The trouble and joy of action research in Teaching and Learning PgCerts

Over the last four years I have been leading a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education. This programme is very similar to others up and down the country that have alignment to the UK PSF. Within this course we have a module that focuses on action research. Participants are required to undertake a small project, with the aim of improving and developing their own professional practice, while also strengthening their claim for recognition. I have recently evaluated the place of the action research project in this programme of study. I was overwhelmed by the extent to which colleagues wanted to keep the project component. They told me that they valued it because it enabled them to focus on an area of interest, it helps them to actually make a difference to the practice, and it helps them build relationships with different colleagues and students. It also helps staff to empathise with their own dissertation students and recognise their support needs. Other colleagues, who were not undertaking the programme, have reported how they have benefited too: some suggested that the evidence generated by these projects can really inform decision-making, while others suggested that the project elements makes new staff empowered to make change happen. After hearing all of this, it would be ludicrous to drop action research from our new staff development programme. Nevertheless, including action research in a postgraduate certificate of this type does not come without problems. The challenges that are noticeable, and which were cited by those involved in feeding back, included

– Some new researchers face real difficulty in understanding action research. For colleagues with a scientific background who have not previously undertaken social science research, moving to work with action research represents a massive paradigm shift. This can be disturbing and uncomfortable. It can mean that a good number of weeks grappling with what is and isn’t permissible in the style of research, and that a sense of bewilderment can take over. As an associated point, I believe that the language of action research is alienating to those from other traditions and those who support action research must try to use clearer language, or at least be explicit about the terminology at every turn.

Timing can be a real challenge, and it is important that action research is not rushed. There is a need to plan to work with the academic year cycle if change is to be meaningful.

– Deciding how to present the research developed through the project can be a point of difficulty. Within our programme colleagues are encouraged to use a format which fits with their audience’s needs/preferences to maximise impact, but there is a tendency to ‘play it safe’ and use a written ‘report’ format. In future iterations of the module dissemination will be added as an essential feature, not as a ‘nice to have’. It maybe necessary to provide dissemination opportunities through internal conferences and/or offer support for journal writing.

Choosing a focus can be difficult and can cause delay in getting started. Colleagues often have multiple ideas for research, some fit ideas their interests, some match with their managers preferences, some fit with a development need and some foreground the priorities of the organisation. Often there is no clear convergence between the ideas and the new researchers first job is to navigate through competing priorities to make a choice. It’s also important to help researchers critically consider the value of any pet projects; it is easy for passionate individuals to get engrossed in a topic without stopping to ask ‘ what are the benefits?’ or ‘so what?’.

– ‘How much action?is a question that I am often asked. Within a project does the action need to be substantial, or is it ok to research a topic to prepare for action? It is necessary to provide explicit guidance on this point.

Keeping focus can be tricky as projects develop. One question leads to another and the cycles of research in reality are often messy and don’t look like the text book. As a facilitator it’s important to reassure that the sense of chaos will pass, and to support the researcher to find a way through.

Keeping action research in our PgC is a ‘no brainier’ but much needs to be done to address these and other challenges. In response to some of these points, Lin Norton and I have penned a guide for first time action researchers to try to address many of the issues that we have seen as troubling. It is out on 1st March, published through the Higher Education Academy. Watch this space.

In the meantime here are the slides from my January presentation on action research in the context of a PgC, given to the HEA Scheme Leaders Network. Some of the student quotes contained within this really get to the heart of the benefits of lecturers and support staff undertaking action research.

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