that we attend. Each conference comprised eight or nine presentations or activities by the co-organisers and by invited speakers, including some leading researchers from continental Europe. One of the unexpected benefits was seeing successful researchers, who one is used to seeing presenting their research at conferences, interacting with students. I have been liberal in using some elements from these conferences in my subsequent teaching here at Essex.


    1. Rakow, T., & Rahim, S.B. (2010). Developmental insights into experience-based decision making. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 23, 69-82.
    2. Cahill, S., & Rakow, T. (in press). Assessing risk and prioritising referral for self-harm: When and why is my judgement different from yours? Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
    3. Liley, J., & Rakow, T. (2010). Probability estimation in poker: A qualified success for unaided judgment. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 23, 496-526.

  • Neil Cox, School of Philosophy and Art History

    Encounters with subject and object

    Research in the flesh

    Neil Cox

    In Art History research is often driven by encounters with works of art and architecture as much as by working on published literature. The visible characteristics of art are markedly different in the original as opposed to in reproduction and some aspects come right to the fore, even if, as is the case for wall paintings for example, reproduction gives much better access to details. The productive dialogue between reproduction and original means that in the teaching environment it is really important to give students the opportunity to discuss works of art in the flesh, so to speak, and to use this to develop in them the skills of observation, visual analysis and critical conversation that are a fundamental part of the tradition of art history and its research culture. This kind of practice often exposes the students in an organic way to one's own thinking and research ideas, since the process of engaging with the original work is always unpredictable and different things emerge in looking each time (students will often want to press for discussion of works that they know are of special importance to the teacher). At undergraduate level I have taught a core module on the theory of art for over five years, and after the first year I realised that even where one is working on a text-based module it is fundamental to grasping the dynamic nature of the questions at hand that students discuss them in front of key artefacts. I take students to the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a relatively unknown part of the collections there that is also very spectacular. Here the students engage with the whole problem of our idea of authenticity and originality in art: all of the works they see are highly convincing plaster casts made from originals. A second visit focuses instead on a single work of art in the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art: Edouard Manet's Bar au folies-bergère of 1882. We spend at least an hour in front of this work, and this engagement is then followed by two weeks of group presentations based on an anthology of very high-level academic essays on the work. Students find this whole process challenging and very rewarding, often citing group visits as a highlight in terms of the learning process.

    Fostering research communities

    One of the most exciting things I have done in the last couple of years is to work with current PhDs in art history on a new model for research led teaching. Together with four students, I devised a new MA module called The Bureau for Surrealist Research. The name comes from the strange office that was set up by the first members of a new avant-garde movement, Surrealism, in Paris in 1924. The office was decorated with pictures and objects (including a naked dummy), but it appeared to be a serious centre for some kind of service or bureaucratic function. We adopted the name because, in our seminar classes, the idea was to move away from the authority figure model for teaching (Professor Neil Cox tells the students what to think and leads discussion) and instead to facilitate a sense of the diversity of approaches that Surrealism requires and to get MA students to interact in a sustained way with their doctoral peers. The Bureau module has a Moodle site and online course materials that complement the seminar events. The module is designed to foster a sense of a researching community, and perhaps to stimulate the formation of new research groups and questions. 

  • Simon Carmel, School of Health and Human Science

    Research-informed teaching or 'Getting my students to think like social scientists'


    Simon Carmel

    My personal (I trust not overly individual or esoteric) conception of higher education practice is that teaching and research are – or should be – indivisible. Their unity is found in the term learning. For while research and scholarship are about an academic’s own learning (and if we are lucky or have something particularly interesting to say, society’s learning), teaching is about students’ learning. At the level of definition, at least, they are connected processes.

    How does this connection get played out in practice?

    There is a paradox for some social science disciplines: while some disciplinary foundations are long-lasting, the disciplines themselves can move on and be reinvented such that what was foundational among a previous generation of scholars has become outdated. In addition, the very substance of social scientific inquiry – society – is in many instances changing so rapidly that the data, evidence and concepts which form current knowledge may quickly be out of date. Which then raises the question: what are the long term benefits of bringing research into teaching?

    Of course, straightforward ways to bring research into teaching are to incorporate the latest research findings into teaching sessions and to train students in the latest research methods. All this is right and proper – and, indeed, a direct benefit of teaching subjects where we ourselves are contributing as an active researcher. But important as these aspects of higher education are, they may not be making students aware of the deep structures of disciplinary knowledge. In my view, it is even more important to train students in disciplinary approaches – in other words, to train students to think deeply. These are lifelong skills we can give our students. For many disciplines we can do this training, primarily by demonstrating our disciplinary approach through worked examples in teaching sessions.

    The best way to discuss and introduce a lecture topic is one which reiterates and reinforces deep disciplinary structures.Speaking of my own field (medical sociology) I will generally structure a lecture according my own conception of the field (which may differ, of course, from other social scientists and even other sociologists). Different parts of a lecture will therefore include, among other things, common sense understanding of a subject, the use systematically collected evidence, different interpretations of the evidence, consideration of the theoretical positions associated with these different interpretations, critique, etc. I do this more or less automatically and so the training is generally implicit – but one thing I have noticed is that the balance of these different facets differs from topic to topic and according to year of study.

    Likewise, for smaller groups of students where we might be examining textual material, I have an implicit understanding of the way such a text should be approached. But the kinds of questions I am inclined to ask can reveal a great deal about deep disciplinary structures.

