Action research for higher education practitioners: Booklet

I have formed a short guide to action research particularly to support colleagues in higher education who may be undertaking action research for the first time. This is absolutely not intended to be a substitute for literature but it is offered as a ‘first stop’ for anyone contemplating this methodology. It offers practical ideas and tips and seeks to answer some of the key questions that I understand new action researchers to have. As ever, any feedback, additional inclusions or suggestions for revision would be welcome.


Download the booklet here: Action Research Introductory Resource

Senior Fellowship: Reflections on the process

Today I received confirmation that my Senior Fellowship application to the HEA had been accepted. I thought it helpful if I shared a few insights in to the application process with others who might be considering individual entry route.

There are three ways to achieve recognition with the HEA –

  1. Individual entrance route
  2. In-house accredited CPD schemes
  3. Through recognised qualifications (e.g. a PgC which leads automatically to Fellowship)

In 2011 the HEA launched new levels to their recognition scheme  (there are now four levels of recognition: Associate Fellow, Fellow, Senior Fellow and Principal Fellow). I suspect many institutions will take a little while longer to develop internal CPD systems for the two new levels of recognition and so for now the individual route may remain the favoured approach for some  colleagues.

I completed a Fellowship by individual entry in 2007 and have taken the same route for the Senior Fellowship. The application comprises a 6-7000 word reflection on practice and two ‘case studies’ of practice. It needs to demonstrate all of the areas of activity, all the professional values and all areas of knowledge as described by the Professional Standards Framework. It is not enough to list how you meet each requirement – there is a need to show how you apply the knowledge and values in practice. The biggest challenges in the application process were:

  • Managing the time needed (which is significant)
  • Going beyond description in the account to ensure sufficient reflection
  • Selecting areas of practice on which to reflect

The process requires some detailed planning. The approach I took was to begin with the activities. I simply plotted out what I did against each of the headings listed. So, against ‘assessment and feedback’ I located my roles, projects and practices (present and past), likewise I asked myself what had I done in the area of learning design and developing student guidance and so on for each activity area. Simply creating a list provides the raw material for the reflection.

The next thing I did was to place the ideas in to chronological order so they made sense in terms of my personal progression – of course doing this showed up duplications and sparked additions. Initially I planned to create matrix to ensure I had all values and areas of knowledge covered, but this was quite limiting and made a tick box exercise of the process. Instead I took each activity on my list and reflected by asking a series of questions around each point, including:

  • What did I do? (description of the activity)
  • Why did I choose to work this way? What shaped the decision? (was it the influence of a colleague, a particular belief, a policy, an engagement with a particular academic idea or theory or case studies from elsewhere). What knowledge and understanding informed this way of working? **
  • How was this way of working beneficial to students, colleagues and/or others (including industry partners)?
  • What was the impact? How do I know this approach was working well?
  • What was learned about working this way? Are there things in future that need to be done to refine this approach further?

**these were the most important questions as they gave opportunity to review  both values and knowledge

I then tagged the emerging narrative against each of the framework requirements by adding  “(v1, k3)” – these are the labels given to the framework requirements (k = knowledge, v = value). These tags were added where I believed my reflection demonstrated the criteria. By doing this I was able to see where the gaps were. My original draft was lacking in v4 for example and so I was able to track back and ask where, in my activities, did I draw upon this this value?

The case study elements (perhaps these should be re-named since they are more like illustrations of practice) are a thicker, and more focused, description of things that you have done. I considered these to be a zoom lens on two areas of my practice. I could adopt the same approach as for the general narrative but had more space to provide more detailed description and reflection.

During the process it was really important for me to have a critical friend who could chat through the sticking points and offer me feedback. I had hoped the application would take a day if I chained myself to my desk but in the end it was much longer. Overall the process has been valuable (if not a little intense) – it provides a useful opportunity to look back at what has been achieved and I was particularly pleased to see that my values had not waned too much! It was quite motivational to retrace my steps over years of practice and it was also helpful in informing planning for new CPD. While I was frustrated by the time commitment needed, without this dedicated ‘thought space’ the benefits of the reflective process would not have been realised.

