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Pedagogic Research in HE

Exploratory pedagogic inquiry – seeking answers within a learning community: Invitation to participate (Autumn term 2021)

In spring and summer terms 2021, two groups of seven–eight members each of the Learning Circle trialled a procedure for moving from discussion of important issues in our recent professional experience to developing small-scale inquiries into these issues. For autumn term 2021, all WIHEA Fellows and Alumni are invited once more to become involved.

The main aim of the initiative is to develop an approach that HE teaching staff with multiple demands on their time can adopt to engage in inquiry into teaching and learning, with ultimate benefits for improvement of student experience but also with immediate benefit to participants themselves.

"This turned out to be a most useful experience. It allowed us to focus on a current problem in a fast, effective and supported way, generating quick results. The method is very solid and the peer system means having a wonderful sounding board, which contributes to further questioning. The beauty of it is that it allows quick development and self-improvement!" (Dr Sandra Pereira, Senior Teaching Fellow, Warwick Business School)

"In these difficult times it has been great to have an intellectual challenge to both provide a means to improve my teaching, refreshment and much needed interaction with other people! The focussed peer-coaching sessions and group discussion are a great combination as they have not only helped me with particular teaching problems but have given me the chance to learn from colleagues from across the whole university." (Professor Miriam Gifford, Deputy Head of School, School of Life Sciences)

It is clear that the way of working we have been developing together has proven beneficial to participants, helping them find a pathway through recent experience.

All WIHEA Fellows and Alumni are welcome to join this initiative in its next iteration, regardless of teaching or Learning Circle experience. Please let John Kirkman or Richard Smith know if you wish to attend – or sign up using the button at top right above. You will need to commit to the following:

  • attending four weekly sessions in Weeks 3, 4, 5 and 6 on Wednesdays, 1pm to 2.30pm.
  • engaging in a one-hour dialogue with one colleague at a mutually agreed time during weeks 3, 4 and 5
  • attending two or three meetings during the rest of the term.
 Extensions of the approach

Colleagues who experienced and helped develop the EPI approach in spring term 2021 are currently taking it further by meeting together to document and write about the approach and its effects on them. Both spring term and summer term 2021 groups are also considering implementing (aspects of) the approach in different ways within their respective departments. For example, in April, Leticia Villamediana Gonzalez led a session with PGR students who are teaching in Hispanic Studies, using this handout, based on the materials shared in spring term. Finally, a working group is being established to consider the ethics of practitioner research, with a view presenting a new proposal for ethical approval in this area. The overall goal of the Learning Circle in 2021–22 will be to continue to develop and gain recogntion for a format for EPI (via online materials, etc.) which can be easily and feasibly adopted for professional development in different parts of the university.

More information about the approach we are developing

‘Exploratory Pedagogic Inquiry’ (henceforth, ‘EPI’) is a form of small-scale practitioner inquiry which is suitable for staff and students who are in challenging or difficult circumstances, and which offers a means to address the issues they are facing and/or build on the achievements they have gained. The approach builds on Richard Smith’s previous work with schoolteachers in Latin America and South Asia involving ‘Exploratory Action Research’ (e.g. Smith & Rebolledo 2018), an approach which has been shown to be useful, in practice, in situations where there are limited resources and where there are multiple demands on teachers’ time. Given the difficult circumstances of teaching in Higher Education during the global pandemic and the need to address difficult challenges in the short term, the Learning Circle adopted aspects of this approach during summer and autumn 2020/21, and participants have evaluated the approach highly.

EPI involves participants in identifying pedagogic issues they are facing, prioritising among them, reflecting on one issue further, and developing related, researchable questions, all within a context of mutually supportive peer-coaching. Weekly whole-group sessions (four in total) alternate with peer-coaching meetings (in randomized pairs) and individual reflection, and culminate in production of a plan for gathering further evidence in relation to the issue and research questions identified.

The approach we are developing involves a sequence of questions within a structured peer-coaching procedure. Adapting these questions, we have been producing and using a booklet (transferred to Moodle for summer term 2021), which provides guidance to participants and which can be worked through over a three-week period. On the basis of experience in 2020/21, we are intending to scale up the aspects of the process which are seen as being particularly useful within WIHEA and the university more generally.

This is, then, a type of practitioner inquiry with two main elements. Firstly, it is concerned with investigating personal practice in teaching and learning in Higher Education through reflecting on practice, answering questions, potentially gathering evidence and identifying ways of developing practice. Secondly, exploratory inquiry is enabled through collaboration, in particular through ‘peer coaching’ – a relatively non-directive approach to asking questions to peers, involving mutual encouragement and enabling deeper thinking. This involves active listening and allowing answers to emerge gradually rather than through directing/advising other team members (cf. Roxå and Mårtensson (2009), who indicate the potential for small groups of teachers in HE to work together in a spirit of mutual trust and intellectual intrigue, to learn professionally and to develop teaching related concepts).

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – Exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547–559.

Smith, R. & Rebolledo, P. (2018) A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research. London: British Council.

Meeting overviews


Current members of this Learning Circle:

  • David Bather Woods
  • Catherine Bennett
  • Deborah Biggerstaff
  • Miriam Gifford
  • John Kirkman
  • Debbi Marais
  • Celine Martin
  • Ines Molinaro
  • Helen Nolan
  • Martyn Parker
  • Sandra Pereira
  • Cathy Hampton
  • Richard Smith
  • Elke Thonnes
  • Leticia Villamediana Gonzalez