Depolarisation of teaching and research, reflection through action research at a traditional university

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Teaching and research responsibilities are considered to be complementary, yet distinct tasks of academic staff in higher education. The general belief that research and teaching are inextricably intertwined is simplistic – the measurable outcomes of teaching and research are actually quite different. Academics are expected to be good researchers and effective lecturers, whereas the factors that influence professional development emphasise research. It is therefore not surprising that there is constant tension between the attempt to maintain a balance between the recognition of teaching responsibilities and the recognition of research responsibilities, and that it is something of a challenge to ensure that both get the necessary recognition.

Only 27% of the total of enrolled students complete their degrees in the minimum time, while almost 40% leave the system without completing their qualifications. Although not directly linked to poor teaching, these statistics unquestionably highlight the need for a better understanding of teaching and learning situations and exploring ways to adapt the learning process in order to improve the throughput rate. The poor throughputs rates, along with other challenges in the education system, such as underprepared students, multilingualism and rapidly developing technology, require academics to continually take stock of their scholarly approach to the teaching of their discipline. Contrary to the view that students are unprepared for higher education, there is a strong challenge to access and use the unique knowledge and skills that students bring to the classroom to enrich the learning process.

While the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) movement and the literature have grown considerably and gained momentum during the past two decades, the introduction of a new initiative like SoTL at a university, does not take place overnight, and an integrated approach is required to ensure that capacity and support are available, and that policy and practice support each other. The purpose of this study was to determine whether investment of a university in SoTL would succeed in promoting the relationship between teaching and research. Action research is used to investigate the establishment of SoTL at a traditional university. The core questions that arose were:

  • What are the critical success factors for the sustainable implementation of SoTL at a traditional university?
  • What is the impact of a focus on the research output of SoTL?
  • What formal and informal structures are needed to support SoTL?

SoTL evolved from a basic scientific education in a discipline, but it is not the same as excellent teaching. It meets the following additional criteria in the context of the promotion of learning:

  • It requires high levels of discipline-related expertise.
  • It requires an understanding of who the students are, how they are learning and what the most effective practices in the context of the discipline are (pedagogical content knowledge).
  • It generates new knowledge and innovation.
  • It can be repeated and extended.
  • It is documented and exposed to peer review.

The objectives of SoTL include:

  • Creating an awareness of, and interest in, how students learn.
  • Applying the discipline of teaching and learning.
  • Improving students’ experiences by following a scholarly approach to teaching and learning.
  • Improving the quality of teaching and learning by empowering academics in reflective teaching.
  • A planned increase in research output in the field of teaching and learning.

The North-West University (NWU) is a multi-campus traditional university. The university was established in 2004 through a politically motivated merger of two universities with very different histories, traditions and cultures, namely the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and the University of North-West. The staff and students of the Sebokeng Campus of the Vista University were incorporated, which further enriched our heritage. However, the cultures, student profiles and development trajectories on the three campuses are not the same. The university's mission is to become a balanced teaching-learning and research university, and to implement its expertise in an innovative way. One of the main driving forces behind the university's mission for the past ten years has been to attract more postgraduate students in order to expand research expertise and establish research niche areas. This has strengthened the perception that research carries more weight than does good teaching. In 2012 it was decided to launch a new strategic initiative, namely SoTL, at the university as one of the strategies to help realise the mission of the NWU. The aim of the focus on SoTL was to strengthen the quality of teaching and learning, as well as to distinguish the NWU from its competitors through its institutional culture of excellence and focus on the quality of teaching and research. The conceptualising of SoTL at the university is based on the following strategic thrusts, as defined extensively by educational experts:

  • Encouragement of reflective practice and promotion of best practices.
  • Promotion of research and innovative ideas in teaching and learning.
  • Creation of opportunities for discourse analysis on assumptions, beliefs and values in teaching and learning.
  • Support of staff development in teaching and learning by practical experience.
  • Creation of space for cooperation and discussion about teaching and learning across subject fields.

Action research was used as the research methodology. The applicability of the methodology is due to its ability to analyse and explain the institutional process that unfolds during the implementation of SoTL as a new strategic initiative. Data was gathered by studying the progress reports of academics as well as through interviews with academics. The information gathered at the end of each cycle was used to revise the SoTL strategy for the following year. The following three cycles were conducted:

In cycle one a project steering committee consisting of subject chairpersons, the Director of Academic Support Services and the Vice-rector: Academy was formed to steer the project. The project steering committee is launching a project to determine the extent to which current policies and processes at the university support research and teaching and reward, as well as to determine the perceptions of academics in respect of the balance between teaching and research.

