Using ‘Research-Based Learning’ to Enhance Doctoral Skills Development
At the recent Vitae Researcher Development International Conference myself and Neil Willey presented a workshop outlining our approach to a new module aimed at doctoral students. The Prezi we used can be found here:
In October 2012 in the Graduate School at UWE we started running a new module for doctoral students that we hoped might enhance their experience of personal and professional skills development. Perhaps a bit ambitiously, we hoped it might help solve a number of commonly perceived challenges including; the separation of research and skills development activity, the provision of credit for the full range of skills development activities and the delivery of skills development for students who spend most of their time away from the university. The module is called ‘Research in Contemporary Context (RCC)’ and we used ‘Work-Based Learning’ modules at UWE to inspire its design as a ‘Research-Based Learning’ module. The module booklet with details and an introductory ppt are embedded below – what follows are some thoughts of how we designed it and how we run it.
Work-based learning embeds learning in a workplace. It usually involves an interaction between work activity and university-based sessions that results in the development of professional competencies. It’s widely used to deliver professional practice qualifications. We reasoned that there was an analogy with doctoral students developing skills – their research was their work and skills development their university-based sessions, which should interact to develop professional competencies expected in researchers. A potential catch was that we needed a set of professional competencies to provide a framework – which we quickly realized could be Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework.
So, here’s what we do. We have six 3 hour Professional Practice workshops dedicated to RCC on topics we have chosen to match some of the descriptors on the RDF. We also ask that students identify 6 workshops from the UWE Skills Development series. The default module run for students on the module is 2 years and 10 months, i.e. from when they register they have this long to do all the workshops. This is so that students can do workshops when they coincide with relevant phases of their research. Before each Professional Practice workshop we use Blackboard to make material available to students. We then run the workshop with both actual and remote attendance, after which students return to their ‘workplace’, i.e. research. Before the end of their run, students must submit a Reflective Portfolio of evidence for each workshop topic in action in their research or research discipline, and an in depth case study of one of them. If these are satisfactory they are then awarded 30 M level professional practice credits. We chose a Reflective Portfolio because we felt that reflection would not only encourage topics to seem alive in student research but also because most of them were best engaged with by doing them or seeing them in action, reflecting on them, and doing again, i.e. they were based in practice. The advice we give is below.
How does this help with skills development? First, we hope that it embeds thinking about professional practice and skills development in student research, breaking down the feeling that students take time out to do these as separate activities. It also involves supervisors in skills development because students talk to them about it and they help with assessment at the end. Second, students get credits for activities that map directly onto the RDF. We think this not only helps with engagement but also provides a concrete, professional development outcome from the time spent. Third, by providing fully interactive remote access to workshops that support research-based learning, and having students submit their Portfolio electronically via Blackboard, a student can complete the module without having to travel to the university. At UWE more than 50% of our students are PT, and FT students are located on a number of campuses and frequently research off campus, so this has met a real need. In addition, we record workshops so that students can watch them at any time, reminding them of topics as they see them in action.
And finally, we have students from across all disciplines taking the module. This has made for very interesting discussions on many topics and enabled students to meet a wider variety of researchers than they do in, for example, their research group or centre. It’s still early days but we feel that our ‘Research In Contemporary Context’ module is an interesting attempt to overcome some of the challenges of delivering skills development to busy, and often disperse, doctoral students.
I'm a former researcher into the microbiology of the mouth who now runs a skills development programme for other researchers.