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Higher Education Academy project: Engaged Teaching and Learning within the Social Sciences: Embedding Engagement with Civil Society Organisations within the Curriculum and Higher Education Teaching Practice

Working with Nicola Buckley (Head of Public Engagement, University of Cambridge), this project led by Principal Investigator Dr Eric Jensen aims to evaluate the degree to which public engagement has become part of UK social science teaching.


There are gaps in knowledge about the extent to which recent UK policy prioritisation of engaged scholarship and research emphasising impacts beyond academia has affected teaching in higher education. This project investigates current practices in engaged teaching and learning among UK higher education teachers in the social sciences and aims to develop knowledge about the status of engaged teaching and promote professional learning about best practice in this area.

We are particularly interested in finding and sharing good practice models in teaching and learning practices that enable students to take active roles as contributors to knowledge directly linked to civil society needs through project and dissertation work. This kind of engaged scholarship can differ from practices in student-initiated (largely independent) fieldwork research with civil society organisations, as it makes different demands on lectures and comes into contact with more aspects of university administration (including assessment). The kind of engaged teaching we are researching in this project involves more time investment by lecturers (and potentially public engagement staff) in order to initiate, develop and maintain relationships with non-academic organisations. However, major benefits could accrue to social science teaching by enhancing such engagement and if not given opportunities to learn with external organisations, the risk is that more students graduate having developed their learning in more theoretical and abstract terms. Such students might see academia and practical work as separated from one another.

There are opportunities to enhance social science learning and teaching through the use of these engaged practices, as well as practical barriers relating to time, resources and professional contacts for the implementation of more engaged teaching. Furthermore, the usual research negotiation between the need to maintain a critical research outlook and the needs of non-academic partners applies in this domain of teaching as well.

Methods and Goals

The project focuses on the inclusion of engaged learning (i.e. involving non-academic organisations) as part of the curriculum, including assessed work. We are not investigating volunteering or work placement practices that are extra-curricular. The project includes (1) a survey and follow-up interview research with lecturers in sociology departments across the UK; (2) two case studies of engaged learning with civil society organisations in a subject closely oriented towards ‘applied’ scholarship – Business Studies; and (3) interviews with students with experience of engaged learning at undergraduate or master’s level in sociology, including experiences co-created with civil society organisations. The goal of this empirical research is to (1) establish the level of adoption of engaged practices within social science teaching by conducting a representative survey of teachers within one discipline, (2) develop preliminary thinking about how engaged learning practice may be developed