A selection of research projects lead by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education

Theme 1: Learning, teaching, assessment

Evaluating the impact of HE curriculum reform on race equality gaps

The University of Kent is collaborating with Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO) to evaluate the impact of diversifying curriculum on the race equality gap in higher education. There are persistent racial inequalities in higher education (HE). One such inequality is that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students typically achieve lower marks in HE than their White peers. Funded by the Office for Students, TASO is an independent charity that plays a key role in the sector in generating evidence of "what works" in terms of enhancing race equality in higher education.

Some researchers argue that the ‘whiteness’ or Eurocentricity of the curriculum may explain why these gaps in attainment exist. Through this project, TASO and the University of Kent aim to establish whether reforming the curriculum to make it more diverse will increase attainment in BAME students. We also aim to understand whether reforming the curriculum improves the experience of BAME students in terms of their engagement with module content and satisfaction with the module. TASO will cascade both the findings and details of the curriculum reform to the sector to inform practice.

We are evaluating the University of Kent’s curriculum reform intervention known as the ‘Diversity Mark’ initiative, an institution-wide approach to creating modules that offer a diverse and inclusive range of resources for their students via their reading lists. We are particularly focusing on five modules within the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research that were deemed to have diversified their curricula in 2018-19 and are included as treatment modules in this study. Analysis will take the form of a matched difference-in-differences on the attainment trend of the diversified modules with five selected comparator modules in the same school. The primary outcome measure will be the module level attainment of BAME students in diversified modules compared with attainment of BAME students in matched comparator modules. White and BAME students from a subset of both intervention and comparator modules have also completed surveys on their perception of the cultural sensitivity of the curricula, their engagement with the modules, and their satisfaction with the modules. Results are expected in early 2022.

What shapes career interest during university?

Helping students clarify their career interest and plans is a vital role for universities, yet responsibility for supporting students’ holistic interest development can fall outside the remit of both careers services staff and academics.  Academics focus on students’ interest in their subject while career services staff focus on helping students plan for careers.  Through this collaborative project, we aimed to develop a more integrated view of students’ career development through a focus on students’ interests and how those can be supported.

Funded by a £4977 grant from HECSU, James Corbin, Kathleen M. Quinlan and Lindsey Cameron have investigated if and how students’ career interests change during university and how different aspects of what students experience during university – curricular opportunities and disciplinary practices, co-curricular opportunities, family and home influences, and students’ perceived career possibilities – influence those changes.

See the final report at https://luminate.prospects.ac.uk/how-and-why-do-students-career-interests-change

For a summary for practitioners, see: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/student-career-choices-are-not-a-simple-a-to-b/

For more information, contact Kathleen M. Quinlan, K.M.Quinlan@kent.ac.uk

International students who teach

International students who teach: A creative approach to supporting them and evaluating this provision

This project was funded by a small grant from SEDA and investigated the experiences of international postgraduates who teach; specifically examining their adjustments experiences and the challenges and learning journeys they have undertaken teaching in UKHE, using a creative approach.

We situated our work in relation to research that investigates challenges experienced by international postgraduates in UKHE (Brown and Holloway, 2008; Matheson and Sutcliffe, 2017; Rizvi, 2010; Wu and Hammond, 2011), studies into HE teacher training (Wood, 2000; Ho, 2000; Trigwell and Prosser, 1996) and specifically Winter et al’s (2015) work on how international students experience challenges and benefits associated with training as GTAs.

We examined the efficacy of existing support for international postgraduate researchers who teach at our institution. We evaluated the creative approaches we used to understand international students’ experiences. We shared our findings to initiate discussions about the benefits and limitations of our model of support.

Please see the final report and the toolkit that resulted from the study accessed as an open educational resource.

Developing a framework for powerful student learning experiences

Are there a core set of experiences that all undergraduate students should have in an increasingly diverse university?  If so, what would those be?  Those were the central questions that prompted the development of a Framework for Powerful Student Learning Experiences at the University of Kent.  An extensive consultation, with input from more than 1770 students and over 60 staff members during academic year 2017-18, yielded a framework of six principles that describe what all undergraduate students should experience during their learning journey at the University of Kent.  All Kent students should experience:

  1. Learning that is relevant to their goals, interests, and ambitions.
  2. Practice with and feedback on intellectual skills and active engagement with key ideas.
  3. A challenging, supportive, inclusive environment.
  4. Interactions with diverse peers that support them in learning about their subject, becoming familiar with other cultures, appreciating different points of view, and developing communication skills.
  5. Meaningful interactions with academics, staff or mentors.
  6. At least one “high impact” practice that integrates Principles 1-5, such as a work experience, independent project, public exhibition/performance, study abroad, or series of interactive seminars.

To learn more about each principle, see recommendations for how the university can further embed them, and find links to examples of practices that illustrate the principles, see the full project report. The project was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Education on behalf of the Student Experience Board and the Kent Union.

If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Kathleen M. Quinlan

What triggers' students' interest during lectures?

