Tag Archives: research assistant

“Bring in the Graduates” – alumni contributions to HE T&L

By James Derounian (University of Gloucestershire)

As the Times Higher Education put it (2016 online) the “teaching excellence framework will see the government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching in England’s universities.”  Good. It is high time that teaching and research excellence were given parity of scrutiny, importance and reward.

And the UK Government’s Department for Education (2016 online: 19) – in its Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification argues for Student Outcomes and Learning Gain that are focused on the “acquisition of attributes such as lifelong learning skills and others that allow a graduate to make a strong contribution to society, economy and the environment”.

But how will our undergraduates (and then postgrads) magically gain such skills, capabilities and propensities? Why…….from their forebears! What we need is graduate re-cycling in terms of (recent) Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences graduates from particular HE institutions being encouraged to return to their alma mater, in order to offer specialist guest lectures, live projects for assignments, work shadowing; internships; input on how to make the progression from study and university into the world of work. It’s not rocket science, and costs little – but usually just requires a bit of care & time.

In my experience, graduates are flattered and only too pleased to be asked to return to the scene of their earlier escapades! And, of course, (recent) graduates can empathise, since they remember what it was like to be an undergraduate, but they can also provide insight, distance and practical wisdom as to how students may amplify their chances of getting into work (linked to their discipline), and to – hopefully – lead fulfilling lives. Those who have gone before can also connect across from the head knowledge of the classroom to what this means in practice.

So, for example, I have built up medium term relationships with graduates who are also employers close to the campus. In this way the Cheltenham West End Regeneration Partnership (a limited community-based company) has taken tens of my internship students over time, who have each completed 80 hours research and activity towards a discreet project. So geographers have completed door-knocking and research in order to gauge resident concerns and possible remedial actions; others have assisted with bringing fund-raising events to fruition; produced a sustainability appraisal for a microbrewery, indicating ways in which the business can operate more profitably and sustainably. The list goes on.

So how do you increase the likelihood that your graduates’ contributions back into teaching and learning are purposeful – to them and the students on the receiving end?

Here are my suggested ‘top ten tips’:

  1. Select your graduates carefully! Can they communicate (with students?)
  2. Brief them so that they know exactly what you want them to do, for how long, to whom (e.g. level 5 human geographers); how many, where and when?
  3. Make clear the ‘deal’ e.g. will you pay their travel expenses? A fee? Or informally get them a book token as thanks; and/ or buy them lunch?
  4. (As a courtesy) and to ensure smooth-running, be sure to attend the session, and be prepared to steer / prompt questions from the class etc……don’t just abandon them to the ravening wolves!
  5. Ensure that the graduate session fits into the academic coherence and running order of your module and contact sessions.
  6. Prepare the students by ‘flagging’ – several weeks in advance – that on a particular date/ class a graduate will be contributing, and how this will benefit students (and their assignment preparation!); twist their arms to attend! It is excruciating if a grad turns up and only half the class is there; most embarrassing all round
  7. Give plenty of notice to a would-be graduate contributor…..e.g. at least 2 or 3 months, so they can prepare, clear attendance with their boss, book time off etc.
  8. DO ask for their PowerPoint etc materials to ‘capture’ and make available on your VLE (Moodle, Blackboard etc.)
  9. DO thank them verbally & by e-mail….in fact line up a student to do this. Get them to ‘own’ and take responsibility – if they have to make a vote of thanks then at least they will listen carefully!
  10. Offer something in return to the graduate – job references? Comment on an application etc: Something for something.

It’s also delightful to network with graduates – discovering where their careers and lives have led them since they too were in your classroom. It’s such a simple, cheap, effective, empathetic means of benefitting your teaching and learning, your students and graduates. What’s not to like?

References

Derounian, J. (2015) Why does the devil have all the good tunes? How researchers continue to put one over teachers in the HE promotion stakes; British Educational Research Association, May 5 online. Available at https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/why-does-the-devil-have-all-the-good-tunes-how-researchers-continue-to-put-one-over-teachers-in-the-he-promotion-stakes  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

HM Government, Department for Education (2016) Policy paper: TEF Factsheet; Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/550232/Teaching-excellence-framework-factsheet.pdf  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

HM Government, Department for Education (2016) Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification; Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/556355/TEF_Year_2_specification.pdf  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (2016) The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education; Available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmbis/572/572.pdf [Accessed 7.10.2016]

McGhee, P. (2016) Will the Teaching Excellence Framework be a licence for universities to raise fees, Independent 22.8.2016. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/22/teaching-excellence-framework-universities-tuition-fees-tef  [Accessed 10.10.2016]

Oakeshott, M. (1950) The idea of a university, The Listener magazine, 23-30; Available at https://www.msudenver.edu/media/content/facultyevaltaskforce/sources/oakeshotttheideaofauniversity.pdf [Accessed 8.10.2016]

 

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The ‘Geography and Environment Undergraduate Research Assistantship’ – could it work for you?

By Fiona Tweed (Staffordshire University)

The inspiration

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 module

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).

 

References

  • 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.