    The excitement of teaching: from implicit to explicit

    Often our disciplinary knowledge becomes so taken-for-granted that we may have forgotten that we are thinking in a particular disciplinary way. One of the exciting challenges of higher education is that in adopting a reflective approach, and forcing myself to reflect upon my teaching practice, I identify the ways in which I think as a social scientist. Therefore I can begin to describe explicitly what is implicit in my academic practice, and can start to introduce these ideas themselves within an undergraduate programme.

    So a final benefit of the research-teaching nexus is that teaching helps me to understand the deep structures of my own discipline better.


    Rowland, S. et al. (1998). “Turning academics into teachers?” Teaching in Higher Education, 3(2): 133-141.
    Wright Mills, C. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Teaching and research in profile

  • Clare Finburgh, Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies

    Interviewed by Dr Maxwell Stevenson


    My name is Clare Finburgh and I am a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Film, Literature and Theatre studies. I partly teach literature modules and partly theatre modules, so my role sort of straddles between the two.

    What do you think are the greatest challenges faced by teachers today?

    I'd focus on the word “today” in this question. And, I really think that the way that things are going, not only at the University of Essex but in British teaching institutions and in general: class sizes are increasing, teaching loads are increasing, but staff resources are decreasing. So, the challenge for me is how we maintain a high quality of very personal care for each individual student when we've got higher student numbers and lower staff numbers? How do we not compromise the very high standards that we have? I have links with French universities and I've taught in France, and there are many merits to the French system. The main downside is that there are huge class sizes and there is no personal contact between lecturers and their students. In fact, when we have students coming here from a lot of different European countries, the thing they appreciate most is that they get individual attention from their tutors. I think that is something that we've really got to guard preciously, it's very specific to the British system and, certainly in our department, I think it's something that we do very well.

    Could you give us some examples of how you're meeting that challenge so far?

    Students are assessed in many different ways. They have essays, they have exams, and they get a lot of individual support with that. When students have essays to submit, each individual student can come and see their tutor or in my case each of my students can come and see me to talk about their essay. They can send me a copy of their essay plan - I won't look at the whole draft of their essay but I'll look at a detailed essay plan – and I'll give them feedback at least once, maybe twice. So, there's a lot of support going towards that assessment. That's just one example of the individual attention that we give to students.

    What teaching methods have you found to be most effective for your students?

    Part of it is focusing on study skills, building them into dedicated sessions, or more dedicated modules that we now have. But also building them, in general, into any module. It's quite difficult if you've got a 50-minute class on Hamlet. You don't want to spend half of that time talking about how to write an introduction to an essay. People dedicate their lives to analysing Hamlet, and you've only got 50 minutes on the text, you really want to talk about that play-text. But there are other ways of doing it. I put lots of handouts with tips on the CMR or Moodle because I think these are the kinds of things that students can often look at on their own. And you can tell them to look at the materials on their own, and if they have any questions, we'll look at them in the following class. So providing them with information on those study skills is one thing I've found effective.

    The other thing that is really important within seminars themselves is variety, and that's variety in many different ways. This might be variety in terms of focus because different people learn in different ways. Sometimes I will speak in a sort of lecture-type mode, but actually very rarely in a seminar will I do that. Usually I give students tasks and they may discuss them in pairs, they might discuss them in groups, or there might be a plenary discussion in class. So I change focus in that respect. Sometimes I might bring a video of a film version of a play that we’ve looked at. We might look at that for 5 minutes and feed that into our discussion. So that's a change of focus as well, because some people are more visually responsive. I even get students to get up and move around: if I have to ask them any questions, I might stick them on the walls. Different people might be more stimulated by getting up and moving around. I'm not saying it's a kind of circus where there is a constant stimulation, but I do try to make sure that classes aren't simply students sitting in rows for the whole 50 minutes or an hour and a half.

    I ask for feedback from students starting in about weeks 4-5 because they’ve already done enough of the module to figure out what is helping them learn and what is hindering them. And it's useful to know then, because by the end of the year it's too late. It's useful to do end-of-year feedback maybe for the next year but not for that set of students. Every different set of students has a slightly different set of needs and wishes. Students often have good ideas about how things might be modified. Sometimes when I have smaller groups, they might say: 'Can we sit around one big table instead sitting in rows?' It's a tiny thing that is easy to do but can really change the dynamic and make people contribute and participate a lot more.

    How relevant is the way you were taught, do you think, for today’s students?

    I was at the University of Manchester in the early 90s. I'd say that it was very traditional and quite a conservative university education that we had. We had lectures and then we had seminars which were essentially like a lecture but with only five people. We'd probably be too intimidated to participate. In some ways, I'm not sure that is relevant because I'm quite demanding of my students in seminars and I make it very clear to them that seminars are not lectures. They've had their lecture where the lecturer has presented a set of ideas over the space 50 minutes and now in the seminar it's up to them to articulate and formulate, create their own ideas on that particular text. And I think that their participation is essential. So that's very different from my education.

