Leading and uncovering… research ethics

Since I am trying to highlight examples of good practice and find out what is possible (as well as what the obstacles/challenges are), is it ok for my interview questions to lead towards uncovering examples of good practice?! Or are ‘leading’ and ‘uncovering’ two quite different things?! My participants will know that I’m trying to test for students as partners in knowledge construction, so of course I need to probe. But if I begin by looking at small details in order to (potentially) help them see the possibilities that I think I see, is that unethical leading? Beginning with the big question is likely to overwhelm people, surely, as well as skew their responses towards doubt? Or perhaps using less huge words/concepts in the first, nonetheless big, question would get around this? Here are the thoughts so far:


Students as partners in knowledge construction – interview questions


(In what ways) are students your partners in knowledge construction?

How do your students contribute to knowledge construction in your discipline?

What is your special area of (research) interest in your discipline?

How is knowledge constructed in this area?

How do you construct knowledge in this area? In what ways do you contribute to knowledge construction in your discipline?

Do you think that your own processes of knowledge construction in this discipline are typical of others’ processes in the same field?

(How) do your students play a part in this? What part(s)? How? Why? What are the limits to the part they play? Why?


[as a researcher, how do I get around (i.e. NOT persuade, but avoid the obstacle of people resting on the (I think) lazy belief that students have to be brought up to a certain level in order to contribute at all? PPerhaps by going in at another angle, e.g. starting with the positives, valuing the small things that students do…]]

Do your first year UG students ever pleasantly surprise you (in their thinking/reading/sense-making/questions)?

For example, do they ask interesting questions in class? When they ask about the subject matter, what kinds of questions do they ask? Do they ask questions that surprise you? Why do they surprise you? Can you give me some examples of how they express their questions? How do you respond? Do you ever surprise yourself with your answers? In what way? Can you give me an example? Do they make connections between topics or elements under study that you yourself have not made? they ask? How often? Can you illustrate this with an example?

Do they do this in their writing? How often? Who? (How) do you promote this in your teaching and support for learning?

Another example:  Do they include interesting sources in their reference lists that are new to you? How often? Who?

[Maybe each of these examples are explored and then after that I follow up with questions like ‘who? Can you characterise the students who do each of these things? Are there any themes/trends, e.g. the ‘brighter’ ones, the more motivated ones, the more privileged ones…? Can you make any generalisations? I’d be hoping they’d find that all students did one or other of the above at some time or other]

So they do/don’t pleasantly surprise you in their thinking about the subject matter. Do they challenge your thinking, for example, by contesting what you say or what you have written?

What about your other UG students, the second and third years, do they offer more surprises and challenges in relation to the above? Why? In what way(s)? Please can you give me an example or two?

What would you define as a contribution to knowledge construction?

Would you consider any of the above examples of your students’ thinking as a contribution to knowledge construction?

So do you think that your students can be your partners in knowledge construction? [Tom suggests I start with this and then go the ‘if yes…’/’if no…’ route] How? Why? Are there other ways in which they can be partners in knowledge construction that we haven’t mentioned above? Why/why not? What do you see as the challenges, obstacles and limits to this? Do you think there are missed opportunities in your practice [separate question] and/or in the University’s practice? What are they and what do you think could be done about them?


Thanks to my mentor for facilitating my process of annihilating my own constructions with my own constructions. What IS partnership in teaching and learning? Is teaching antithetical to partnership? I wasn’t arguing with Freire for the removal of the teacher, rather with Biesta (I thought) for a teacher who prods and pushes. But what does a partner do? 

An unusual enquiry

Assim brought a personal statement to me for feedback on his writing. He wants to change courses, from civil engineering to international relations. He’s decided it’s not physical, but social and political, bridges he wants to build in his native Afghanistan.

Students as partners in knowledge construction: nailing the research method

I just had a great tutorial with JW, and find that I am able to convince her that I have good reason for the research choices I’ve been making, and she was also convincing and thoughtful in her challenges, and we were both open to the other’s thinking, so it felt like an all-round good partner-learning interaction. We provisionally agreed a compromise – that I might pilot two different data collection methods, go with whichever is more successful in terms of yielding sufficient quantity of meaningful data from different voices, and submit my ethics request accordingly (with two information sheets, one with ‘interview’ in and one with ‘questionnaire’. (She also suggested I use ‘you’ in my info sheets, not ‘staff’.) As ever I am of course complicating things. Where IS that simple life? She suggested that 5 interviews would be enough should I just take that route. The following are the key questions I need to address to get my research proposal approved:

Why use a questionnaire rather than an interview?

