By Fiona Tweed (Staffordshire University)
Some years ago, I was contacted by an undergraduate from Germany who had heard about my glacial research and wanted to work with me as part of her ‘Research Placement Semester.’ Not having heard of this sort of initiative, I agreed and a productive five months followed in which the student effectively became my research assistant and we managed to complete a number of research tasks that would otherwise have waited for some of my (increasingly rare) ‘spare time’. Struck by how useful the experience was, I designed a Research Assistantship module to fit into our modular structure; I share that experience here as it has worked well for Geography at Staffordshire University over the past few years and others are now using it as a model.
The Geography and Environment Research Assistantship offers students the opportunity to work as a co-learner on a research project, supervised by a member of staff. The Research Assistantship is essentially a research-engaged form of learning and teaching (e.g. Jenkins, 2000; Griffiths 2004; Healey, 2005); it gives students with the aptitude for independent research an opportunity to gain and apply skills associated with the execution of a research project. The project is expected to be centred on a problem or issue that can be examined through fieldwork and/or by library/archival investigation or by the analysis and/or presentation of data that has already been collected. The purpose of the module is not only to increase understanding of the particular research topic, but also to offer students some wider insights into the process of academic research. The module is particularly suitable for those wanting to go on to do postgraduate research or consultancy and addresses a number of graduate attributes and employability goals.
Fitting it into the modular framework
The research assistantship was developed as a final year 15-credit Geography option module. It was designed to be flexible, functioning as a more intensive single-semester module (12 weeks) or as an activity that could run over two semesters, providing that the work contained within it totalled 150 hours. Assessment for the research assistantship is by means of a 30-minute oral presentation to discuss key findings of the project work and a reflective report, including a work diary. The presentation constitutes 30% of the marks for the module; the reflective report is worth 70% of the module marks and has a 1750-word limit. We are currently tinkering with the weightings and word limit on the basis of recent student feedback.
Selecting appropriate students
Projects are advertised at the start of the academic year and potential student applicants are invited to tender an appropriate curriculum vitae and a covering letter. Checking applicants’ skills and aptitudes against the criteria for each assistantship is a key part of the selection process, as it would be for employment. Interviews for the individual assistantships are scheduled if decisions cannot be made on the basis of the written application. Students are counselled about this process when making module choices, as are any students who are unsuccessful in their applications. Staffordshire University has an equality policy to which the selection process for the research assistantship is subject. Successful applicants transfer from one of their options modules to the Research Assistantship within the first two weeks of teaching.
Student, staff and client experiences
We made the Research Assistantship available as a final year Geography option module and have recruited 3-7 students each year. To-date, we have had 38 research assistantship students who have been engaged in a wide range of research assistantships working with members of staff in Geography and more widely in the University, as well as with external clients. Student feedback has been consistently outstanding; the module: “was a brilliant opportunity”, “gave me a chance to thrive in the academic environment”, “has allowed me to grow”, “was a great and rewarding experience” and “gave more freedom and independence to make the work my own”. Several students also remarked that being a research assistant had boosted their confidence, that they had enjoyed practicing professionalism and that they welcomed the sense of responsibility that the experience had given them. Staff members said that working alongside a student research assistant was rewarding and gave them a chance to reinvigorate their research. Staff have worked with a research assistant and used the research as a springboard from which to develop grant applications, commenting: “Research assistants performed vital tasks that would have been very difficult for me to find time for otherwise. It goes to show how effective undergraduate students can be in assisting staff to do research.” Several staff have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to engage in research in conjunction with the students, i.e. the ‘co-learning experience’ (see Le Heron et al., 2006). External clients comments centred on the reciprocal nature of the work, the usefulness of being able to “tap into student knowledge” and the fact that the assistantships “help the client to conduct research in an environment where resources are scarce”.
So, what are the challenges?
If there are any cautions, they concern i) selecting the right student for the nature of the work that needs to be undertaken; ii) keeping a firm eye on progress; iii) careful monitoring and planning to ensure that students have clearly defined tasks and outputs; and iv) realistic expectations on behalf of all parties. Feedback from external clients also underscores the need for effective time management on behalf of the client as well as the student and “the need for the client to be sensitive to the student’s array of work for other modules”.
Enhancing graduate employability
Employment has been secured as a direct result of assistantships; for example, a student working on sustainable building materials went on to work for the firm for which he had done research and another research assistant took a job with the council with whom they had worked. Several graduates who did assistantships are now establishing ‘second generation’ research assistantship relationships with us as external clients. The module has given students the opportunity to gain advanced understanding of the intellectual and methodological basis of a particular research question, to acquire research skills and to be part of a co-learning environment.
Spreading the word
I have written up the development of the module as a research paper (Tweed and Boast, 2011) which has recently been selected for inclusion in a Special Interest volume ‘Pedagogic Research in Geography Higher Education‘, to be published by Routledge in November 2015. I have also disseminated the experience of designing and running the Research Assistantship at staff development workshops and at national events. At Staffordshire University, the student research assistantship model has been adopted by Biological Sciences who are using it on their Masters awards; it has also been adopted by undergraduate Psychology who are using it at second year undergraduate level. I have received a number of requests to share the experience of implementing this module with academic staff from other HEIs; if you’re interested, please get in touch. If you are running a similar module I would also welcome exchange of experience and ideas. For more information on the design and development of the module, please see Tweed and Boast (2011).
- Healey, M. 2005. Linking Research and Teaching to Benefit Student Learning. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 29, 183-201.
- Griffiths, R. 2004. Knowledge production and the research-teaching nexus: the case of the built environment disciplines. Studies in Higher Education 29, 709-726.
- Jenkins, A. 2000. The relationship between teaching and research: where does geography stand and deliver? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 24, 325-351.
- Le Heron, R., Baker, R., and McEwen, L. 2006. Co-learning: Re-linking Research and Teaching in Geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30, 77-87.
- Tweed, F. and Boast, R. 2011. Reviewing the ‘Research Placement’ as a means of enhancing student learning and expanding research capacity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 35, 599-615.