Blog posts

Making transatlantic HE connections at Imperial

Dr Camille Kandiko Howson, Associate Professor of Education

On 11 July 2019 the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship hosted a group of 24 Executive Doctoral students studying higher education management from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. The students are mid-career professionals who have full-time roles ranging from Assistant Provost & Director of University of Florida Online at the University of Florida to Senior Associate Dean of Technology-Intensive Education at Georgetown University and Legislative Director, Council of the District of Columbia, and undertake their doctoral studies at the same time.

The Executive Doctoral students had an introductory session with Vice Provost Professor Simone Buitendijk and Assistant Provost Alan Spivey and engaged in discussion about implementing the Learning and Teaching Strategy. The students were particularly interested in aspects of leading cultural change and funding and finance.

A dynamic panel discussion on Admissions, Widening Participation and Outreach followed with Catherine Eames, International Student Recruitment Manager, Andrew Tebbutt, Director of Student Recruitment and Outreach, Caz Ulley, Head of Student Recruitment and Marketing and Mel Williams, Director of Admissions and Student Support. Debate included the characteristics that were included under the ‘access and widening participation’ banner, how outreach and admissions teams work in parallel, and the Exec Doc students were surprised to learn about the multiple levels that Imperial engages with through its outreach activities.

Following lunch, staff from the Centre and the Educational Development Unit participated in an active research networking session, sharing topics of study, current projects and similarities and differences in the US and UK systems. Imperial research and teaching staff and doctoral students benefited from speaking about their current research and learn from fellow students. Contacts have already been made from the event and future collaborations are in discussion.

The day concluded with an invited session on UK HE Politics and Policy from Professor Andy Westwood, Vice Dean for Social Responsibility, Faculty of Humanities, University of Manchester. There was lively discussion and debate about global challenges facing UK and US higher education, the challenges and opportunities for research intensive institutions such as Manchester and Imperial and ways that higher education can help foster connections across increasingly divided societies.

The visit highlights the leading role in evidence-based higher education research and scholarship that Imperial is investing in, and the global reach of the activity.

Enhancing engagement in medical education

Nikki Boyd, Senior Teaching Fellow in Medical Education

This year’s Annual Scientific Meeting for the Association for the Study of Medical Education (ASME), ‘Sustainability, Transformation and Innovation in Medical Education’ was held from 3-5 July at the SEC in Glasgow.

Building on my interest and experience in promoting inclusive learning environments, I facilitated a ‘Pop-Up Event’ on the second day of the conference on the topic ‘Sustaining medical students’ engagement and well-being through positive and inclusive learning and behaviour management strategies’. The aim of the ‘Pop-Up’ feature is to enable specific opportunities to network and share ideas with those interested in the same issues, and I was privileged to be joined in my session by colleagues from universities in Saudi Arabia and South Africa (as well as from across the UK) from a broad range of medical education backgrounds, all of whom shared a passion for sustaining student well-being and enhancing the learning experience.

Nikki standing in front of her presentation

My session centred around an activity which encouraged delegates to compare the merits of particular approaches and strategies for enhancing and sustaining engagement, and discussions within this elicited a range of important considerations of pedagogical, institutional and professional relevance as well as those specific to the immediate dynamics of the learning and teaching environment. Such discussions enabled colleagues to generate ideas about the priorities for further development and research in this field, and for me to signpost the EDU’s online resources on managing inclusive learning environments and their importance in supporting one of the key pillars of Imperial’s Learning and Teaching Strategy.

I would be very happy to discuss this more in person. If you would like to find out more about the Pop-Up Event and the approaches and strategies discussed in the session, please do get in touch.

A spotlight on Imperial innovation in Newcastle

Dr Tiffany Chiu, Senior Teaching Fellow, Educational Development Unit

Last week, I and other Imperial staff attended the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference at Northumbria University in Newcastle. This year’s theme was ‘Teaching in the Spotlight: Innovation for Teaching Excellence’. The aim of this conference is for practitioners and researchers to share and explore innovative teaching practices and pedagogies in different areas of focus in higher education, which contributes to teaching excellence and the quality of student learning. The area of our contribution was under the strand ‘Innovative practice that aids transition and retention’.

