It is easy to assume that all HE teaching will be research-led. But this is not always the case. Lecturers may automatically assume that their teaching and research are two completely separate entities; others, more rarely, may be obliged to be generalist in their teaching because of issues with student numbers or staffing levels. But there are many benefits to research-led, or even research-informed teaching, for all concerned – teacher, student, and institution.
Start from the basics
When building specialist modules it is very easy to lose sight of your audience. Try to assess both their starting level, and the level of expertise you might reasonably expect them to achieve in the field or area you yourself have been working in for so many years. Remember what it was like for you when you first started in the field, and consider, too, how this area of knowledge might fit with the subjects or modules they might have studied previously, or be studying concurrently. In other words, you need to give students both a way in, and a context, to your research specialism.
Let your enthusiasm show
Once you have carefully done the groundwork and established the basic parameters of the field, do not be afraid to allow the students to see for themselves how exciting academic exploration and discovery can be. Let yourself get carried away from time to time – your vibrant engagement with the subject will be a powerful and persuasive example to students looking for inspiration and deep knowledge.
Invite your students into the discussion
It may be rewarding for you as well as your students if you ask them to consider some of the debates taking place in your field. Such debates might be large, and very complex; they may therefore offer an excellent opportunity to teach your students to be unafraid of complexity, and to embrace nuance and ambivalence in argument.
In other words, exposing students to high-end, cutting-edge debates (in moderation, and depending on the student level) can benefit students by showing them that sometimes the formulation of questions matters more than finding clear-cut answers. The realization that sometimes there is no ‘right answer’ can be a very important step in a student’s intellectual development.
In addition, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the perspective students bring to an issue you have been wrestling with for many years. Fresh new approaches may not bring answers, but they may allow you and others to reformulate old questions in illuminating ways.
Take the opportunity to introduce your research methods to your students. This allows them not only to begin to pursue their own independent study, but also to evaluate material more rigorously. This approach also gives them the keys to exploring the world of advanced research (enabling them to make good use of research papers and academic journals in their own study, for instance).
Use your own outcomes
Build your own research sources and outcomes into your teaching, where appropriate. For example, if you have complied a database with visual outcomes, share this with your students, both in class and via a VLE if available. Books and research articles may be too advanced to be designated as primary texts, depending on the level of the module, but can nevertheless be incorporated into your suggestions for further reading. Both you and your students will benefit from their using material you have written or edited yourself.
Look to the future
Exposing students to your research specialism in your teaching is also a way of building capacity for your discipline. Even at the early stages of an undergraduate career, a student can be inspired to pursue his or her own research career at a later date. Remember, recruitment for MA and even PhD programmes can begin far earlier than in the final months of an undergraduate degree.
Research-informed teaching v research-led teaching
If, however, you are unable to devote entire modules to your specialist field(s), you can still find plenty of ways to use your research expertise and skills to inform your teaching. Think of your teaching as ‘research-informed’ rather than research-led. Consider ways in which you might introduce part of your specialist area into a module. In particular, think about how students might be exposed to research methods or techniques that they can then be encouraged to apply to their own study and research.