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Research methodology

Investigating Warwick's Claims about enhancing Graduate Capabilities (research phase 1) and evaluating its claims (research phase 2)

The current research focuses on the skills or capabilities that students should hold by the time they graduate. The wider remit of the King's-Warwick Project is to undertake a series of review and development activities over a one-year period, commencing in May 2009, aimed at enhancing graduate capabilities. A key element of the project to facilitate this is to develop a more refined understanding of five curriculum characteristics and to consider ways in which they might be made available to students. Their characteristics are: academic literacy, a research-rich environment, interdisciplinarity, global knowledge and community engagement. These skills were identified by a working group of Warwick University and King's College.

At the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research at Warwick the Graduate Pledge is carried out in two research phases. PHASE 1 (from July 2009 until September 2009) is dedicated to an investigation of the development of particular graduate capabilities in research intensive higher education institutions. By means of discourse analysis of departmental and university webpages at Warwick, the research first aims to establish a sound basis of understanding about the university's claims upon the capabilities undergraduates achieve by the time of their graduation. PHASE 2 (October 2009 until December 2009) aims to evaluate how these claims are put into practice at Warwick. For the second research phase, a multimethods mix of qualitative interviews with students and staff, a survey and an analysis of university data relating to the selected graduate capabilities are planned.

Research Phase 1: Content and discourse analysis of university webpages

During research phase 1, the research team aimed to refine an understanding of five curricula characteristics – academic literacy, a research-rich environment, interdisciplinarity, global knowledge and community engagement.

Employing content and discourse analysis, the research investigated:

  • how departments in a research-rich university claim to convey these skills to students
  • how students are conceptualised as learners and researchers.

You can find the comprehensive list of research questions on the Research questions page. Developing a research methodology to study the university's claims of conveying these five skills to students, our reflections centered around the idea of studying university documents that portray the university's mission concerning undergraduate education. Student prospectuses thereby seemed to represent a compact version of the university's aims and promises with regard to the capabilities graduates would have achieved by the end of their degrees. In a similar way, university webpages can be seen as the expression of a university's mission statement. Norman Fairclough, who has carried out discourse analysis of universities' webpages, stated that university webpages are the ideal and most accessible stage for universities to 'sell' what they would be about (Fairclough, 2008). In fact, Fairclough identified university webpages as ideal spaces for in-depth investigations into underlying educational agendas and conceptualisations of students and academics. Following Fairclough's example, our study thus focused on an analysis of how the university claims to convey these five graduate capabalilities to students in selected departmental webpages and webpages of cross-university services.

First of all, in order to gain an understanding of the contents of the specific webpages, we employed content analysis and summarised the key areas of the pages, following the five graduate capabilities. This also allowed us to get an overview of different concepts being used in order to express one idea. To take an example, the idea of students doing research was expressed in a variety of ways, from research-based learning to inquiry-based learning or essay-writing.

Yet, most importantly, one of the key aims of the study was to look behind the text presented on the departmental webpages and to investigate the university's and departments' underlying conceptualisations of students and graduate capabilities. By means of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995; Locke, 2004; MacLure, 2003) we unpacked the texts and looked at their different layers.

One of the founders of critical discourse analysis (CDA), Norman Fairclough, has described it as aiming '…to systematically explore often opaque relationships of causality and determination between (a) discursive practices, events and texts, and (b) wider social and cultural structures, relations and processes; to investigate how such practices, events and texts arise out of of and are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power' (Fairclough, 1995: 132).


Sample selection

Three departments from each faculty were selected for thorough content and discourse analysis.

Selection of departmental webpages:

Faculty of Social Sciences

  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Law

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

  • Theatre Studies
  • History
  • Classics and Ancient History

Faculty of Science

  • Statistics
  • Biological Sciences
  • Chemistry

In addition to departments, five cross-university services and institutions were selected for the web- content and discourse analysis. All selected departments and cross-university services were analysed with regard to their claiming to convey the five selected graduate capabilities – academic literacy, research-rich environment, interdisciplinarity, global knowledge and community engagement – to students.

Selection of cross-university services:

  • Library
  • Learning and Development Centre (URSS and Reinvention Centre)
  • Careers' Service: Warwick Skills
  • SSLC
  • Students' Union

Five graduate capabilities:

  • Academic Literacy
  • Research rich environment
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Global knowledge
  • Community engagement

In order to increase the quality of the research, all of the selected departments were investigated by two researchers. Each person was the primary researcher for one graduate capability as well as the primary researcher for two departments and cross-disciplinary institutions in the university. Every theme and department had a second person being responsible for co-analysing the material. The key advantage of this procedure consisted in the creation of an interpretive and discursive space amongst the researchers that further enhanced the quality of the interpretation. In this manner, our different disciplinary affiliations and thus potential interpretative leanings towards a specific side were confronted with an alternative viewpoint.

With regard to the different themes this means that one person was doing all the research and reading on a particular theme and thus became an expert in it whilst providing the others in the team with notes from readings and finally a literature review in order to enable them to carry out their own departmental analysis. As a result of this, each researcher was heavily relying on the work and output of the others whilst maintaining a certain amount of ownership for her own specialism of work.

In weekly research team sessions we discussed the progress we had made each week and subsequently presented preliminary results of our work to each other. This started with sharing summaries of web content analysis with each other and discussing each others' literature reviews and was taken forward when we reached the more interpretive grounds of discourse analysis. These meetings were very important as they enabled us to create links between the analysis that we had carried out across different disciplines and thematic fields and allowed us to strengthen our analysis and to act as critics of others' work.