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Developing research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum

Selina Todd, Department of History, University of Warwick

Aims and rationale

Despite the successful use of research-based learning in the final year of the undergraduate history curriculum and at postgraduate level, it remains under-used at lower levels of the undergraduate curriculum, as in many other humanities and social science subjects. Moreover, students are introduced to a limited number of learning styles, because of the widespread use of the seminar and lecture teaching format. This is despite a large body of literature that indicates the value of linking research and teaching for students, academics, and institutions undergoing RAE assessment of their research culture.1 The implementation of my research-based module, Britain in the Twentieth Century, therefore marks a new development, offering students greater academic progression, a different form of learning activity, and the ability to become more involved in and informed about staff research.

The aims of this module are as follows:

  • To equip students with the knowledge and critical capacity to assess major historiographical explanations of change and continuity in twentieth century Britain
  • To involve students in the design and practice of learning, and encourage them to critically compare models of learning
  • To introduce students to the theory and practice of oral history
  • To introduce students to research-led learning
  • To encourage all participants on the module to become active producers of original knowledge
Design and planning

The module was conceived as an optional module for undergraduates in years 1 and 2, and a number of visiting international students. When I took over as tutor of this module in 2005, I decided to implement research-based learning strategies within it, because of the strength of support for it within the literature cited above and within some highly rated departments at Warwick, as well as within the Reinvention Centre.2

The module, like most research-based learning activities, is informed by research at a number of levels. It uses the tutor’s research on twentieth century Britain, drawing on research that suggests that students value being taught by experts.3  It is primarily based around the students’ research, however. The module is structured around a student research project, undertaken in groups, which involves using a range of research tools to gain a broad knowledge of modern British history, but also a deeper knowledge of a related research topic of their choice. In doing so, the module also introduces students to the scholarship of engagement. Methods of engagement include the use of local resources like the Modern Records Centre; engagement with each other, through groupwork; and engagement with Coventry residents, since all the students receive training in oral history interviewing and are encouraged to undertake one interview as part of their research project. In addition, groupwork, and the process of undertaking an oral history interview, can be used to enhance a student’s CV and/or Personal Development Plan.

I initially decided that students would be divided into two conventional seminar groups, and would participate in several conventional seminars and a number of formal lectures, interspersed with groupwork in smaller groups of 4-6 students, each concentrating on researching some aspect of 20th century history. The module would be assessed in the usual way for modules of this level in the Department: through three 1,500 word essays throughout the year; one 4,500 word essay for most students; and an exam for Second Year students.

The initial intended learning outcomes of this module were to:

  • provide greater academic progression in the undergraduate curriculum
  • develop students’ ability to undertake independent research
  • improve students’ ability to learn from each other’s experiences and studies
  • deepen students’ understanding and experience of oral history interviewing and analysis
  • develop students’ knowledge of and critical engagement with learning styles by encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning

The design of the module was revised as further research and consultation was undertaken. For example, one historian at a different university informed that his optional oral history module – one of the inspirations for my module – had become very time-consuming for himself and his students. Students struggled to undertake their oral history project for that module alongside the full programme of lectures and seminars, partly because these learning styles didn’t fit easily together.

Literature on research-based learning  suggested that lectures and to a lesser extent seminars could in fact hinder, rather than help, a module that includes a large independent research component. 4  This conclusion was strengthened by a PCAPP workshop run by Dr Mike Neary at the University of Warwick in October 2005, which outlined the success, in terms of student satisfaction and assessment, and in reduced teaching preparation time, of modules that had moved away from the lecture and seminar design. In addition, Warwick’s Learning Grid made it possible to conceive of a module that was entirely research-led and research-based.

As a consequence of this, I decided to effect more radical change to this module than I had initially thought possible. Meetings with staff in the Learning Grid informed this process. The revised module design included one introductory meeting to discuss with the students this form of learning; one formal lecture to introduce oral history theory and practice (considered necessary because it is a new research tool for most students, and because of the important ethical issues involved); and two formal seminars at the beginning of the module, in order to give students a gradual introduction to research-based learning. The rest of the contact hours between students and tutor on this module are structured around a combination of small group meetings in the Learning Grid, with the tutor on hand to act as consultant, and large, whole-group meetings, at which small groups present their research findings and progress. This new structure seemed more appropriate to meet the learning outcomes of the module, and also enabled another learning outcome to be added: the enhancement of students’ ability to use a range of research tools, including internet material.

The planning process was undertaken during the summer of 2005. My proposals were received with warm interest by members of the History Department, Learning Grid staff, and colleagues involved in the Reinvention Centre at Warwick. However, it was not until Week 1, Term 1, 2005-06, that student interest and take-up could be gauged. Take-up was in fact strong, the module recruiting 32 students (the maximum allowed).

The aim of promoting an inclusive learning environment has been partially realised by my adoption of transparency in the provision of teaching and learning aids to the students. I provide students with a range of module materials on the web, including lecture notes for six lectures and teaching notes devised for formal seminars. In addition, I have posted various learning aids that I have used for my own research and learning, such as research questions to be answered, and tables and grids which facilitate analysis of some historical works and archive records. This method encouraged the production of clear, concise and focused lecture notes, and a degree of transparency in teaching preparation. In turn, this encourages the students to engage critically not only with the module content but also with the module design. The students are under no compulsion to use the lecture notes and other materials on the website, but it is made clear that I, as tutor, consider them valuable for non-assessed and assessed tasks. This gives all module participants a degree of autonomy over the module design. In fact, the students have made much use of the material and this has extended students’ e-learning and m-learning activities.

