Category: Research

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!

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