    The thing that I think is significant is actually lectures in themselves. On the one hand, one may argue that they're a bit outmoded, inherited from a different time, ancient Greece, when people didn't have pens and paper, and they didn't have books, so it was a useful means for communication. So you might argue that they're old-fashioned, and that students can read that information themselves, or podcast it, or whatever. But I think there are a couple of issues with that. One is that we live in an increasingly visual culture, and I think it’s really important for students to be able to develop their ability to listen to something. To listen to it, to process it, to absorb it take notes on it. I think those are really invaluable skills, and they’re skills that our first-year students arrive not having, but by the third year they’re quite good at it. So that’s one thing. And secondly, I think a good lecture is a way of really selling a particular text or particular idea to a group of students. I think it can be incredibly memorable – far more memorable than it would be if they were just going to read a handout on their own, or go off and do their own reading. They must do their own reading. But the reading and research that goes into a lecture, could be weeks or months or a lifetime of work. So I just think they’re a very precious occasion when they’re good lecturers. So that I think it something I’ve learnt from my own experience as a student. But seminars can be a lot more participatory than when I was a student.

    Where do your learning and teaching techniques come from?

    When I left university, there were no jobs. So I decided to go off to Spain, and learn Spanish. So I did a certificate in TEFL, and I was a TEFL teacher for a couple years, and then I did a diploma in TEFL and I trained people to teach English as a foreign language. I was a teacher trainer for Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) for a couple of years, as a volunteer in the Maldives. At the time, I think that English-language teaching was at the forefront of pedagogic innovation, partly because it’s a big industry. There were a lot of really exciting ideas about how to engage students in a cognitive way, in an active way, instead of a passive way. The whole idea of appealing to different learners, as I was saying before – learners who might be more kinaesthetic, or more auditory or more visual – all of that I learned from becoming a teacher and a trainer in the sphere of EFL. So that is predominantly where I got my skills from. And I think they have been very useful in the University context, even though it’s very different – A) I’m not teaching language B) this is HE as opposed to FE, but what I learnt was what makes people learn. So that’s been my main source of knowledge and inspiration and my training has come from there.

  • Keith Primrose, School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering

    Interviewed by Dr Maxwell Stevenson


    My name is Keith Primrose. I am a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex, with 10 years experience in academia, previously some 15 years experience in the industry and prior to that 5 years experience in other industries.

    What would you say are our greatest challenges as teachers?

    I think the greatest challenge at present is making the subject accessible to a widening range of students. One has to continue to challenge the good students, but without losing the ones who seem to require more support. I am first-year director and I have a particular interest in teaching first-year students. I find that even in the short time that I have been here it is increasingly difficult to square that circle, because the good students continue to be very excellent indeed, in fact I think they’re getting better, whereas the weak students seem to be requiring more and more support year on year, and with increasing student numbers that becomes a real challenge.

    How do you strike that challenging balance?

    I don’t think I have any magic bullets. I do make it very clear what I expect right from the beginning, and I’ve tried to make it clear to those students who’ve come from an environment where they have been spoon fed and given the sort of cut-and-come-again approach to assessment: ‘Oh if its not right the first time then resubmit it, and if its not right then resubmit it etc.’ I try to make it clear, both by giving them very early formative assessments which don’t count for many marks, but there’s a deadline that has to be met, if you don’t make the deadline then you don’t get the chance to come back and give it to me two days later, and if you meet the deadline and it gets 20% you don’t get another go so that you try and break the cycle as quickly as possible. You owe it to the students to be absolutely clear about what your rules are. Particularly now that we are taking students from parts of the world where they have very different education systems - in many ways more rigorous than ours – and who have very clear expectations. It’s the students who come from the UK education system who more often have a problem with this concept of one-shot deadlines.

    What challenges do our current students face and how do you respond to these in your teaching?

    I consider myself exceptionally fortunate that I went to university in the early 1970s, in a world where employers, governments, the world at large, recognised the value of a university education for what it was, whereas now they seem to be trying to commoditise it now. Students now have so many more outside pressures than I think I, or my peers, had to face back in those days. For example, simply in terms of the finances: ‘how can I dare commit to this?’ Having committed to it: ‘how am I going to survive these three years without being declared bankrupt somewhere along the way?’ So this outside pressure, specifically the need for so many of them to work to keep afloat financially, makes studying more difficult.

    What I try to do for them is to make sure my material is available on the web in ways that are accessible: That there are notes and formative tests and available on the web that they can do without having to be on campus. I try to make sure all the technologies that we use are ones that they can get for either little or no money, so that if they want to put it on their home computer or laptop and do the work outside the university, they can. And I try to be responsive to student emails, I’m not one of these people who sits on Facebook at 3 o’clock in the morning answering student questions, I think that’s a bridge way too far. But I make it clear to them that if they send me a question I’ll reply. If I think ‘I bet there’s at least half a dozen other students thinking that but they are too frightened to ask’ I do a reply to the whole cohort that anonymises the original author first, so that they’re not embarrassed, and I send it out and say ‘a student asks … and KP replies …’, so that all of them can benefit from whatever the question was. That appears to work and seems to be popular with the students.

    How do you think lecturers should develop as instructors over time?

    This is difficult for me in a way and it leads me to answer one of the other questions first maybe: I came to lecturing quite late…I was in my forties before I came back into academia, having left when I was twenty-six and gone off and done all sorts of things around the world and in the industry. I don’t have that same picture of what it’s like to be a PhD student who’s suddenly been offered a research assistant’s job, then finds that there’s work available as a GTA within the department. I’ve worked with those people and I’ve seen them develop, but I didn’t come that way. I find how I develop as a lecturer and I try to make sure that I do - that I don’t just stand still - is that I reflect on everything I do. I keep a reflective diary: I’m a great fan of mind-maps and I have a piece of mind-mapping software that I use and I add things to it to build my picture of both what it is to be a lecturer and my picture of what it is to teach a particular topic. I always make a point of noting things and reflecting on things that could have been done better, or have gone wrong and shouldn’t be done again, so that I don’t repeat the same mistake the following year.