Freddie Page and I presented our use of the ‘ideal’ university student survey  to facilitate discussion on staff and student expectations of university students as part of induction exercises in the Dyson School of Design Engineering and how it has contributed to an inclusive and supportive culture and community. This is one of the key agendas of Imperial’s Learning and Teaching Strategy: “we share an ambition to build a community that is supportive, inclusive and diverse”. Being able to initiate this kind of conversation with students, we promote and encourage greater transparency between lecturers and students on the expectations of university students, contributing to support students with the transition from school to university. This survey is part of an ongoing educational research project which looks into views and expectations of what it means to be a university student, from the perspectives of students and staff across UK higher education institutions. You can find our presentation slides here: Ignite_Advance HE_TC-FP presentation

Our experience at this conference was wonderful – there were a lot of interesting and practical ideas for learning, teaching and assessment practice, amongst many other aspects in higher education. We attended some sessions on induction exercises and something we took away from them is that it is important to think about how we can better support students to develop their sense of connectedness and belonging at the early stage of their journey at Imperial, as this is one of the key influences on student success.

We’d be happy to talk more about this in person. If you would like to discuss how you can use the ‘ideal’ university student survey as part of the induction programme in your department or at any stage of the student learning journey, please feel free to get in touch with us:

Dr Tiffany Chiu

Dr Freddie Page

You can also have a look at the blog post we co-wrote on managing student expectations and understanding of what it means to be an Imperial student via Learning and Teaching Strategy blog.

The scientific iceberg

Sophie Rutschmann, Senior Lecturer, Department of Medicine

This time last year, I was in the midst of my first educational research project. As a student on the MEd ULT, I had completed my ethical approval, was finishing my interviews and transcribing them. I remember thinking that this was the tricky part, but I now know it was just the tedious one. Analysing the data, doing justice to the personal experience my participants had openly shared with me, and importantly trying to answer my research question in the least unbiased way were the challenges yet to come. I later also realised that, had I read more of the relevant literature before, I could have written sharper interview questions or picked a much narrower topic to investigate. In hindsight, I was merely re-discovering the struggles inherently associated with research, just in a new field. But by that stage, not too much could be done, so I ploughed on.

So what?

So what was this ‘broad-but-close-to-my-heart’ research project about? Since focussing my career on education, I have been exploring ways to bring our daily professional activities into the classroom. Why? Because I profoundly believe that there is no better way to learn than on the job: there must after all be a reason we all became good critical scientists without having had a single specific critical thinking class! My everlasting quest has therefore been to identify educational events from our everyday professional lives and reproduce them in the classroom. Some of these activities, like chatting around a coffee and ‘exchanging ideas’ will come naturally to our students! Some, like giving them the opportunity to freely use the scientific method by designing and executing their own mini-research project in our teaching labs, requires more planning. Some will also need careful preparation, such as allowing students to discover the hidden side of science, to realise that old-timers (that’s us!) can be challenged and can be wrong (hopefully not all the time!), and that science is full of controversies – something we do not talk about enough in the classroom but which, according to the PhD participants in my MEd project, is truly transformational in terms of critical thinking. This idea of a hidden but transformative side to science, that I called the ‘scientific iceberg’ (see illustration below), was recently presented at the Advance HE STEM conference in Birmingham, a presentation followed by some thoughtful discussions with peers from other HE institutions.

What next?

With a recently reviewed curriculum and based on the results of my MEd project, I have the incredible opportunity to take the next cohort of MSc Immunology students on a journey to explore the immersed part of the iceberg – to ‘drill’ and see with them what can be found in the carrot. Adapting Halpern’s model of teaching critical thinking to this idea of scientific iceberg, I have designed a series of activities which will hopefully help my students (and others?) develop their critical thinking skills further.

So I’m now back to square one: applying for ethical approval to not only evaluate the impact of this activity but also research whether the drill, directly inspired by the experience of newcomers in our community, has a positive impact even without the time, or trial and error factors we all know are key to learning on the job. So hopefully more to write about in another year’s time!

