GIHE Teachtalk - Research Based Learning

Research based learning has an ancient history. In the days when itinerant scholars wandered around sharing their knowledge with whoever would listen, the link between what they 'knew' as experts was pretty much the same in structure and content as what they 'taught'. Books were rare, expensive and relatively inaccessible. People learned by listening to the teacher.

As knowledge became more and more specialised, and learners sought systematic thematic teaching, a new band of specialised teachers began to emerge. Sometimes groups of these teachers settled in one place, students came to be taught and paid for their tuition. A few of the world's great universities originated that way. The teachers accepted responsibility for becoming masters over a body of knowledge, organising it into chunks (the curriculum) and then 'imparting' this to students. It was not necessarily assumed that any of the knowledge taught came from the teacher's own thinking, observations or experiments.

Teachers consciously set out to become experts in a field of knowledge, at least partly with the intent of later conveying it to students. As this practice became more common, teachers began to see themselves as professionals at imparting the knowledge. They were collectors, classifiers, distillers and disseminators of (existing) knowledge, but not necessarily creators of what they taught. It did not matter how much, if any, of what they taught was original. Over time, the activity of creating knowledge became separated from the activity of distributing it to students. One could teach without being able to generate new knowledge, or create knowledge without being able to teach it.

Today's universities, on the other hand, especially those that are research-intensive, create and validate original knowledge as a matter of course. It is core business for them, and has high status in academia. But teaching also remains core business. In a university setting, it should be theoretically possible for what is taught to make first-order contact with what is happening on the research front. Teaching and research can then be viewed as complementary rather than disjoint activities.

The assumption behind the idea of getting research and teaching aligned is that students should graduate not only with knowledge and skills necessary to practice in a profession or to undertake further study but also with an appreciation of the nature of their discipline, how knowledge is advanced and how it is used in society. An important part of the learning is that knowledge is not fixed for all time, but malleable and somewhat tentative at any given point in time.

Griffith University strongly encourages research-based learning and teaching, and has formulated and adopted an explicit policy on it. Here is the definition in the policy:

Research based teaching is an approach to academic program design and implementation in which students are required to make explicit intellectual and practical connections between:

  1. the content and skills that are characteristic of their programs, and
  2. the research approaches and frontiers of the underlying disciplines.

Griffith University policy definition

In the higher education literature, you can find other terms related to the same idea: research-led teaching; research-enhanced teaching (or learning); research-informed learning; teaching-research nexus.

Royce Sadler, GIHE