    I came through the Teaching Fellow route, rather than the research academic route - I did get a PGCE at my previous institution and I found that exceptionally valuable. It’s one of the reasons I’m happy to support the PGCHEP programme within the university. I think researching the pedagogy as well as researching the specific domain knowledge is important. I’m a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy; I’m involved in the ICS, the domain area of the Higher Education Academy for my discipline, and I find the work that they produce extremely informative and useful. I go to their conference every year and there’s always something that I come away from and think ‘that’s something that I could use that would allow me to do things more efficiently, or to the greater benefit of the students, or whatever. There’s always at least one idea that comes out of that.

    Why did you become a lecturer and what’s kept you in the profession?

    As I said, I came to lecturing quite late but I’ve always been a communicator. My various roles through life since university, having got a degree in mechanical engineering as a design engineer, have been quite opposite to that. I’ve been involved, essentially in customer support, in technical customer support, marketing support, training, sales support and all those things are about communicating with people. I particularly enjoyed the training aspects of what I did when I was doing those jobs. I went to Africa for two years to train myself out of a job and that was in part my specific role, I had to train somebody so that I wouldn’t have to be there in two year’s time. I came into lecturing almost by accident, it was just an opportunity that arose, but I discovered having done it for a couple of years that I loved it. I really enjoy doing the job, the frustrations are there, but they’re small when compared to the frustrations of working in a commercial environment which are much greater. I get a real buzz from seeing students, seeing ‘the lights go on’ in a class full of students when they suddenly get an idea or the penny drops for them. And it just inspires me to keep going.

    How would you say that your research informs your teaching?

    I am a Teaching Fellow, or that’s what I was when I first came here. They’ve done away with the title, and I regret it actually. I don’t think that in a research university there’s any need to be embarrassed about being a Teaching Fellow. I suspect that many of my colleagues assume that means that I do no research, but nothing could be further from the truth. What I research is the topics I teach and I try to keep them as relevant and as up to date as possible in a fast moving environment. I also research into teaching methods and pedagogy, and try to keep pace with developments at other institutions, through the HEA, through the ICS, through the BCS which is the British Computer Society. So all of these things I think contribute to my research which is not in the domain, but is in the domain of teaching the domain.

    Where do your learning and teaching techniques come from then?

    Well, dare I say it, but I still remind myself on occasion of the people that I saw back in the early 70s, who inspired me when they were teaching me; people who would walk into a lecture theatre with one small telephone record card in their hand, which was their aide memoire of what they were going to do for the next hour and deliver a full lecture, complete with diagrams, mathematics and what have you. I confess I do not do that. I’m a slave to Power Point, but my Power Point flow is my aide memoire. It is not the contents of the lecture. Students have to listen, they’ve got to make annotations on those slides, and to be fair the fast majority of them get that very quickly. What else has helped me? I suppose my experience in such a broad range of domains: Teaching people as a trainer in very, very different environments, from training engineers in West Africa, to training secretaries in banks how to use computer systems, to communicating with managing directors of banks about what these computer systems were going to do, that’s all helped me. My peers, my colleagues, I always try to keep abreast what they are doing and if students are saying to me ‘Dr so-and-so’s lectures are amazing’, that’s when I want to sneak in the back and see what’s going on. What I try to instil in students and which I hope I still have myself is that it’s not the learning itself, it’s the love of more learning that’s so important. As soon as you stop you stagnate, so it’s a case of constantly renewing your ideas by bouncing off all these other people. I learn from my students, they give me feedback about how something’s being delivered or I just get the pickup: ‘oh that hasn’t gone well because..’, I see the results from this progress test and ‘Oops I haven’t explained that well , I need to go back and see how to do that again’. That’s essentially it, and yes it comes from that formal PGCE qualification, but it comes from all my other experience outside HE as well.

  • Tracy Robinson and Tim Rakow, Department of Psychology

    Interviewed by Dr Maxwell Stevenson


    Tracy: Dr Tracy Robinson, teaching here since 2005, recently appointed the role of Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology.

    Tim: Dr Tim Rakow, with the University since 2000. I do Research on judgement and decision making, and teach a variety of courses in the department.

    What are the best strategies to build students’ confidence you think?

    Tracy: I feel in some ways just making students practice – by giving them homework – particularly relating to the statistics teaching that I’ve done I found that giving them practice again and again on the same thing until they feel confident and comfortable with the material – that would be one way to build their confidence, particularly when it’s something they found quite daunting and scary – so giving them rehearsal again and again until they get better and better, giving them feedback on how to improve – and also not just what they do poorly but what they do well. That gives them confidence that they can maybe get to grips with the material, so… practice and feedback is something I think is very important to boost their confidence.

    Tim: Yes, I think particularly with learning skills… you can learn a fact by being it told once, but you don’t usually learn a skill by doing it once or trying it once… so particularly when we are trying to help students acquire skills: going step by step, with well organised examples, and the chance to practice, and to check if they are on the right track – it’s really useful.

    Tracy: I’ve also found pointing out what other students are doing wrong (not by name obviously!), then students think ‘Hey, it’s not just me’. There are lots of other students that are getting this other area wrong, it’s obviously something that’s quite hard and if you can get them to kind of feel together that they can grasp these particular things, I find that quite useful as well.