Lecturing is often touted as a means to inspire students’ interest, yet many lectures fail to do so.  This study, funded through a University of Kent Teaching Enhancement Small Support Award, examined what triggers students’ interest during lectures. Students (N=706) in 12 different one-hour first year lectures were surveyed at the end of the lecture. They described the moment they felt most interested; rated a series of 5-point Likert scale items on their situational and individual interest, and rated features of the content, presentation, and teachers’ behaviour during that moment. Findings showed that students were most interested in those moments when teachers presented new information, prompted students to think (without overchallenging them), and highlighted the usefulness of material (often through stories and examples).  Students’ interest was piqued, too, when they perceived teachers were particularly enthusiastic, approachable, friendly and knowledgeable. 

The project also yielded examples of practices that illustrate the key findings. Findings have been presented in and outside the university, a manuscript has been published in Studies in Higher Education and a second is in preparation.. 

If you would like to learn more about the project or arrange a presentation, please contact Dr Kathleen M Quinlan.

Theme 2: Academic practice

Academia at Risk and in Exile

Enhancing Well-Being and Identity, Building Research Capacity, and Improving Higher Education in Conditions of Conflict and Displacement

Since early 2017, Dr Tom Parkinson has led a programme of collaborative action research with Syrian and UK academics participating in the Council for At Risk Academics (Cara) Syria Programme.  Action research seeks to not only understand but also address real-world problems and improve stakeholders’ situations through cycles of planning, action and reflective evaluation. At Cara’s request, Tom and colleagues have developed innovative participatory methods and action research frameworks to understand the academic development needs, priorities and challenges of Syrian academics living in exile, and directly address these through delivery of community development and capacity building activities on the Syria Programme.  

This research has informed the academic development strategy, methods and reach of the Council for At Risk Academics’ Syria Programme since March 2017, and has helped to improve the academic capacity, connectedness, well-being and professional profile of hundreds of Syrian academics living in exile in Turkey. Participants have developed research and teaching capacity and built networks through a programme of research-informed activities. CSHE doctoral researcher Nidal Ajaj is undertaking an insider ethnographic study of Syrian academic communities in Turkey.   

Tom is currently working with long-time collaborator Dr Shaher Abdullateef and others on the design, evaluation and scaling-up of distance learning provision for learners inside Syria, delivered by Syrian academics in exile/diaspora.  

Between 2020 and 2022, Tom has facilitated (with Marion Heron and Nidal Ajaj) a series of British Academy-funded Writing Workshops to support Syria Programme participants in writing manuscripts for publication.   

Dr Julia Hope and Tom have supported several Syrian academics to apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA), an internationally recognised credential.  

This programme of research and impact activities has been funded through a series of grants of more than £294,126 from the British Academy, the AHRC and the GCRF. 

For outputs related to this research programme, see Tom Parkinson’s profile

WISC - An International Network for Women in Supramolecular Chemistry

WISC (the international Women In Supramolecular Chemistry network) was founded by a small group of academics, including Dr Jennifer Hiscock and Dr Jennifer Leigh from Kent, in order to address equality and diversity in the field. Since its launch in late 2019, WISC has created a website and resource bank, conducted a survey of the supramolecular community, initiated small group mentoring and support clusters for parents, those with disabilities/chronic illnesses/neurodivergences, and 1st Gen chemists. WISC aspires to be an agent of change. We want the work we are engaged in to bring about actions and inspire change from others.

In 1979 Audre Lorde, a self-proclaimed Black feminist, poet, and warrior, said if we want to change things, we need to do them differently. WISC has taken a creative and reflective approach to ongoing research projects to humanise the reasons why equality work is so vital. Our aim is to develop a community and increase its diversity.

WISC has been funded by grants from UKRI as part of a Future Leaders Fellowship, a BA APEX grant, a related Public Engagement grant, the Royal Society of Chemistry's Diversity & Inclusion Fund, the Biochemical Society, Kiel University, the University of Calgliari, and the University of Kent. We want to intervene within a space that is unfair and marginalised, and change the experiences of those entering the field, drawing on feminist and creative research practices to make sure voices are heard, and show the STEM community that interventions like this are worthwhile and necessary. WISC have published a paper in Angewandte Chemie (DOI: 10.1002/anie.202015297) and an article in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemistry World (link tbc)

Ableism in Academia

Rather than embracing difference as a reflection of wider society, academic ecosystems seek to normalise and homogenise ways of working and of being a researcher. As a consequence, ableism in academia is endemic.