To spread the net wider – reach more voices from more variety of disciplines, so that possible patterns in disciplinary ways of knowing/epistemologies can emerge, as I think they might inform people’s practice and beliefs really significantly (compelling reason #1)

To include national LDHEN colleagues, to see whether mine is a uniquely Learning Development perspective (compelling reason #2)

To be more neutral – less leading and persuasive 

To get more data (but will I actually reach sufficient respondents in actuality?)

Why use an interview rather than a questionnaire?

To tease out more depth of discussion (compelling reason #2) can I do this without leading? Is this riskier than with a questionnnaire, or not?)

For flexibility – to allow the discussion to go in an unexpected direction (compelling reason #1)

To better help people explore potential in their practice (but this is leading)

To open people’s minds more to possibility (and so is this)

To clarify ambiguities (compelling reason #3 – getting a questionnaire clear with subtle, complex (‘slippery eel’) aims and questions like mine is going to be very tricky – although I don’t know whether my super-complex physical presence will help with clarity either!)

How will people feel about giving up time on their own as opposed to sitting down with me? They may find it easier to find their own time to do it in, even though some of the sample may be happy to sit down with me, and find it easier…

Can I pilot both? How? With whom? When? 

CAN I GIVE PEOPLE THE CHOICE OF HOW TO DO IT? If so, would an interview need to be strictly structured so that the data could be comparable to the data yielded by an electronic questionnaire? (In that case, the only benefit of offering an interview option would be that some people might be more happy to sit down with me – the other benefits would largely not be present; one exception to this might be that I would be there to clarify ambiguities – but then again, the data would not be strictly comparable; am I comparing data? Are five cases anything to generalise on anyway? No. So what would this yield? It would be a way of ensuring that I had data from at least 5 voices. ‘We have to get the data’ somehow, she said.)

What might be the benefits of a structured interview as opposed to a semi-structured one?

JW also suggested I draft the questions in full in order to decide, which seems like a great idea, and I’ll develop these asap, perhaps here. Considering our discussion and the above questions with her and here in writing I’m thinking that this is perhaps a 3-phase project:


Phase 1 (testing the water formally): 5 semi-structured interviews

Phase 2 (spreading the net): more numerous questionnaires (informed by the interviews)

Phase 3 (digging deeper and narrower): triangulation in 2 contrasting case studies

Hmmm… off to the Writing Cafe to explore what students think creativity looks like in academic writing…

Knowing and thinking, science and art: (how) can students be our partners in knowledge construction?

This post will be bitty – mostly early thoughts in notes form about my upcoming PGCert research project (30 credits, draft proposal below), and I’ll add to it as I go along (I hope).


Project Proposal Form


You are required to submit a 500-word project proposal and application for ethical approval. We will provide formative feedback on your project proposal, and the outcome of your application for ethical approval by 17th February 2014.


Project Title:


Knowing and thinking, Science and Arts: (how) can students be partners in knowledge construction?

Research Objectives:


To identify possible links between lecturers’ epistemological beliefs and the development of their students’ higher order thinking (HOT) skills

To consider disciplinary differences





Overview of aims and objectives (250 words max):


Teaching and teaching-related practices in HE can help develop students’ HOT skills, but this is [no mean feat]. This project aims to construct a preliminary understanding of how teaching and learning may be shaped by lecturer beliefs about knowledge and how this might impact on the development of their students’ HOT skills. It aims to highlight areas of challenge as well as showcase examples of good practice. It will focus on lecturers in two different disciplines, one STEM subject and one Arts/Humanities subject. It is hoped that this may offer some insight into possible disciplinary differences and/or similarities in intellectual values (thinking skills, attributes and ways of knowing), approach (curriculum and assessment design) and practice (teaching and supporting learning) that affect the outcome (student HOT skills development and their contribution to knowledge construction).