    How do you think lecturers should develop as instructors over time?

    Tracy: I think at first… it often takes time to refine and develop techniques that are going to be of use in the current climate for the students. Of my own experience I would say at first I had limited teaching and learning techniques and then a variety of mechanism expanded those techniques, but I think over time I try to keep up with what would be useful of the current moment – so at the moment I’m doing a series of online lectures because I think that kind of area will enable flexibility for students as has a variety of other benefits. So I think one thing that instructors should develop over time is to be able to be flexible and adaptable in changing, revising and updating their techniques.

    Tim: And I think in relation to that, looking and seeing what your colleagues are doing can be incredibly useful. If you’ve got the opportunity to work alongside a colleague on a module, or even just to chat to colleagues to work out what they are doing and then sort of see ‘right, there is an idea that’s workable on the module that I’m teaching’. The other things is just sometimes to kind of… on a slightly different level to what Tracy was talking about, not in terms of specific techniques… but sort of jump into teaching a new topic or a new module. You can get a lot out of teaching a given module many times and keeping making those small improvements, but there’s actually something refreshing about having a new module to teach, or a new area to do some stuff in, or having a bit of ‘committing yourself to a major reorganisation in advance’ - ignoring the fact that it’s going to be actually quite hard protecting the time for it to happen!

    What single piece of advice would you give to new lecturers today?

    Tracy: I’d say it relates to the previous question – go along and see what other people are doing. That would probably be the way I learnt quickest – being involved in observing as many lectures or seminar of other colleagues. Asking people for feedback – I would advise people to get somebody you get along with to come along and sit in your lecture/class and give feedback constructively on what you’re doing. That would be probably in terms of teaching techniques my foremost piece of advice to new lecturers.

    Tim: I agree.

    Why did you become a lecturer and what’s kept you in the profession?

    Tim: I had taught before… I have taught in secondary schools so teaching was something I knew I enjoyed and something I had experience of. One thing was an opportunity to teach at a higher level of content and material. Also, I’m quite enjoying the fact that the job is varied –you’ve got your teaching and your research; you have interaction with students and colleagues and also colleagues from other universities, as well. So it’s that package of things of which teaching is a part and they can actually link quite closely. And that’s one of the reasons for keeping me in there if you like. And there are these different parts of the year where you switch from one thing to another in terms of your main focus and it’s particularly nice where you can see one of them inform the other.

    Tracy: For me it’s that it never gets boring… In terms of why, originally I wanted to be a PE teacher, I’ve always been interested in teaching, I love sports – but then I thought it may kill the love for the hobby if I did it as a profession. Eventually I built it into psychology through childhood sport and exercise psychology, so it came back in there. But teaching was always something I was interested in and I found even at the A-levels and when I was doing my degree, always helping people, showing them how to do things and that’s for me the most rewarding bit of the job. That glimmer of recognition from a students when he gets something you are trying to put across. So I’m really enjoying that aspect. To try to help people in the sense of help students and impart some kind of enthusiasm for the topic. I particularly research in teaching emotion, it’s something I’m really passionate about – I love what I do, so to put that across and hopefully to enthuse people and give people a thirst for knowledge and that really excites me about the job. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this. And as Tim said, it doesn’t become boring. Because of all the different strands, I’ve found that with the management and administration side: you get to learn a lot about the university systems and structure, and relate to people in different departments and facets of the university, and that’s actually quite fascinating, to find out how the different facets work. I entirely agree, it’s the different aspects, you don’t get bored, because there are all those different things to do at the different times of the year you can channel your energy into those different fields depending on what stage of career or interest you’re at.

    What are some of the best strategies for getting students to stay engaged?

    Tracy: I think it’s different for different teaching aspects. So if you’re giving a lecture and you think they’re all going to fall asleep, then break it up. Have a question and answer session, have a short discussion within the lecture. Also, I really think that showing your own enthusiasm for your topic makes students enthusiastic and excited. So if they see you enjoying what you’re teaching, I think students enjoy the experience back. I always try to break things up in a lecture with a question and answer session, or give them a short quiz, and also that reinforces the learning at that stage of the lecture that they’re at, and gets them to reflect on their learning at any particular stage, so that’s on way to keep them enthusiastic. And also to keep the material fresh: I always update my final option in emotion with current research in the field to make it hopefully exciting and up-to-date, so I cover the traditional theories, but I also cover the contemporary research as well. That’s more for large-scale lectures. I think for smaller scale - small lectures and seminars - in some ways its easier because you’ve got a set up where you can have small group discussion with a group of say 30-40 students, as opposed to trying to deal with a group of 200 students in a lecture theatre. So engaging students is easier in a small group setting, because you can have these small question and answer sessions quite regularly, so that would be some of the ways that I would suggest.

    Tim: I think one key thing is all the time that you as the teacher are talking there’s always the difficulty of holding attention. And therefore it is useful to have some periods where you’re not talking and the students have something clear to do. That might be some kind of question and answer, or some kind of activity, or it might be just them doing the next couple of steps in a calculation. Something where it’s clear that: ‘I’m not saying anything, you’re going to have to do something’.