Work at Kent has included supporting an event held at UCL in 2018 (conference report here) and an article asking where the academics with disabilities and chronic illnesses are

In 2020 UCL Press published an open access book Ableism in Academia that provides an interdisciplinary outlook on ableism that is currently missing. Through reporting research data and exploring personal experiences, the contributors theorise and conceptualise what it means to be/work outside the stereotypical norm. The volume brings together a range of perspectives, including feminism, post-structuralism, such as Derridean and Foucauldian theory, crip theory and disability theory, and draw on the width and breadth of a number of related disciplines. Contributors use technicism, leadership, social justice theories and theories of embodiment to raise awareness and increase understanding of the marginalised; that is those academics who are not perfect. These theories are placed in the context of neoliberal academia, which is distant from the privileged and romanticised versions that exist in the public and internalised imaginations of academics, and used to interrogate aspects of identity, aspects of how disability is performed, and to argue that ableism is not just a disability issue. The book is available to download for free here

A further volume, Lived experiences of ableism in academia will be available from Policy Press in 2021

Dual Professionals in Higher Education: From Professional Practitioner to Lecturer

Funded by a 2018 Society for Research into Higher Education Newer Researcher Prize, Dr Julia Hope is investigating the transition experiences of disciplinary professional practitioners in the UK who have current or recent industry experience and are making a mid-career transition to being academics (Locke & Bennion, 2009).  These disciplinary professional practitioners (accountants, social workers, journalists) are here termed ‘dual professionals’ and the study addresses the following questions:

  • what supports and hinders their new identity formation as lecturers?
  • how does participation in new communities of practice in HE (e.g. professional development, academic discipline, and their HEI) affect their transition, beliefs and their view of themselves?
  • how do dual professionals’ beliefs about teaching and their transition experiences differ by discipline and by institution?

The intention is to gain a deeper understanding of dual professional as early career academics (ECAs), how their beliefs about university teaching and learning are framed and evolve, and to interrogate their beliefs about being lecturers (Dallí Alba, 2005, Clemans et al. 2010).  This study considers what transition means for these dual professionals, how it is experienced and how the participants perceived institutionally provided professional development contributing to this transition.  The proposed study will explore how their prior experience and embedded tacit knowledge (Eraut, 2000) influence these perceptions and attitudes.  Given that the participants all have a vast store of tacit knowledge gained from their years of professional practice, the study will also look at how this prior experience contributes to their perceptions of and attitudes towards professional development.

If you have any questions, please contact Dr Julia Hope

The final project report can be found here.

Recognise and Articulate Leadership in Learning and Teaching

Through this project, we will investigate the impact of participating in Kent’s new Route to Recognition for Experienced Staff (HEA RRES) on applicants seeking Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).  We focus on SFHEA (D3) as this recognises leadership of teaching and learning.   The UK Professional Standards for D3.VII states ‘Successful coordination, support, supervision, management and/or mentoring of others (whether individuals and/or teams) in relation to learning and teaching. The capacity to support, mentor and assess’. This criterion distinguishes SFHEA from Fellowship of the HEA (FHEA, D2).  HEA RRES engages with colleagues whose practice affects or has the potential to affect other staff and students; that is not a requirement for AFHEA or FHEA. The educational development interventions at D3 are therefore expected to yield much greater gains for the institution than dealing with individual lecturers directly (through FHEA D2 claims). 
This project will measure the effectiveness of HEA RRES, by looking at the participant’s experiences of HEA RRES and the creation of a Senior Fellowship (D3) Claim.  It will generate qualitative data through semi-structured interviews, providing a basis for improving the RRES. The study will allow recent participants of RRES the opportunity to reflect and discuss their thoughts on the contributions of various parts of the Claim process. It will gather the views of participants to understand the possible impact of their participation on both quality enhancement of learning and teaching and the professional development of participants.  In May through to September 2018, interviews will be undertaken with participants from our 1st and 2nd cohorts (i.e. March and June 2018), up to 20 participants from a variety of roles who have completed an SFHEA Claim.  Individual Claims will be discussed with participants as part of the interview.  Questions will be grouped initially around the themes below; motivations to participate, how they engaged with the reflective process (Kolb, 1984) and the impact of developing a Claim on their leadership. 

  • Motivation to complete a Claim for recognition and the anticipated impact of achieving SFHEA
  • Reasons for engaging with HEA RRES, their reflections and perceptions of the process of developing a Claim, what barriers (if any there were to engaging) and any changes to their leadership/collaboration because of the development of a Claim.
  • Impact of the development of an SFHEA Claim on their view of their leadership using Quinlan’s (2014) educational leadership framework as a conceptual lens.

This project was awarded a TESSA

If you have any questions, please contact Dr Julia Hope

Theme 3: Education in particular disciplines

Signature Assessment and Feedback Practices

Dr Edd Pitt and Professor Kathleen M Quinlan proposed the concepts of ‘signature assessment and feedback practices’ and co-edited a special issue of Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy, and Practice (2021, issue 2) that explored and illustrated those concepts. We used the term ‘signature’ to invite researchers and educators to consider discipline-specific assessment and feedback practices. While these signatures will be authentic to a discipline, the term implies that they will be uniquely characteristic of a particular discipline. Through our commentary on the special issue, we developed a taxonomy that laid out five dimensions of disciplinarity that define signature assessments. We also proposed the idea of ‘consequential feedback’ to broaden understanding of the sources of feedback information and, finally, suggested how feedback may operate at different levels. See the commentary at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0969594X.2021.1930447

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