Using an action research framework to inspire change in university teaching and learning

I sit in my office with a university colleague who has come to me for advice on the low student evaluations. As the Curriculum and Learning Design Leader, I have become part of the “process” supporting academics in improving the overall student satisfaction outcomes in this Faculty. This lecturer is suffering from the predictable dismay and dejection (Arthur, 2009) as a result of a very negative evaluation. They had acquired in their teaching load – what by this Faculty’s standards, was a poorly performing first year unit (Student Evaluation Teaching and Learning [SETL] scores below 80%). Working to revitalize the Unit, they had come up with an innovative approach for teaching, using assessment as learning (Black & Wiliam, 1998), with utterly disastrous results – a further 20% drop in SETL scores!.

In reviewing the innovative attempts, I note that they had overstepped what is possible in the context (Hammersley‐Fletcher & Qualter, 2009). More than the allowed 3 main assessment tasks (there were 7), extra tutorial requirements, and additional lectures, none of which students like! I raise these issues with the Academic. But they question my observations. However, as I explain, these are not my constraints, but the Faculty policies and processes. They then ask me what can be done.

Action Research Reflection

It is at this point that I invite them to be part of a wider university teaching and learning group using Stringer’s Action research model (2008), to explore the use of technology in university education. We discuss how this might work, taking into consideration what they have already put into place. Reflecting on what worked, and what failed, we come up with the idea of using videos in the unit. Utilising Kay’s (Kay, 2012) framework of videos (that I used successfully with a psychology colleague see abstract of conference poster here), we come up with a series of videos to be implemented to create a more intentional and explicit approach to teaching and learning in the unit, supporting the use of a staged e-portfolio assessment task. The academic leaves my office feeling re-energized, and ready to give it another go.

But these conversations have me reflecting again on this part of my role in the Faculty. Conversations discussing an academic’s teaching evaluations are difficult. Often their ideas are sound. But they respond as if I have called into question their academic identity (Hammersley‐Fletcher & Qualter, 2009), their professional freedoms, and their skills and knowledge to choose what and how to teach. I am learning that by using the action research methodology, which I have often used in my own research (see here), that it gives them the opportunity to re-consider their options ‘safely’. And university policies, previously overlooked, become part of the data collection stage in the next iteration of the cycle.

Within a Framework

Many years ago, as a new lecturer first starting out on the academic journey, we used to talk about the teaching-research nexus of course delivery and research-led teaching, not policy generated practice. Yet, these days I often find it is university policies driving my teaching and learning conversations!

One area I have been working on, is developing a theoretical framework for curriculum development. It incorporates an action research paradigm, to guide academics through the morass of the broader contextual requirements. Such as university policies, professional accreditation, as well as feedback from course and teaching evaluations for quality course delivery. The framework includes exploring the use of threshold standards in course design (Krause, Barrie, & Scott, 2012), similar to the inclusion of professional standards in the Initial Teacher Education degree, for the improvement of both the teaching and learning in a course of study.

Or a fourth way?

a fourth way in higher education?
A fourth way in higher education? Adapted from Hargreaves & Shirley (2009)

As part of my exploration of the theoretical framework for course development I find myself pondering how we might implement Hargreaves and Shirley’s (2009) Fourth Way in Higher Education. I want to understand how we can balance together the external systems demands – from governments, accrediting bodies and University policies; public engagement – our students and industry groups; and the needs of the academic professional, in a way that restores confidence in the sector, demoralized by measured performativity (Ball, 2012), and to support student learning.

One way forward for me is to continue to work with academics in researching meaningful learning and mindful teaching. Encouraging them, through an action research framework, to engage emotionally with their teaching, and to stay related and purposeful in their approach towards their students (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009).


Arthur, L. (2009). From performativity to professionalism: lecturers’ responses to student feedback. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(4), 441-454. doi:10.1080/13562510903050228

Ball, S. (2012). Performativity, commodification and commitment: An I-spy guide to the neoliberal university. British Journal of Educational Studies, 60(1), 17-28. doi:10.1080/00071005.2011.650940

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London, United Kingdom: School of Education, King’s College.

Hammersley‐Fletcher, L., & Qualter, A. (2009). From schools to Higher Education – neoliberal agendas and implications for autonomy. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 41(4), 363-375. doi:10.1080/00220620903211570

Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (2009). The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kay, R. H. (2012). Exploring the use of video podcasts in education: A comprehensive review of the literature. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 820-831. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.01.011

Krause, K.-L., Barrie, S., & Scott, G. (2012). Mapping Learning and Teaching Standards in Australian Higher Education: An Issues and Options Paper. Teaching and Learning Standards: Issues and options paper. 

Stringer, E. (2008). Action research in education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.

A Fourth Way in Higher Ed?

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