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Challenges faced when using enquiry-based learning – Staffing

Addresses staff-related difficulties that arise when using enquiry-based learning

Cloud created by:

Peter Kahn
21 October 2009

•    Learning based around research requires significant levels of supervision from members of staff.

Response 1 – Use PhD students, contract researchers, technicians or other professionals

Research-intensive departments usually involve people other than academic staff. We see PhD students, contract researchers, technicians and others. It may be possible to make use of these colleagues as teaching assistants or in other support roles, given their own expertise in conducting or supporting research.  While the available time of such colleagues is still limited, it is important to remember that they may receive other benefits, as in assessing whether they wish to pursue an academic career or in forming their identity as a researcher.   

Support should be offered to these colleagues if they are asked to supervise research or student work related to aspects of a research process, ideally with initial training on the need to facilitate rather than direct student work, opportunities to socialise with colleagues engaged in similar roles, and so on.  

Response 2 – Require students to conduct enquiries in groups  

The time demands on members of staff are moderated when students work in groups rather than on an individual basis. Group work is also usually desirable in that it makes students articulate the challenges involved and allows them to support each other in carrying out the work.  The capacity to work within a group is furthermore an important skill for employability.

Group-work is particularly suited to research that requires the completion of a number of different tasks or that necessitates students taking on different roles. And it is ideal in cases where the students in the group bring with them different forms of expertise that are required by the task (e.g. interdisciplinary group work that draws on the different discipline-bases of the students involved, language learning where native and second-language speakers are paired together). (See the separate briefing note on students working in groups.)  

•    Colleagues are either not used to students engaging in research or are unwilling to make the necessary adaptations to their teaching.

Response 1 – Make a convincing case within the department

Colleagues need compelling reasons to adapt their practice, and thus any decision to make greater use of research-led learning should be carefully judged at the departmental level. Student recruitment may be an issue: programmes that involve extensive use of research-led learning are often seen as more attractive by potential students, improving the levels of recruitment of high calibre or international students. Or a professional body may be pushing for students to master a range of skills and capacities that are best developed through experience of research.
Reasons may also exist at institutional level for departments to give serious and substantive consideration to a greater use of enquiry-based learning.

Response 2 – Ensure effective socialisation around enquiry-based  learning

If teaching is viewed simply as an isolated activity then colleagues may still find it difficult to overcome the many challenges that one faces when seeking to employ research-led learning. Good practice already developed by colleagues can make a significant difference, as can constructive discussions about potential ways forward or about what works well in the given disciplinary context.   

But the sharing of ideas and good practice is unlikely to occur of its own accord when discussions between colleagues focus most naturally on research or on shared administrative tasks.  If any significant increase in the uptake of research-led learning is to result, then a range of triggers will be required, whether roles, structures, events, scheduled discussions or so on.

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