Student motivations and challenges when integrating research with teaching

By Tine Damsholt and Marie Sandberg

Research-based teaching is a good thing! This is the immediate reaction expressed by a majority of students. When we conducted short interviews with approximately 100 students from 35 different subjects from the faculties of Humanities and Science in 2014-2016, the dominant point of view that they expressed was that the integration of research in teaching makes teaching better and more relevant: ‘motivating’, ‘really great’, ‘engaging’, ‘the best way to learn’, ‘really awesome’ were among the many positive statements we encountered. When questioned more closely, recurring reasons were that integration of research and teaching ensures that you are taught the most recent research of current interest, that teaching becomes more inspiring and inclusive, and that it becomes more evident how the things that you do are relevant and useful for others in contrast to the more school-like accomplishment-based teaching.

However, upon closer analysis of students’ statements, it also becomes apparent that beneath the surface of this positive understanding, there are both important nuances and crucial differences in the motivations the students refer to when explaining why the integration of research and teaching is a good thing. That which acts as motivating in relation to one student may act as just the opposite in relation to another. Motivations - and reservations - are diverse and, in the following, we will briefly present some patterns in this diversity in student motivations (called rationales) by way of which integration of research with teaching is understood and experienced; including the specific challenges and possibilities that these different rationales pose and offer. Our overarching point is that there will always be a plurality of rationales present in the classroom setting, and that teachers should, wherever possible, consider these different motivations, when planning and organizing a research-based course. Likewise, learning objectives should also be communicated in order that (where possible) they may make sense within several different rationales found amongst the students.

1) Within the development-oriented rationale – it is crucial to enable the continued development of one’s own understanding, and to be able to contribute to the discipline and the research. In this respect, integrating research with teaching may seem immediately relevant but seems to be particularly useful when students are involved in posing new, open and critical questions and, thus, contribute to the development of the discipline and research; also when it takes them down a road less travelled or on detours. Within the development-targeted rationale, integrating research with teaching appears less useful if it becomes too 'school-like' and a matter of repeating or reproducing already-known answers or research results.

2) Within the job-oriented rationale – where the crucial element is future career opportunities and therefore how exam requirements can best be met. Consequently, the integration of research with teaching must preferably be relevant in relation to a future job market (e.g. with the view to acquiring the latest knowledge and methods), but this must not be at the expense of the focus of the teaching and its relevance to exams. Consequently, the integration of research with teaching is found to be of no relevance if students do not expect research to form part of their future work or if the research is not presented as having clear-cut relevance in relation to the exam.

3) Within the application-oriented rationale – where the most important element is gaining tools and knowledge that can be applied in practice. In this context, the integration of research with teaching is relevant if it yields hands-on experience, methodology and process tools that can be put into practice and make a difference outside the academic world. The integration of research with teaching does, however, not seem relevant if it does not result in specific competences, if you are not actively involved in it or if the research only is of relevance in a narrow university context detached from ‘reality’.

4) In the profession-oriented rationale – where the most important element is entering a specific profession. In this context, the integration of research with teaching is regarded as relevant when it becomes a way to acquaint oneself with a profession or forms an essential part of practising the profession oneself. The integration of research with teaching does not seem relevant if it becomes too narrow and not immediately appears to form part of the profession in question.

Among students taking the same course, relevance and applicability may, thus, be about as diverse matters as the development of the student and the course, about immediate utility value in relation to the exam and job markets, hands-on experience that is applicable in 'the real world' or that it forms an essential part of a specific profession. Conversely, research integration may appear irrelevant and 'non-applicable' in just as many different ways.

Students’ motivations are crucial to the success of integrating research and teaching, but there are many and conflicting kinds of motivations or rationales. This means that the integration of research and teaching should preferable make sense in several ways at the same time, something which is easier said than done. The relevance of integrating research with teaching is not self-evident to all students - it must be articulated and motivated.

As the job market for university graduates is wide and still developing, there will be a need for both specialised researchers, intermediaries who possess broad general knowledge and competent convertors of research methods as well as professional practitioners in the future. And the integration of research with teaching can be useful and relevant to them all during their university studies. The integration of research with teaching must, however, be qualified and justified in several and targeted ways, instead of being taken for granted as being obviously useful and applicable as well as self-explanatory.