Reflections on starting points for course development

Deciding to develop a course which is already established and well thought of is never an easy process. When the various elements which go together to form a Masters degree work well and the feedback from students is overwhelmingly positive, the temptation is to sit back and enjoy the teaching. However, as with any course there’s always that nagging feeling that somehow it could be better. One of the problems with such a position is that the greater the degree to which pre-existing material is already viewed as excellent the greater the feeling that any further change will need to develop a new perspective.

I’m currently leading a very successful Masters course which draws the vast majority of its students from an international background. Over the past three years we’ve managed to retain, or even slightly expand, numbers on the course at a time when numbers elsewhere have seen slow contraction. However, there has been debate amongst the team who teach on the course as to whether or not we should be satisfied with what appears to be an excellent course, or whether we should attempt to bring transformational change by developing the course in a way that allows for a more authentic philosophy, for both staff and students. Carolin Kreber’s (2013) fantastic book on authenticity in teaching in HE quotes Walker (2006) who argues that university pedagogies should foster,

Practical reason; Educational resilience; Knowledge and imagination; Learning dispositions; Social relations and integrity; Respect, dignity and recognition; Emotional integrity, and Bodily integrity.’

(Walker, 2006, 127, quoted in Kreber 2013, 46)  

Kreber suggests that such a curricula view is important in developing capacities which offer life choices to students, which brings an authenticity to the development and process of student learning. In addition such authenticity requires reflection and debate by teachers to discuss and develop an approach which is both authentic to students and staff. I would argue that such reflection and discussion needs to be an ongoing, iterative debate amongst staff and students – the realisation of the community of pedagogy to which Shulman (1993) eludes in his thoughts on pedagogical solitude.

Through discussion, two areas have emerged as central to our thinking about further development:

  1. Study skills. Many of our students arrive on our course direct from undergraduate study in a number of educational systems around the world. This brings with it a wide variety of experiences and expertise in the reading of research and the process of critical writing. For a number of years we have embedded supplementary sessions within the course and have attempted to give students extra support and guidance to help them make the transition to Masters level and to the expectations of the UK academic culture. We have done this with varying degrees of success. At the moment two members of the course team are undertaking collaborative research with a colleague in the English Language Teaching Unit to develop insights into this strand of the course. The opportunity to spend time discussing common issues from the different perspectives we bring to the discussion has proved immensely important in shaping and advancing our understanding concerning study skills and wider course development.
  2. Research methods. In any course development I’ve been involved in research methods always has the potential to fulfil the role of a ‘curricula outsider’. Everyone knows it’s an important part of any Masters curriculum but there is always angst about where to locate it, how to build relations between it and the other elements of the course, and even how to develop it through a coherent pedagogy. Over the past four years it is the research methods element of the course which has changed each year.

Discussions amongst the team involved in developing and delivering our Masters course have emphasised that if we are to move the course forward in a meaningful way it is in these two areas that we need to affect well considered and radical change. Reflection by the team has established some simple principles from which the basis for a way forward is beginning to emerge.

Both study skills and research methods need to be at the centre of course design rather than ring fenced specialities or support services to content. There needs to be a genuine symbiosis between all elements which sees them as mutually supportive in the holistic development of the student. Study skills become another facet of research methods, a foundation for understanding, critiquing, synthesising and writing about research. By coalescing study skills with research methods they can be repositioned to become the backbone of the course rather than just another module which sits uneasily within the curriculum wherever it is placed. As Garner et al (2009, 3-4) state:

Until research methods itself is accepted as central to students’ education in a discipline, and a passion for research and ability in teaching it is a sine qua non for research methods tutors, students are unlikely to learn how to do research well.’  

If research methods is to be central to the rest of the course, it must talk to and become embedded within all the modules on the course in a meaningful and effective way. This brings a second principle. Shulman (1993) argues for the need of a shift away from ‘pedagogical solitude’, the need for a community of pedagogy. If research methods is to be brought to the centre of course development it requires engagement and discussion by the group of academics responsible for the course. Collaborative development needs to be at the centre of any course transformation which hopes to bring research methods to the centre of student thinking and development because it is only through a cultural shift that the changed pedagogy will be practically and consistently applied.

If a major shift in course structure through collaborative development is to be successful there needs to be a clear framework for developing that course. Developing a framework is best achieved by initially engaging with past studies and insights. As outlined in the next post, the redesign of this course will be founded on the use of Design-Based Research (DBR). This approach has two main advantages. Firstly, it allows us to develop an approach of theory informed practice development (praxis). Secondly, it allows us to develop a number of small scale research projects around the processes and outcomes of change. In this way, it will hopefully become a true contribution to scholarship of teaching and learning.

Garner, M.; Wagner, C. & Kawulich, B. (2009) ‘Introduction: Towards a Pedagogical Culture in Research Methods.’ In Teaching Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Garner, M.; Wagner, C. & Kawulich, B. (eds.). Farnham: Ashgate. 1-10.

Kreber, C. (2013) Authenticity In and Through Teaching in Higher Education: The transformative potential of the scholarship of teaching. Abingdon: Routledge.  

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part4/shulman%20community%20property.pdf)

Walker, M. (2006) Higher education pedagogies: A capabilities approach. Maindenhead: Society for Research in Higher Education and Open University Press.

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