Overview of methods (250 words max):





Interview (semi-structured, pre-seen questions/questionnaire, to be completed before interview, and finalised in or after interview?) 2 experienced lecturers who are known teaching and learning champions (in order to examine what’s really possible)

–        How they position themselves epistemologically (positivist, interpretivist, constructivist etc.)

–        What they understand knowledge to be

–        What they understand their role in knowledge construction to be – when do they do it, how etc.

–        What they understand their students’ role in knowledge construction to be (to the students’ own knowledge; to the lecturer’s knowledge; to the common/global/disciplinary pool of knowledge)

–        How they support their students’ in making contributions

–        Which HOT skills they employ in their discipline (Bloom’s revised taxonomy? Others? Biggs and Tang table?)

–        Which HOT skills they aim to develop in their students

–        How they do this in their teaching and teaching-related practice (session-planning, curriculum/module design, assessment, feedback)


Analysis of relevant DMRs (identified by the lecturer to illustrate points made in our interview) to triangulate: (how) do they support the lecturers’ aims in relation to the students’ HOT skills development?


Hold 2 focus groups, one for a random(?) sample of students from the module(s) identified as relevant by each lecturer, in order to compare the lecturers’ aims with the students’ perspective of his/her impact on their HOT skills

–        What they understand knowledge to be

–        How this particular lecturer has helped them develop their understanding of what knowledge is

–        What they believe their disciplinary HOT skills to be

–        How this particular lecturer has helped them develop these skills

–        Whether/how they feel they contribute to knowledge construction (to their own knowledge; to the lecturer’s knowledge; to the common/global/disciplinary pool of knowledge)



Today I just wanted to post the fruits of a slightly crossed-purposes conversation I’m having with an interesting PhD student who suggested I consider Kolb’s experiential learning cycle as a model for my research. I don’t understand how he envisages this – it doesn’t seem to make sense to me, but articulating my objections to him has helped my thinking, as ever. That of course is one of the key points in my own project – how someone with little/lesser/different knowledge of an object of study can really valuably stimulate thinking so that we can consider coming at the object from a  different angle. So my reply to him was:

‘There are certainly potential uses for Kolb’s model in teaching. I wonder whether it could be used in focus groups too, but I’m concerned that in this or any research, an approach like this would result in the researcher undesirably influencing the participants’ thinking. In some ways I’d like to do that, but that would come after! This may be desirable to some (most? All?) teachers, but mine is an investigative study – I want to get people reflecting on their thinking, knowledge and beliefs, without directing that. So I’ll be guiding their reflection, but not the objects of their reflection: their thinking, knowledge and beliefs. Wording my questions is going to be tricky of course!’

So it was really helpful to work out that it is the process of reflection that I as the researcher am guiding the reflection, rather than (obviously) guiding the object of the study (their ways of knowing and thinking in their discipline) – this conversation has helped me separate out those two things!

I’m increasingly realise that I am asking a lot of the participants – digging into tricky intellectual territory, so I definitely think that I should send questionnaires before conducting interviews so they have time to digest (or withdraw)! I’m concerned that they might give one answer to the questionnaires and then another in our conversations, so I will have to consider how to guard against this – I think?

10 Freewriting for session planning

‘Doubt is the origin of wisdom.’ Descartes (cited in Danvers’ guide to writing a literature review)
I’m really enjoying freewriting as a quick and productive way of generating ideas as well as working them through and finding solutions. I’ve used it with a student in a couple of tutorials, as has my boss, and it feels really good so I want to get students to do much more of this. I’m grateful to Andy for his comment ‘follow it through, Sentito’. I made a similar remark to a lecturing colleague I was observing, and need to reiterate it for myself again here: believe in your idea, follow it through, because it is worth following through, it is a good idea… And doubt? Crikey, some big issues there… 
Anyway, fruits of the latest freewrite:

Think critically, write confidently

(2 hour workshop as part of a student counselling programme, with students from all over)

