Writing about teaching

I am in the middle of writing what will hopefully be my 5th pedagogy paper. So far, I have written an evaluation of my final year module Topics in Biodiversity and Evolution [1], an experiment looking at using students’ smartphones as an alternative to ‘clickers’ [2] and two co-authored papers, one on how tutoring students to ‘ask a question‘ in their essays can result in better marks [3], and one that we have submitted on student autonomy throughout their time at university. The paper I am writing now is a continuation of the first one, to try to understand whether iterated assessment tasks can enhance learning, and whether some students benefit more from the Topics assessment approach than others. I have fallen into this research area entirely by accident.

Writing pedagogy papers is a challenge, for more than one reason. Firstly, there is a huge literature out there, which, before I started on this adventure, was completely unknown to me. Finding a way into that literature (where do I even start?), and ensuring you know what is considered a ‘good journal’, and which the important papers are, is as difficult now as it was when I was a first year ecology undergraduate student (when you didn’t know that American Naturalist and American Midland Naturalist weren’t equivalent, remember that?). Secondly, pedagogy papers are not written like science papers. There is often lots more speculation and lots more flowery language. There are lots of unfamiliar terms and lots of grand ideas about what staff and students should and shouldn’t be doing as part of their learning and teaching. There are case studies of practice, where people describe what they do and what students and the people writing the paper think about it (a bit like my Topics paper).

So when I am writing, what should I do? Do I need to adopt the language of these papers, or can I stick with a more familiar, more scientific approach to writing? Can I use the same types of statistics that I would use on fish data, when what I am seeing are often the sorts of simpler stats which would have a behavioural ecology reviewer asking whether you’d ever heard of a mixed effects model and if not, you need to learn, now. On the other hand, sometimes, their statistical approaches are ones that I have never used, or even heard of, yet which seem to be the standard in that particular field (and on reading about them, sound complicated!). So far, I have treated these papers as I would treat any other paper – I can’t just switch writing style, and anyway, if I want to make my papers accessible to the sorts of people who might be able to learn something from them that they can use in their teaching (university lecturers with science backgrounds, not pedagogy people), maybe I should be using our language.

I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t have wise advice about getting started in pedagogy research. I am finding my way through, and am lucky to have had and continue to have support within my department to continue to do these things, even though they most likely have no REF relevance (although they do have TEF relevance). What I would say is that out there, there are lots of good ideas of things people have done, things that you and I can use in our own teaching. The key thing is finding them and making them work. Got an idea? Someone might have already had something to say about that, so look it up. Maybe there are some useful tips about making it work better. Maybe there aren’t, and you can be the one to get your own useful tips out there.


[1] Morrell LJ. (2014) Use of feed-­forward mechanisms in a novel research­‐led module.  Bioscience Education 22: 70-81 [open access]

[2] Morrell, LJ & Joyce DA. (2015) Interactive lectures: clickers or personal devices? [version 1; referees: 2 approved] F1000Research 4: 64 [open access]

[3] Henri, DC, Morrell, LJ & Scott, GW. (2015) As a clearer question, get a better answer. [version 1; 1 approved, 1 approved with reservations] F1000Research 4: 901 [open access]


One thought on “Writing about teaching

  1. I so agree with your “grand ideas and flowery language” statement. That was a pretty big shock to the system for me. Now two papers down the line my science brain still wants to take over and I struggle with being less concise, so to speak. It will probably be an eternal struggle, or at least until the end of my EdD course (sometimes I think I am mad for doing it).

    My biggest discovery this month has been a new research method using concentric circles instead of standard survey stuff… Mind blowing! Helen Kara describes it here: https://helenkara.com/2017/02/22/concentric-circles-for-gathering-research-data/

    Anyway, like you, I accidentally fell into pedagogy research, but I am enjoying it a lot as it forces me to be open minded towards research-other-than-science!

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