Five quick ways to write reflectively

  1. Imagine an audience for your musings. It’s hard to write without an audience. Write like you are talking to someone that you trust and connect with, and to extend your thoughts imagine their probing questions when you hit natural pauses.
  2. Talk, don’t just write. Use voice memos on your phone to capture thoughts in the moment and then write them down when back at base. Some of the most reflective thoughts happen in the car – catch them! This model is effective with adults and children alike.
  3. Use a model … a blank page can be daunting, use a reflective model to provide a writing frame for your reflections. Gibbs is my favourite but there are others too …
  4.  Go beyond describing what happened in an event or situation. Always follow up with the question, so what? (so what …. For me, for my students, for my colleagues, for my CPD needs, for my confidence, for my progression , for my efficiency, for my well-being?*).
  5. Write quickly, naturally and without concern for prose. This is a first layer of reflection. Then  a) develop the text and tidy it up and b) add comments or text boxes to annotate and add further observations on your initial thoughts. Comments or annotations can add major depth compared to a first attempt – ‘when I wrote this, I was thinking …. And I thought this because … but now I have discussed it with my colleague/friend and have revised my original understanding’ or ‘ I can see the choices I made here were limited by ….’. Adding layers to a reflection in this way can be very productive and can help us to question how we see things in the moment.

* Delete and expand!

Other ideas welcome.

The Jing feedback experiment

Since the last post on Jing (screen capture) I have tried it out more intensively by making 45 videos for formative feedback on personal development. I received draft submissions from students, opened them on the screen, started the video capture and recorded as I went.

Lessons learnt …

  • Read through once only and highlight in yellow any areas where a comment should be made (a higher level of scripting than that means you may as well write the feedback first )
  • Live with imperfection. Unless you edit the feedback in an audio editor, Jing is one take only. Live with the odd, ‘errr…..’ … pause or stumble or else the videos will take a ridiculous amount of time.
  • Manage expectations: Jing feedback was sought once word got around, this created a rush at the last minute. For the sake of workload give cut offs, and only feedback on a pre-determined amount of work.
  • Opt out not in. Given the openness of feedback, being technically accessible by others and given the alternative nature of the approach brief students and tell them what you are doing and why, and offer an opt out. No-one chose this.
  • Practice makes efficient. The first handful of videos took forever. Had I not made a public commitment to do this I would have ditched it out of sheer frustration. It did get better.
  • Using other types of video in class meant that this was a familiar approach to students. It was in synch with classroom methods. For example, I used video feedback to playback a critique of a case study.
  • It saved an awful amount of time by removing the need for proofing my own feedback.

While it may seem labour intensive to offer 45 verbal feedbacks I was secure in the knowledge that 45 written feedback attempts would take an awful lot longer. The depth of the feedback was also more than could have been realistically achieved on paper. You can say a lot in 5 minutes.

What did the students think …

  • Students thought this was fantastic!
  • ‘Like a conversation’
  • Personalised
  • ‘It was like having a one to one tutorial’
  • Enabled them to work through changes one at a time with the video open and their work open at the same time
  • Only one technical glitch was reported
  • Lots of feedback is possible in this way

Other Jing ideas…

An alternative approach I saw recently was a tutor talking through the grade sheet. Giving a verbal commentary on why decisions were made as they were. A different take on Jing.

As a spin off from this work, experimentation shows Jing can work well with White Board technology too, so that in-class examples can be used and taken away. A blue tooth mic and you’re away …

(How to make a Jing feedback video is outlined here )

Learning transitions and playing with concept map

In an attempt to unscramble my own thoughts and make them remain in my head longer than the time it takes to type and send I have embarked upon a concept mapping exercise. So taking a reply I made earlier to a forum question, and concept mapping it, it was useful but remarkably difficult. Its tricky to build links and annotate without over-crowding. A fine art and more practice needed. Tips welcome!

So, the question – how do transitions affect new comers to higher education And what might be done to help … ?

Secondary school students have often been engaged in surface learning which has been cultivated by a climate of testing and a grade facing culture (Hussey and Smith 2010). The learning habits and cultures of a secondary school are very different than most HEIs where large class sizes exist (Cook and Leckey 1999) and there is an expectation of autonomy (Hussey and Smith 2010) – a transition is needed to thrive in this new environment (a transition of self and in learning approach). In terms of self-concept students may go from being confident amongst a small group to feeling disorientated by their new place in the bigger order. At the same time as needing to undertake transitions in their approach to learning they may be undergoing great shifts in their personal life from being dependent to being independent as they move locations and away from family. Transitions are essential to learning and may occur on a number of fronts – in knowledge, in learning orientation, in social dimensions (Hussey and Smith 2010) and in epistemologies (Chan, Ho et al. 2011). First year attrition of students is high (Beaty, Gibbs et al. 1997; Cook and Leckey 1999; Hussey and Smith 2010). It seems little wonder given the multi-faceted transitions. Such transitions are more complex for first generation learners who face added challenges.