Freewrite 1 What I would like students to know is…

…kind of a false start because I don’t have anything in particular I’d like them to KNOW through this workshop… depending on what we mean by ‘know’… I’d like them to know (or feel) that they CAN, to know how and where to start, to know that what they know is a great start, to feel… to feel to feel… to feel confident what makes a writer feel confident knowing/feeling that they have something to say, knowing what it is that they have to say, knowing that someone will hear, who will hear, who is their reader is a key part of this workshop to thinking about dialogue and who the other might be the friendly other who is not all-knowing because no-one is which comes back to questions of epistemology so epistemological questions below may well have a place in helping these participants feel confident these participants come from everywhere in the university so some will have more experience than others although all are likely to feel under confident or at least to want to boost their confidence and how can i help them do that by getting them to have a go to see and therefore feel that they can and someone recently commented on how freewriting helped her feel that she could at least get words out so this could be a good starting point with what prompt? with the prompt that explores their own confidence or lack of confidence soulsearching could this be too touchy feely or dangerous even what if really thorny stuff comes up that is not about writing and thinking in HE well the we might have a really good discussion about thinking writing speaking and being heard in society which would be a great and productive session in itself as I can bring it back to study and to how they feel when the have to tackle a tricky piece of writing.

Freewrite 2 What I want students to experience is…

writing as easy writing as fun writing as thinking writing as achievable writing as collaborative writing as sociable writings as meaningful writing as useful writings as thought-provoking writing as learning writing as social writings as thinking thinking thinking think critically write confidently have confidence in your thinking by knowing that you can follow the steps of logic but also depart from it and that intuitive leaps may take you in all sort of directions and raise unexpected and unexpectedly valuable questions that offer solutions to the problems that your writing is supposed to be addressing and how you will know what problems your writing is supposed to be addressing is by interrogating your assignment brief and trusting you process of interrogation but students won’t be bringing assignment briefs on the day so can i set up the whole workshop with an example assignment brief that is for a short essay which they will work on in the sessions would they bring devices no i can’t count on that and am not able to invite them to do so in advance and i really should check whether i wrote a blurb for this workshop already…

Freewrite 3 writing as easy writing as fun writing as thinking writing as achievable writing as collaborative writing as sociable writings as meaningful writing as useful writings as thought-provoking writing as learning writing as social writings as thinking…

writing as creative writing as critical writing as comment writing as speech so what kind of activity could be fun and informal but also help them experience and refine their practice of academic writing i.e. they need to be creative and involve their own beliefs, values and opinions but also draw on evidence , check assumptions, unpack tricky concepts, use theory to explore uncertainty and somehow resolve it and write academically ha ha i know, they could WRITE AN ESSAY! so what forms are there – abstract, title get them to write essay titles… one possible essay title could be ‘think critically, write confidently’ – they have to write their own ‘essay’ on what this means to them; what kind of resources could they draw on within the hour (each other, i.e. they could ensure they (correctly) reference at least one other person’s opinion, analysing and drawing on it; which would mean that they’d have to raise a tricky question to take to a classmate and then expand their own ideas around that of the person they’d interviewed; this would be a mini research project as well as an enquiry… so if I gave them the title of ‘thinking critically, write confidently’, they might translate it into questions such as

what does it mean to think critically?

what does it mean to write confidently?

what does it mean to think?

what does it mean to write?

what does critical mean?

what does confidence mean?

how do I achieve it?

how can the people in the room help me achieve it?

so i could give them time to write down a particular question and then take that question around the room asking everyone and then write their own paragraph on that

what kinds of questions would they raise? the above? what kinds of questions would they raise if I gave them the opportunity to freewrite on the title and then formulated a question from there?

  • What is knowledge? How is it constructed in your discipline?

  • What is fact? How is it determined?

  • Who is involved in knowledge construction? What is the role of the student?

  • What part do criticality, creativity and reflection play?

  • What does it really mean to be a student of your discipline?

  • What are the implications of all this for study practice?

Students will go through an essay writing process as follows:


receive brief


study brief

translate into questions

identify overarching question

take question(s) to the resources (each other)

interview (each other) and make notes

review findings

write title and 150 words


exchange feedback

reflect on process and implications for their own study


9 Many a true word…

Yesterday a student asked me the meaning of a word she’d heard mentioned a few times at university: ‘curiosity’. She was not joking.

This morning a lecturer took the word ‘discuss’ out of an essay brief because three of his students went away and discussed it together. He said he set them straight. He was only partly joking.

This afternoon the powers that be asked us to stop thinking so that we could do more. No joke.