Power dynamics in student staff partnerships – a RAISE special interest group event

Mike Streule, Director, StudentShapers

I recently spent an interesting afternoon with other Student partnership practitioners and students engaged in student partnership initiatives at a half day meeting discussing power dynamics in staff-student partnership work at the University of Westminster. In recognition that our institutions instil a strong hierarchical structure amongst staff, and that generally the students fall beneath staff in that hierarchy in many contexts, provides us with a troublesome backdrop against which to facilitate student partnership projects. This backdrop leans towards uneven power distributions amongst co-workers on projects with the power bias typically leaning towards the staff. A thought provoking keynote talk by Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone extended this further, recognising that various characteristics such as gender, race and nationality could contribute further to the power dynamics amongst co-workers and create a complex intersectionality.

Student partnership often cites the desire for partnerships to operate in a model of reciprocity, and of mutual trust and empowerment within the project. But taking all these multi-dimensional power distributions, it is unlikely, perhaps impossible to truly have an even distribution of power amongst a staff-student co-working team. Perhaps, even, it is unethical to do so – should we totally de-legitimise the Professorship that an individual may have ‘won’ when all the statistical data would suggest they (according to their characteristics) were unlikely to do so?

So where does that leave us? Staff-student partnership should none the less be intentionally disruptive to the power relationships between staff and students, at least within the context of the project. And such disruption is likely to be potentially uncomfortable to staff and students, but also incredibly valuable. It gives greater agency and legitimacy to the student contribution to a project, and serves as a valuable learning experience that students may encounter again, and the experience directly aligns with some of Imperial’s graduate attributes.

Closing the meeting included an interesting discussion around the post-partnership relationships that staff and students might assume. Perhaps the balance of power shifts heavily back to the staff partners as future assessors of a student’s work or degree outcome? One can of course not retract a lived experience of partnership, but merely acknowledging a (temporary) disruption to the pre-existing power hierarchies by both staff and student is valuable in being able to, in some capacity, resume pre-existing power balances. Importantly however, working in, and developing the student partnership space can in time challenge the institutional power dynamics between staff and students and develop them into a more productive arrangement.

Imperial’s student partnership programme StudentShapers is growing and is part of the work of the Learning and Teaching Strategy to facilitate staff engaging with students as partners.  A roundup of the day, including Panopto recording will be added to the University of Westminster website soon. Feel free to get in touch at

Keeping it real: a search for efficacy and authenticity across paradigms

On Wednesday 16 January an enthusiastic audience gathered for the inaugural lecture of Professor Martyn Kingsbury, Imperial’s first Professor of Higher Education, Head of the Educational Development Unit (EDU) and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship (CHERS).

Martyn’s autobiographical lecture focused on his journey from school in rural Devon to studying Applied Biology at the University of Bristol and gaining industrial experience in both forensic science and veterinary diagnostic biochemistry. He then completed a PhD at the University of Bath on the cardiovascular effects of atenolol and nitrendipine. After a post-doc position at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, Martyn moved to Imperial College London by way of St Mary’s Hospital.

Martyn Kingsbury presenting on stage

Photography by Fergus Burnett

Drawing on the parallels between efficacy and authenticity in pharmacology and education, Martyn told the audience about his transition from scientist to educationalist through participation in the CASLAT (Certificate of Advanced Study in Learning and Teaching) programme, which eventually lead to his appointment as Head of the EDU in January 2011. Martyn thanked those who he had worked with along the way, some of whom – including his PhD supervisors – were able to attend the lecture.

Concluding the lecture, Martyn formally launched the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship, which will provide a home for educational research across all faculties at Imperial College, promoting existing ventures and helping those interested in research to started through resources and networking opportunities.

Referring to his experience of Japanese culture, Martyn marked the start of the CHERS venture by filling in the first eye of a Daruma doll, remarking that ‘I hope over the coming years, we will fill the other one in as we become more outward looking and have an ever-greater voice in STEM education in the UK and hopefully, beyond’.

Martyn Kingsbury drawing an eye on a red Japanese Daruma doll
Photography by Fergus Burnett

Dr Jane Saffell, Deputy Principal Education at St George’s University of London and previously Associate Dean for Science & Postgraduate Education at Imperial gave a strongly deserved vote of thanks in which she referred to Martyn’s patience, passion and ambitious vision for the new centre.