To facilitate these transitions a number of recommendations emerge from the literature:

· Induction – induction for students should address student expectations such that learners can ‘see’ the transitions ahead (Cook and Leckey 1999)
· Monitoring – so student transitions are not hidden from staff and can be engaged with positively and appropriately. Montitoring ensures teachers are not surprised at the end of a course when transitions have not occurred as anticipated (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Avoiding a crammed curriculum – to provide space for deep engagement such that time for deep learning is made (Cousin 2006; Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Formative assessment – to enable students to develop an understanding of the expectations and allow them to adapt on their journey ahead of high stakes assessment (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Progression flexibility – more radically, student programmes could be undertaken over a longer period of time where an individual’s transition path requires, when they are not ready to move on at the speed of the academic calendar (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Promote study skills for higher education (ideally before arrival) such that students have to tools to adapt (Cook and Leckey 1999)
· A culture of support where disorientation or turmoil is OK (Cousin 2006)
· Ensure student’s make good course choices which hold their engagement (Jansen and Suhre 2010).

While study skills are suggested as being important, their role may be less significant than the process of aligning courses to student requirements (Jansen and Suhre 2010). In ensuring good choices of programme are made, students may develop higher levels of buy-in and therefore be more prepared to undertake active involvement in learning (which, in turn, is particularly helpful to the surface – deep learning transition (Atherton 2011)).

For first generation students there may be additional or exacerbated challenges. Self-concept lies at the heart of many transitions. First generation students may have a different self concept (perhaps in confidence, beliefs and self-worth) than those who have been socialized in to HE by family. The may feel that they do not belong (Mehta, Newbold et al. 2011).

Cultural changes may be exacerbated for first generation students. HE has its own culture and even language. For students who are first generation the newness of this culture will be starker since exposure to the language and rituals of HE may have been nil. Outreach programmes (from HE to school and induction may help).

According to Mehta, Newbold et al (2011) first generation students “enter college less prepared to succeed but also have greater time demands and financial commitments”. The distractions of financial pressures, part time jobs etc may be a challenge for some first generation students especially when they are immersed in so many transitions, and forming new learning habits.

Care must be taken not to over-generalise first-gen students in to one category though, since in itself this category represents great diversity of culture, class and values. For example, first generation students from a work-based background may face different self-concept issues than school leavers (as inferred by Hussey and Smith 2010)

Broadly the notion of personalizing provision and induction to individual student need may be an approach to facilitate transition. However particular attention may need to be offered to financial support, pace (in response to financial and emotional transitions), integration (social) and the management of expectations.

Much better perhaps to see it like this

concept map screen shot (section on transitions)


I suspect work on transitions could usefully inform personal development programmes as well as induction.

Atherton, J. S. (2011). “Learning and teaching: Approaches to study: Deep and surface learning.” Retrieved 3 August 2011, from
Beaty, L., G. Gibbs, et al. (1997). Learning orientations and study contracts. The experience of learning. D. H. F. Marton, & N. Entwistle. Edinburgh, Scotland, Scottish Academic Press.
Chan, N.-M., I. T. Ho, et al. (2011). “Epistemic beliefs and critical thinking of Chinese students.” Learning and Individual Differences 21(1): 67-77.
Cook, A. and J. Leckey (1999). “Do Expectations Meet Reality? A survey of changes in first-year student opinion.” Journal of Further & Higher Education 23(2): 157.
Cousin, G. (2006). “An introduction to threshold concepts.” Planet(no. 17): 4-5.
Hussey, T. and P. Smith (2010). “Transitions in higher education.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 47(2): 155-164.
Jansen, E. P. W. A. and C. J. M. Suhre (2010). “The effect of secondary school study skills preparation on first-year university achievement.” Educational Studies 36(5): 569-580.
Mehta, S. S., J. J. Newbold, et al. (2011). “WHY DO FIRST-GENERATION STUDENTS FAIL?” College Student Journal 45(1): 20-35.