In cycle two the SoTL projects were formally introduced; academics engaged in SoTL projects and data was identified through feedback reports. These reports were analysed by the project steering committee and reflected upon to improve the next cycle of implementation.

Cycle three began at the start of the following academic year. In the new academic year, SoTL projects as well as supporting capacity-building workshops were initiated. Data was collected and the findings were analysed. Academics had the opportunity to reflect on the process they were involved in and were invited to make suggestions on how to improve the process.

The following operational changes were made over time to improve SoTL support on the campuses:

  • The funding criteria were revised to support projects for more than one year, provided that satisfactory progress reports are submitted.
  • Projects that include staff members from more than one faculty or campus were encouraged.
  • Projects that are carried out in collaboration with colleagues from other universities were also considered for funding.
  • The types of projects considered for funding were aligned with the strategic priorities of the campus.

The application of SoTL at a multi-campus traditional university was not without challenges. The biggest challenge was to convince staff and management that SoTL is a viable route for academics to pursue, and that they should support SoTL through policy and practice. This study found that critical success factors for the sustainable use of SoTL at a traditional university include the following:

  • Recognition of the importance of SoTL, and the support of it, by senior academic management.
  • The availability of seed funding with clear guidelines and reporting.
  • The creation of platforms where academics can share projects and network.
  • Purposeful processes to ensure that SoTL is recognised as part of the workload and performance agreement of academics.
  • Focused training and support.
  • Policies and reward systems that make provision for the recognition of SoTL projects.

To give due recognition to SoTL it is critical that the tension between the recognition of research on the one hand and teaching on the other is reduced. In addition to monitoring the research outputs generated by academics, it is essential to monitor the impact on student success as well. There is a wide range of factors that affect student success, of which socio-economic conditions and conditions inside and outside the classroom are but a few. A single indicator will never be sufficient to determine the impact of an intervention. Rather than concentrating on quantitative performance indicators, it is recommended that a scholarly approach to teaching and learning should form part of the philosophical approach to teaching and learning at a university. A lecturer’s teaching philosophy describes the beliefs that the teaching approach to the subject and the learning process of the student are based on. The inclusion of SoTL as part of a lecturer's teaching philosophy will serve as a good indicator that SoTL is regarded as an important and enriching aspect of the learning process.

The teaching and learning strategy of the university is being reviewed and the new strategy recognises SoTL as one of the building blocks of the university's approach to teaching:

Promotion of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in order to support learning communities in which academic and professional support staff conduct research into the curriculum, student learning and development, teaching and assessment, and other aspects that impact on student success [quoted from NWU teaching and learning strategy].

The second research objective was to investigate the impact on research productivity by focussing on SoTL. Research findings indicated that SoTL managed to close the gap between research and teaching as two opposite poles and provided academics with a platform for performance and an opportunity to contribute to the enhancement of teaching and learning. It was also found that proactive steps must be taken to encourage academics to engage formally with SoTL. The practice of SoTL was established after three years, but it remains necessary to manage perceptions.

The appointment of a project steering committee, with representation from management, academics and academic support staff, as well as the forming of interest groups contributed to the fact that SoTL gained momentum and grew significantly over a three-year period.

SoTL interest groups have become an important forum for academics to engage in discussions and share ideas. Academics were introduced to SoTL champions (more experienced SoTL researchers). As a result of the interest groups, cooperation between staff members from different faculties grew. These interest groups were not formally created, but developed spontaneously when academics began meeting. The value of interest groups cannot be over-emphasised. Informal discussions on academic projects stimulated new ideas and have led to the continuation of new and collaborative solutions.

These discussions have also contributed to a more informed dialogue with decision-makers, which has often led to improved outcomes and promoted professional development. It is important to shift the focus from a result-oriented approach to teaching and learning, to a professional approach which leads to deeper insights within a discipline. It is a national priority to improve the throughput rate and success rate of students in higher education. Recognition of the scholarship of teaching and learning as a research niche has the potential to improve the quality of education at universities, schools and other training facilities.

"If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got." (Anonymous)

Keywords: action research; Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; SoTL; teaching and learning

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Depolarisering van onderrig en navorsing: Besinning deur aksienavorsing by ’n tradisionele universiteit

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