Reshaping Academic Practice and Relationships within the Department Of Plant Sciences

Tracy, Frances; Jordan, Katy and Johnstone, Keith (2007). Reshaping Academic Practice and Relationships within the Department Of Plant Sciences. In: Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, 11-13 Dec 2007, Brighton.



At the University of Cambridge, a research and development project concerned with teaching and learning in small-group tutorials has been initiated in Department of Plant Sciences. Known as the Plant Sciences Pedagogy Project, it is part of the Teaching for Learning Network (TfLN), which includes members of the Centre for Applied Research into Educational Technologies (CARET), the Department of Engineering and the Faculty of Classics.

Provision of small-group tutorials plays a key role in teaching support for students at the University of Cambridge. However, variation in student experience of tutorial quality was raised as a point of concern in a recent student survey (Cambridge University Students’ Union, 2004). Our research therefore focussed on analysis of the tutorial environment with the aim of finding out how best to support our teaching staff and to influence changes in teaching and learning practices within the Department. The Plant Sciences Pedagogy Project used a number of qualitative and quantitative educational research methods in order to identify key plant sciences specific teaching and learning issues. These methods included practice-value questionnaires, self-efficacy questionnaires, supervision video analysis, student focus groups and supervisor interviews, which were implemented over the course of two academic years. The research findings were used to inform the development of a number of new learning resources which were provided for students within a virtual learning environment (VLE), or in collaborative workshops. The impact of the implementation of these new resources was assessed in order to inform research and development for the next academic year.

In this paper, we describe the development of the research conducted in the Department of Plant Sciences and also chart the involvement of embedded researchers in the formation of the TfLN. The research structure is initially described in association with action research methodology but it is argued that the format has developed throughout the formation of TfLN so that it is best aligned with theories of social network analysis (Granovetter, 1973). This paper uses the theoretical perspective of brokerage between communities of practice (Burt, 2005; Wenger, 1998) to describe the role that plant science researchers have played in conducting research concerned with initiating changes in teaching and learning practices and also the subsequent coconfiguration of the TfLN research community. Burt’s (2005) four levels of brokerage are used to structure the discussion of these research processes, and the boundary crossing objects that have been used to support brokerage activities are described.

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