If you missed Martyn’s lecture, you can watch it on YouTube. Follow the centre on Twitter @Imperial_CHERS

A PhD in educational research: making the transition

Luke McCrone, PhD student, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

If someone had told me 6 years ago that I would one day be studying for a PhD in Higher Educational research at Imperial College, I would have smiled back at them in disbelief.

My acceptance of one of the first PhD studentships under the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship illustrates an important point: educationally speaking, we have come a long way in a relatively short period. Yet being new to this field has required me to adapt. Given that educational research adopts paradigms from psychology, sociology and philosophy, the approach to methodology, data collection and analysis is initially alien to a geoscientist like myself. Learning about these fields has made me recognise the transformative potential of putting yourself out of your disciplinary comfort zone.

My previous experience representing students and living among student hall residents has granted me a window into the realities and challenges of the modern-day learner at Imperial. Students are now learning, socialising and spending their ‘spare time’ on virtual platforms. This is forcing us to review how we design space, pedagogy and curriculum to keep ‘distracted’ students engaged. My anecdotal experience would suggest that students see value in learning with others since they often do it all by themselves outside of the classroom, hence my support for active modes of pedagogy which encourage students to discuss and critique information, not just receive it via didactic transmission. The World Economic Forum similarly states that the development of critical thinking, social intelligence and analytical thinking skills will be most attainable using active learning strategies.

Through my PhD, I hope to build upon my previous experience by investigating how students perceive and engage with physical, curricular and cognitive educational ‘spaces’. My methodology (phenomenology) therefore supports the incorporation of my preconceptions when collecting and analysing data. My preliminary data is showing something interesting: learning activity inside the classroom influences culture and behaviour outside; ‘formal’ learning therefore frames ‘non-formal’ learning. This may seem relatively obvious, but how we teach and organise learning vastly influences the way students continue to interact outside of the formal setting (independently, in groups or not at all). Ensuring students have access to ‘non-formal’ space, be it common rooms, breakout spaces or cafes, is crucial. If we think carefully about the skills, knowledge and behaviours we wish to instil in our graduates to be adaptable lifelong learners, then a holistic view of physical and curricular space design is paramount.

Educational research and the broader social sciences are receiving increasing national limelight. A £10m initiative between the Wolfson Foundation and British Academy was recently announced as one of the largest grants of its kind for the humanities and social sciences. This stands as evidence for the increasing importance placed on research into not only Higher Education, but also the wider social sciences and humanities.

I look forward to reporting continued updates about my research. If anyone has any questions or ideas then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Luke McCrone, PhD student

6th International Academic Identities Conference 2018, Hiroshima

We – Jo Horsburgh, Martyn Kingsbury and Monika Pazio – have recently returned from a trip to Hiroshima, Japan, where we presented at the 6th International Academic Identities Conference 2018 at Hiroshima University. The conference theme was ‘The Peaceful University: aspirations for academic futures – compassion, generosity, imagination and creation’ and offered us a forum for discussion of how academics’ relationships with students are changing and how those changes affect the role of the university within society from a variety of international perspectives.

Monika and Martyn along with Caroline Clewley from the Department of Physics presented on their research into staff- student partnerships with UROP students, in particular the use of visualisation to target abstract key concepts within Physics and other STEM subjects which students struggle to gain a deep conceptual understanding.

My presentation focussed on my doctoral research into the professional identity development of medical educators, in particular the similarities and differences between different groups of medics in how they develop their identities between different communities of practice.

As well as attending the conference in Hiroshima, on our trip to Japan we also made time to visit colleagues at the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education at Tohoku University in Sendai. During our visit we discussed active learning pedagogies and the work of Carl Wieman as well as common approaches to learning and teaching at our respective institutions. A return visit is being planned for later this year where our colleagues from Japan will meet with and learn from the learning and teaching community at Imperial College.

Jo, Martyn and Monika meet with colleagues at Tohoku University

Dr Jo Horsburgh, Principal Teaching Fellow in Medical Education


Welcome to our blog. We’ll be writing about education research at Imperial, including conference reports, projects we’re undertaking and updates on resources and events to help you develop your own research.

For more information about CHERS, please visit our website.