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  • Dr Rachel Cowen

Sharing new recommendations for Research Staff involvement in teaching

Written on behalf of Researchers 14 by Dr Rachel Cowen (University of Manchester).

The Researchers14 group of Universities, who collectively employ 65% of UK Research Staff, have drawn on institutional data and experiences, and from national staff and student surveys to make recommendations to support Research Staff involvement in teaching. We aim in this post to provide greater clarity, equity and recognition for Research Staff, their line managers and employing institutions.

Why is this needed?

The significant contribution that Research Staff make to world leading science, research and innovation is clear to see. What is less visible is the increasing contribution that Research Staff play in the wider arena of Higher Education and particularly teaching and learning. The latest national Research Staff survey (Careers in Research Online Survey or CROS 2017) showed over 60% of responders were teaching or lecturing and a similar percentage were supervising student research projects.

There is huge variability in the perspectives of Research Staff on the value of getting involved in teaching and learning. Views range from those who see teaching as essential to research and a valuable career enhancing activity to those who view it as a distraction and threat to their research and career trajectory. Research Staff perceptions are often influenced by the culture within their organisation and research teams and the views of their line manager and PI which may chime or, more unfortunately, clash with their own.

To add to the confusion the value that institutions place on Research Staff teaching is rarely explicitly stated. Institutional guidance and policy on Research Staff involvement in teaching and learning differs between and within UK institutions. Research staff experience inequalities in accessing teaching opportunities and teaching and learning training and support. In most cases there is an absence of processes to monitor and reward Research Staff who teach. CROS 2017 showed that over one third of Research Staff disagreed that their institution recognises and values their contributions to teaching and student supervision.

Research Staff, particularly in STEM subjects, are usually 100% contracted to work on their externally funded research project, and this is also cited as a barrier to teaching. Conversely, many Arts and Humanities and part time Research Staff, or Research Staff “between contracts”, may be sustaining their research activity through a series of teaching contracts. The majority of funders place the ball in the institutional court, leaving it up to local arrangements. However, some funders, for example, Research Councils and Cancer Research UK state a maximum of 6h/week or 10% of time may be spent teaching provided it is related to the research project.

Key Recommendations:

1. All Research Staff should be made aware of teaching and learning opportunities within their institutions and be encouraged to engage in teaching activity by their line managers/PIs.

2. Teaching hours, including associated training, preparation, marking and examination, may vary but should be in line with funder recommendations of 6 hours a week

3. The process for selecting Research Staff to be involved in teaching should be fair and transparent. Recruitment should be based on teaching and assessment requirements and on the individual’s skills, knowledge and experience.

4. Research Staff should be acknowledged for their teaching responsibilities during annual Performance Development Reviews and through institutional reward and recognition schemes e.g. promotion, teaching awards.

5. Research Staff should be supported to engage in teaching training, mentoring and peer review. They should also be encouraged to seek teaching accreditation e.g. through Higher Education Academy Fellowship

What are the benefits?

Through the blog post we also wanted to encourage a broader view of teaching and the benefits it can bring to Research staff and their institutions that we and others perceive or have observed.

(1) Getting involved in teaching makes researchers better at research

There are numerous ideas from roman philosophers to Einstein supporting the notion that 'while we teach, we learn' (Seneca, Rome, 4 BC – AD 65). Teaching can give researchers a deeper understanding of their subject and the process of explaining theories and ideas to students forces researchers to reflect on their own ideas and approach. The naive questions that students ask challenges researchers to question theories and assumption in their field and can drive creativity and new avenues of research.

Similarly, there is no question that research creates new knowledge and contributes to a constantly evolving teaching curriculum. Therefore, we may view teaching and research as intrinsically linked and mutually beneficial encouraging all staff to get involved in both including Research Staff. Funders have developed postdoctoral research fellowships and postdoctoral teaching fellowships (more commonly in the US). Maybe in the future joint postdoctoral research and teaching fellowships may be available to Research Staff as a springboard to a teaching and research lectureship.

(2) Supporting Research Staff to teach enhances the student experience and supports the research impact agenda.

Many of the developers in R14 are also responsible for postgraduate researcher (PGR) development. We frequently hear from the PGR community how valuable research staff are as teachers and mentors supporting them, informally or formally as part of their supervisory team, through their research project. This is supported by our national Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) data which shows that research staff enhance the PGR student experience. This is exemplified by anonymous quotes such as “The support and supervision from post-doc research assistants within the lab is invaluable”

To ensure high quality teaching and supervision from Research Staff many of the R14 institutions have developed teaching and supervision training. For example, introductory through to advanced teaching training covering teaching theory and practice, assessment and feedback as part of the Research Staff Development programmes. Many of us have also established accredited teaching programmes, for example, my institution's Leadership in Education Awards Programme (LEAP). This is open to Research Staff and PGRs who have some teaching experience and would like to apply for formal accreditation. Through the LEAP they are mentored and supported to prepare and submit their portfolio of evidence for assessment leading to a national teaching fellowship award through the Higher Education Academy.

As a mentor and assessor on LEAP I see first-hand the significant contribution that research staff make to the teaching goals of my institution. I encourage Research Staff to think beyond their undergraduate lecturing experiences and to recognise a broader array of teaching approaches including public engagement and outreach activity. All of this is clear evidence of teaching and learning in Higher Education and has informed their journey as an educator. This has opened the eyes of Research Staff who believe they have limited opportunities to teach and would not be supported by their line manager to teach. However, they feel fully supported to get involved in activities that engage patients and public with their research. Therefore, in my institution teaching support and accreditation is driving the research impact agenda.

(3) Teaching can increase the employability of Research Staff and expand career horizons

Teaching can enhance the CV and employability of Research Staff in many ways. In the 2014 Getting the First Lecturing Job report by AGCAS (expert organisation for higher education and student career development and graduate employment professionals), some evidence of teaching was identified as a key skill, although the type and extent of experience varied by discipline.

A formal teaching qualification may also be advantageous when applying for lectureship with the majority of institutions looking for accredited staff, so that they can provide evidence of teaching quality in their future Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submissions. We are all supporting increasing numbers of Research Staff as they gather teaching evidence and gain national teaching qualifications, for example through Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Many have a narrow view of teaching in HE and incorrectly focus on the quantity of teaching they have done rather than the quality and breadth. So we must encourage them to be strategic with their time.

Research Staff also consolidate a range of transferable skills though teaching increasing their employability beyond HE. These include communication and how to engage with a range of audiences, interpersonal, organisational and leadership skills.

My personal experiences are testimony to where teaching can take you. I was a cancer researcher and Fellow who dipped a toe into postgraduate teaching, initially as a favour to a colleague. These early teaching experiences were nerve wracking but exhilarating and I found the skills and career development aspects of the teaching immensely rewarding. When funding became available to establish a Research Staff Career Development Programme I had the experience and passion to apply for the role. Ten years later I find myself as a teaching focused Senior Lecturer, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and co-founder of a Centre for Academic and Researcher Development.

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