The oral history component is voluntary for this year. This is for three reasons. Firstly, so that this year can incorporate a ‘pilot’ study, to investigate how confident students feel about undertaking an interview, what benefits they see from it when it is not directly linked to assessment, and how it works in practice. Secondly, to give me, and the students, time to set up contacts in the local community. There will then be an opportunity for myself, the students, and the local residents involved to decide whether this is a mutually beneficial project that it would be appropriate to extend. Thirdly, there is at present only a limited amount of audio equipment available for student use. The Teaching Enhancement Award applied for here would enable us to purchase six iPods and compatible voice recorders to extend students’ ability to record and transcribe oral history interviews and share their interviews with other students. This learning strategy is already employed at Duke University, USA, and has successfully extended innovative e-learning and m-learning within Duke’s undergraduate curriculum.5

The students’ ability to undertake research-based learning is enhanced by the provision of the Learning Grid, and also by a variety of non-assessed tasks required of them. The first of these is a bibliographic search relevant to their research topic, which each group has to undertake in the first five weeks of the module. This learning aid increases students’ confidence in their research ability, and gives a structure to their project at an early stage.  Throughout the module, students are expected to fill in worksheets detailing attendance at, and action plans formed by, each of their group meetings. They meet as a whole group six times during the module, and three of these meetings are based around ten-minute presentations by each group, in which research progress and findings are discussed.


Regular evaluation has been built into this module. As a History Department module, this module was evaluated by the students on it at the end of Term 1, 2005-06, and will be evaluated by them once more at the end of the module in Term 3, 2005-06. In addition, students are encouraged to critically reflect on the module throughout it, within their research groups, by regularly filling in, and submitting to the tutor, worksheets detailing attendance and a summary of their research so far. Finally, each student has three individual meetings with the tutor to get feedback on their non-assessed essay work, and have been told that these meetings are also an opportunity for them to give feedback on the module.

I liaise closely with Learning Grid staff and discuss with them student evaluations and feedback.

Continuation strategy

This module will continue to be an optional module in the History Department after 2005-06. It is envisaged that tutor and student evaluation of this module, together with any input from Learning Grid staff, will shape changes to the teaching and learning practices described above. However, the ethos of the module, described above, will remain central to its development. This is not least because students’ written work has shown a marked progression over the first half of this module. The average mark gained on their first essays, marked just three weeks into the module, before groupwork had properly commenced, was 63%. Their second essays were undertaken at the beginning of Term 2 and received an average mark of 68%.

Initial evaluation of the module was undertaken by the students at the end of Term 1, 2005-06. The results of this were extremely satisfactory. Over 90 percent of the students graded the module as 4 (‘very good’) out of a potential 5 (‘excellent’). The integration of the Learning Grid into the module, and the relationship between student and module tutor both received an average grade of 5. Qualitative comments included great praise for the Learning Grid and for the autonomy this allowed students in their research planning and methods. The majority of students recommended three major changes to the module structure. Firstly, that the introductory lecture and two introductory seminars be scrapped, and replaced with a single introductory meeting. Secondly, the students suggested that the presentations planned for Term 2 be replaced with student-led seminars, which they felt would be more helpful for exam and assessment preparation, and would offer a more active form of learning than presentations do. Thirdly, that the oral history interview be made compulsory and integrated into module assessment.

The module structure for 2006-07 will incorporate these changes. Term 1 2006-07 will focus on group projects, including an oral history interview. Term 2 will centre on 3-4 student-led seminars, each one led by a student research group on their research topic. Term 3 will centre on preparation for the exam and for long, assessed essays.

Discussion is now underway within the History Department about whether one of the three short essays required for this module can be replaced by the oral history interview. All students on the module this year have chosen to undertake an interview. Interestingly, many of the international students on the module in 2005-06, including those for whom English is a foreign language, have been most emphatic in viewing this as a highly beneficial task. Arranging, carrying out, and writing up the interview takes about a fortnight of a student’s time, and is deserving of assessment.

Dissemination of my findings will also be ongoing. I will be reporting on this module to the History Department staff after receipt of final student evaluations in June 2006. My report on the module, based on student evaluation and my own evaluation of the module, will be presented to History staff in June 2006. I will also have an ongoing dialogue with Learning Grid staff which will be mutually informative and supportive.

Findings will also be disseminated outside Warwick. I will be submitting a paper to the History Subject Network of the Higher Education Academy in June 2006 reflecting on this module. In addition, the constantly updated, detailed webpages for this module are fully accessible to all internet users, within and outside Warwick. I have also been asked to attend a Staff Development Seminar in the University of Liverpool to talk about research-led learning, which I will do in autumn 2006. These activities, and the use of open-access webpages, will generate further interest in and publicity for research-led learning as practised on this module.


This project makes use of Warwick University’s existing resources to create a module centred round research-based learning. This is an innovative departure within research-led universities. Early results support the increasing body of educational literature that suggests that undergraduates, academics, and universities benefit from more research-based learning activities within the undergraduate curriculum. Moreover, my findings demonstrate that this is true of undergraduates at an early stage of their university careers, a group generally neglected by research-based learning activities and the relevant literature.



1 E. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), p. 11; A. Jenkins, ‘The impact of the Research Assessment Exercise on teaching in selected geography departments in England and Wales’, Geography, 84/4 (1995), pp. 367-374.

2 For example, Sociology. For the Reinvention Centre, see (October 18, 2005)

3 A. Jenkins et al, ‘Teaching and research: student perceptions and policy implications, Studies in Higher Education, 23/2 (1998), pp. 127-41.

4 P. Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993, repr of 1970 ed.), pp. 52-56.

5 (1/10/05).

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