    The overall organisation of the course is important too: is it clear what is happening, when it’s happening, etc. These are not necessarily the things that are going to enthuse and inspire students, but they are the things that if they’re not done well they can demoralise students and students can lose heart. So it’s the defence rather than the offense to use the sporting analogy. You’re not going to inspire someone to become a psychologist by having a well organised course, but you can put them off being one if you’ve got a badly organised course. So I think that, some attention to detail is important. Are the resources made available in an accessible way? Is it clear what’s happening when? Is there enough practise for different types of assessment? Are there enough examples of what you’re looking for? Is what you’re looking for clear? All these sorts of things help students get the best out of the lectures.

    Tracy: I think that really hits the nail on the head. That’s one thing. Students, if you’re well prepared, students really appreciate that. And obviously if you’re trying to deliver decent material and get students to learn in an effective way you need to be highly organised and very well prepared. And it gives the lecturer more confidence as well, because they know the students are going to appreciate that all their material was well organised, and enthusiasm on top of that, you’re going to develop a really good module.

    How do your students respond to your lectures?

    Tracy: I’m pleased to say we’ve received all positive feedback on our modules over the past few years. So that’s one reflection. And it’s really nice when you get that feedback because a chance to be able to know you know that you’re doing something right for the students, and to know which areas you can improve and revise for the students, and that’s an important process of why students think certain modules are appealing to them, because they are carefully organised and revised to make them that way. So generally students seem to respond very well in terms of statistics material we’ve both taught, and in terms of my final year option in emotion –that’s consistently ranked as one of the most popular options, so that’s a good sign that they’re enjoying that. I’m running a new module this term – personality and individual differences – and this is what I’m trialling a series of online lecture for, and I’ve had some really, really positive feedback from that. And that’s encouraging – as I’m trialling new techniques, hopefully, we don’t know what students are going to think of these, so it’s really nice to get the feedback and know that that’s going well. And also the areas that aren’t going so well, and how these can be improved. So on the whole, the students respond positively to the teaching which is encouraging.

    How does your research inform your teaching?

    Tracy: For me, I build my current research particularly into my final-year option. Not so much my first- and second-year teaching, although some of the techniques can be used in my research can be used in my teaching. Particularly in my third year option in emotion. I’ve been doing some research on body image and how trying to find factors that can protect young girls against unrealistic aims of particularly thin body image that are put across to them that are not healthy for them to strive for, and I have a lecture on emotional health where I try to deal with these, I have a lecture – my main area of research is attention, bias and cognition – and emotion, so I have a whole lecture to discuss not only my own research but other contemporary research in that area. What I’m researching I try to build into my advanced options so that they can see not only what’s going on in terms of the topic area, but also he modern techniques that are being used, so I guess my research is brought into my teaching to keep it current, exciting and contemporary and up-to-date.

    Tim: I think for me there are probably a couple of things. One is in terms of the skills that I use in my research. Like most people in this department I describe myself as a quantitative researcher, and so I draw quite a lot on real data sets or simulations of real data sets as a way of teaching those skills. So I’m always trying to make sure I don’t have made-up examples, as it were, the examples reflect the research that I’m doing or the research I’m reading, so that there’s that skills element that I try to bring in. There are certain skills that I use to dissect what other researchers have done, and to evaluate what they have done, and some of the activities that I use are trying to emulate and impart those skills. To actually critically analyse the research that’s being done. So that’s sort of one area.

    And then the other area is within my own particular topic that I research, which is decision making. I teach a third-year option in that, so lots of the things that I read as part of my research inform what’s in that module. I’ve also done a thing a number of times with colleagues in other universities, we’ve brought together our undergraduate students for a conference focusing on that research area. And for this we’ve brought at least one from overseas each time. So I’m part of a research community, if you like, with colleagues at other universities, and we’ve made some efforts to bring our students together under that umbrella. And that’s been another one of these nice opportunities to see other people teach. You can go and watch your colleagues teach things - quite typically they’re teaching the things that you don’t teach. That was a great opportunity to see someone who has exactly the same research interest as you, who has exactly the same type of students as you, and they’ re going to deliver 20-30 minutes on a topic for those students.

    I think the other thing to say is, at least for me, is that I get a little bit of two way traffic. My teaching also informs my research. So, you know, one of the things that I research is the understanding of probability and risk information. What I teach informs how I might structure materials there. Just this week I was pulling up my third-year lecture slides to remind me of material that I was putting into a discussion section, and that was in terms of the methods that I was introducing students to that I was using myself. It can work, it’s not going to be the same in every discipline, but psychology is one in which you get a little two-way traffic. Your teaching can inform your research.

    Tracy: I agree with that, actually. I’ve noticed that with some of my project students. My applied research in the sports field informs the teaching in that I like to teach students what’s going on in the world. It’s important to teach them theory, and so forth, but to actually see how it works in the field. So I’ve taken some of my project students to meet professionals in the sports field, and that has helped to reinforce what we’ve been teaching them from the applied aspect. So getting them out there, and brining those in occasionally and getting them to give a short talk, say in a lecture, to talk about what they do, so I think that has a two-way process as well, particularly in the applied aspect.

    Where do your learning and teaching techniques come from?

    Tracy: I completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in 2005, and I think a lot of my early techniques came from that, and also from doing 9-12hrs/week teaching while I was doing my PhD, which I did part time, just before that. I still draw on that now, I’ll flip back and I’ll think, how can I implement some of those? Particularly with reflective theory, and how students can reflect on their own work, and things like that I still find quite useful. So teaching theory to some extent, but largely from a more practical extent, through learning what colleagues are doing, and trying out new things and finding – hopefully - they work, or revise and adapt them another year. But just picking up other techniques from colleagues here, or other departments, having a go a trying new techniques and seeing how they work, that’s largely how I develop ideas. And also by asking the students what kind of things they would like to see. I’ve done that a couple of times on feedback: asking them how they think their learning would be enhanced and trying some of those as well. So feedback from other people, whether it be colleagues and students is the main draw that I’ve found my techniques have come from.

