Tina Overton discusses the need for scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education

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Teaching-focused chemists in higher education need to be able to carry out scholarship of teaching and learning if they are to build a case for promotion and progress in their careers. This requires a whole new way of thinking. How can we help them? 

A new phenomenon

I have recently joined a new institution - a dynamic, world-leading university, and I am pleased to say that teaching and learning is very high up the agenda. I am working with some enthusiastic colleagues, many of whom are described as education-focused. 

There is an increasing number of teaching and education-focused staff at many institutions. It seems the increase in such staff is occurring predominantly at research-intensive institutions, something we may not have predicted ten years ago. 

As I’ve been around for a while, I often receive requests from such colleagues to provide a reference for promotion. So I have been lucky enough to see the ‘teaching’ promotion criteria from many of the great academic institutions across the world. These criteria almost always claim to be looking for ‘scholarship’ and even ‘pedagogic research’. They want peer-reviewed papers, conference invitations and evidence of national and international prestige. 

The fact that these colleagues carry the lion’s share of the teaching burden is not explicitly recognised and many teaching-focused staff think they will be rewarded for doing loads of teaching, doing it extremely well and making an outstanding contribution to the student experience. 

They are likely to be disappointed. 

But I do support the need for scholarship to progress in the academic world. In my view, scholarship is what defines a university and differentiates what we do from the schools and colleges sector. What we need is support for teaching and education-focused staff to learn how to carry out scholarship of teaching and learning and pedagogic research. 

Sharing expertise

There is a particular need in the sciences, where the research training received during a PhD and the early stages of an academic career are no preparation at all for pedagogic research. It is easier for our colleagues in the arts and humanities, where a social science research paradigm is more common. But pity the poor chemist burdened with a crippling teaching load, trying to find time to think about theoretical frameworks, epistemological worldviews, ethics, qualitative methods etc. 

We need to support each other and share expertise in order to give such colleagues a fighting chance of getting started. They need help to at least understand the language and then to see how a different approach to research can help them gain insight into what is going on in their classrooms and in students’ heads, and to begin to gather data that will transform their scholarly practice from evaluation of a ‘happy sheet’ into something that they would be proud to submit to, say, Chemistry Education Research and Practice

So how do we go about that? The Royal Society of Chemistry made a good start with its previous ‘Getting Started in Pedagogic Research in Higher Education’ workshops. But we need more. There are some useful guides that provide shortcuts for busy scientists. We need to share them. And we need to collaborate. 

Quality scholarship inevitably draws on data gathered from more diverse sources than one classroom on one campus with one tutor. We need bigger data sets from diverse environments. That means better papers with more named authors. It also means we get higher quality understanding of how we can teach chemistry more effectively. And, I hope, it means that more of our colleagues will be promoted for work in the vital area of teaching and learning. 

Tina Overton is a professor of chemistry education at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia

Further reading

E Cleaver, M Linten and M McLinden (eds), Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Disciplinary Approaches to Educational EnquirySAGE Publications Ltd, 2014

M Grove and T Overton (eds), Getting Started in Pedagogic Research within the STEM Disciplines (pdf).  University of Birmingham, 2014

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