    Tim: Yeah, I guess for me it’s also a mixture. Because I’ve had some experience of teaching before coming here, the teacher training that I had, and the experience I had of teaching complex content - how you break it down, how you structure it, and how you use multiple examples to get across the idea. So that’s one area. I now get quite a lot of little ideas for activities from research papers. So I see something and I think, ‘that’s an interesting data set, or that makes an interesting point, or that’s got an interesting feature’, so quite often I’ll devise some kind of activity that kind of mimics that feature in some way.

  • Teresa Eade, School of Health and Human Sciences

    Interviewed by Dr Maxwell Stevenson


    I’m Teresa Eade; I’m a speech and language therapist by profession originally, swapping over about five years ago to lecture in speech and language therapy as part of Health and Human Sciences. So I teach exclusively masters level students.

    What challenges do our students face and how do you respond to these in your teaching?

    I think the challenges are huge. There’s a huge information pool out there for them to sift and understand, and they need to understand the quality of information they’re accessing; alongside needing to lead lives and financial pressures and academic pressures. Quite a few of my students are mature students who have husbands, children, the dog, the cat. Also, for my students, they work and they do a 45 week academic year, so they cover 90 weeks teaching in the two years that they’re with us. So they don’t get the long breaks to enable them to catch up or to do the reading that they haven’t done. They really are pressured the whole time that they’re here and inevitably things go wrong either in work or out of work. Thinking about how you respond to that, you have to try and build a in a certain amount of flexibility. I think giving them the tools to go out and appraise the academic and information jungle that’s out there is one thing, but also giving them the tools so that they to know they need to balance that with the other things that need to go on in life so that they stay well through the two years.

    An example of that is the session that I’ve done this morning where they’ve all just handed in draft literature reviews. They’re mostly all on the right track, but what we were hearing as a staff team was a lot of angst about it all. So do you carry on with the academic session that you’ve got planned or do you deal with the angst? We’ve just been dealing with angst this morning because then you know you can put some of it right. Some will be able to say ‘ah I was on the right lines’ and some others might say ‘ooo’ but at least they’re going away with a plan. We can pick up the other stuff at another time, or they can read it, so it’s that flexibility as well. Some of our students go on placements, some of them have disabilities, some of them have kids that they need to pick up from school and so when we’re planning placements it’s a huge jigsaw of all the challenges of all the different students that we’ve got and trying to place people in the most appropriate place for them so that they can try and gain the most from it.

    What single piece of advice would you give to new lecturers today?

    There are two words that spring to mind really, enthusiasm and trust. You’ve got to be enthusiastic about what you teach and I think that if you’re enthusiastic then that rubs off on other people that are around you. So if you demonstrate an enjoyment of the subject and an enjoyment of being with the students then that’s going to rub off. And the other one is if you trust students - and by trust I mean trust them to work to the greatest ability that they’re able and trust them to bring the information that they say they are going to and trust them when they say they can’t do something they can’t - I find that they deliver, deliver probably stuff that they didn’t think that they could. I’ve had a student on placement very recently who was sending me emails saying I can’t do this you need to come in and help me and I was kind of thinking ‘yeah I’m absolutely certain that you can do that and that you don’t need me to be there, I would provide you with a security blanket, but I trust that you will learn more if I’m not there’. And yesterday she said to a colleague of mine that it’s the best placement she’s ever had and that was about trusting her and trusting my knowledge of her and what I thought she was able to do and she’s gone out and done it and done a really good job of it.

    Why did you become a lecturer and what’s kept you in the profession?

    While I was a practicing clinician I kind of had a bit of a habit of seeking out teaching opportunities. It’s probably the control freak in me! I was also a clinical educator taking students who came out into practice for most of my career, so I’d always had some student contact anyway. I had worked setting up some training with another HEI for professional groups and although I never actually taught on that program I’d kind of got my fingers into the module development aspects of teaching. Then, this course was being developed while I was working as a manager in health, and I came along and ended up sort of as an advisor to the development from my other post and gradually sort of got hooked in. So becoming a lecturer was kind of a reeling in process rather than it being a conscious decision. Eventually I found myself applying for the post. I did a part time post for the first year I was here and I worked part time as a lecturer and then part time doing my clinical manager job, which was not exactly good for the work-life balance. When I started to do that I did not think that I would come here full-time, but its good fun - it kind of gets under your skin. And the students are great, they keep you on your toes but they also feedback what’s working well, what’s not working well, so that sort of partnership. And I think its probably the partnership that keeps me here and I learn a lot from the students and I hope they learn a lot from me. Who knows, but I certainly learn a lot from them, from their life experiences, from things that they find that hey send me to read, from all sorts of things. And it’s really interesting and rewarding to see them grow in the two years that they’re with us. There’s a huge change, they arrive as students and they leave as professionals. I’m now employing people who have been my students as external lecturers, and I’ve got one of my students working as a research assistant at the moment. So you know the whole kind of growth together is, yeah, that’s what keeps me here.

    What should lecturers be doing more or less of than we already are?

    As I was sort of jotting notes for this, I wrote less telling and more sharing. The stuff that we tell students is in books and in journals and they can go and search it out and they will go and search out the stuff that they need, what is less accessible probably is the sharing of how you synthesize that knowledge and how you can use it in the environment that you’re likely to be using that information in. So, you know I can present a load of facts but they can probably go and look it up on Google, let’s be honest. But what I’ve probably got that is more than they’re going to get from Google is having done the job for 20-odd years. As a lecturer, I bring that richness of knowing clients, of knowing the reality of the workplace, of being able to bring some context to information that when it’s presented in journals and presented in books, tends to be quite decontextualised. It’s wrapping things in an accessible way. It’s sharing things. And also sharing back. I’ve got students with aspergers, students with dyslexia, students who have been wheelchair users. Bearing in mind I’m preparing students to enter a professional clinical environment, all of those things are very important. I’ve learned from all of those students, and added to my own clinical knowledge in areas that I probably wouldn’t have researched otherwise, so I’ve done my share of sharing there, as well.

    How relevant do you think the way you were taught is for today’s students?

    I think I learnt how not to teach! I’ve got very strong memories of group work where one particular lecturer would walk around the room patting people on the head saying ‘spokes’, as in, you’re the spokesperson for your group and you have no choice. I hated that. And I think also, as well as that, there was a constraint about ‘you will learn it my way’. What I learnt after I qualified was that actually there were other ways that I could do it as well, but I had to find that out after I qualified. I then did an undergrad qualification, I then did a post-registration masters, where all of a sudden I discovered that I was trusted, and I could go off and discover things for myself, and come back with ideas. That’s more the model that I try and work from rather than the original more undergrad model.

    Where do you think your learning and teaching techniques come from?

    They are not that dissimilar from being a clinician, actually, and I think that’s where they came from. As a clinician, it’s your role to work out what somebody can do, work out what they need to be able to do, and find ways of helping them to get from one place to the next. Which sounds very much like what we need to do with students, really. And you can’t actually take them and lead them, from what they can do now to what they need to be able to do. What you need to do is facilitate ways of enabling them to do that for themselves. Which again, sounds very much like the job that you do as a teacher: to enable people to find ways to understand and be able to do the things that they need to do. And I think that when I came here I was doing that quite intuitively initially, and thinking ‘I just have to hope it works, don’t I!’ The feedback was that it was working and students had done alright, so I guess it does work. But that’s very much where my original teaching techniques come from. The PG CHEP programme was very useful to me, because what that did was enabled me to understand how my therapy tools translated into pedagogic technique. It enabled me to almost put a different language to it, because assessment and diagnosis and therapy don’t really translate as words into HE. Even if we’re doing almost exactly the same thing, when we talk about assessment in the two areas, we’re talking about two very different things. That PG CHEP process allowed me to put a different framework to what I was doing, and also to delve into the literature so that I could see that in what I was doing there was some academic credence to the thinking that I was having. It became more something I was able to understand rather than something I was doing intuitively, so that was a really useful process.

    I think the other important thing – here’s that sharing word again! – there are so many people here on this campus that are teaching, and actually most of us are prepared to share our techniques, have someone else in our classroom, talk about what we do, etc. There’s loads of different techniques, and I think that every time I talk to somebody, or go to somebody’s lecture or workshop they’ve prepared, I’m pinching ideas an thoughts about how you can offer just different techniques to your students. Marking CHEP assignments is another one, because we lay out all our ideas beautifully , complete with references, don’t we, it’s great! So for the marker, it’s ‘I must talk to that person about that!’ I’ll pinch ideas from anywhere! And I think that keeps whatever you’re doing fresh. Even if the material that you’re delivering is similar year by year, actually the different techniques and just keep the whole thing fresh. And if a group’s having difficulties with something, you can try different techniques to help them to understand where you’re coming from.

    Does the university help you to develop and pass on your ideas?

    Yeah. CHEP’s an obvious example. So that’s an obvious example. HHS have quite a strong philosophy of working together and sharing together. We’re expected to peer review each other on an annual basis and there’s a programme of peer review, and a culture of joint teaching as well, all of which helps to develop ideas and to pass them on. The Excellence in Teaching Award, that was a really useful process to understand what you have achieved and what you’ve done over time - just that process of pulling together the paper for that, and looking back through student feedback. That was useful, and I suppose it does help to pass it on because it leads to sessions like today. I’ve just got some funding from KTF where we’re looking at data from a huge number of sources and trying to collate it into manageable chunks of information that can be passed on, so it’s sort of a different example of those.

Research-led teaching in discussion

Dr Edward Codling on research excellence at Essex

Dr Edward Codling, who teaches mathematical biology, discusses his research, which incorporates aspects of biology and ecology, such as animal populations and animal behaviour, with maths. He explains the ways in which students can benefit from the interdisciplinary research-led teaching Essex is famous for, and gives an outline of the modules he teaches on.

Dr Phil Reeves on research-led teaching at Essex

Dr Phil Reeves teaches a range of modules in our School of Biological Sciences. His academic interests lie mainly in the research of human receptor proteins, specifically those associated with vision and blindness. In this video, Phil explains what research-led teaching means to him, and how the internationally-recognised research at Essex benefits our students, both academically and personally. He also describes how the introduction of a Key Skills module, which involves working in groups to process and discuss scientific papers, has proven to be extremely valuable to both students and academics.