Developing a Research Culture in the Undergraduate Curriculum 

Contact details

Name and address:
Joanne Garde-Hansen and Ben Calvert
Faculty of Media, Art and Communications
Pittville Studios
GL52 3JG
Tel: 01242 714975


Course title: Media Communications Degree
Level: All Levels

What does the teacher do?

This University funded project entitled ‘Developing a Research Culture in the Undergraduate Curriculum’ was designed to demonstrate the value of collaborative research with and among students through the use of enquiry-based learning (EBL) and problem-based learning (PBL). Six established undergraduates designed and delivered a half-day research conference to new undergraduates in order that staff and students better understand how a research culture can be developed from the beginning, how collaborative research can aide this development and how to offer a joined-up curriculum. In terms of incentives to engage, payment to the six undergraduates was necessary but they also used the experience of working with staff on a live research project as evidence for their CVs. The principal methods used in the project were:

1) An online focus group
Three Level II and three Level III undergraduates were employed on the project from October 2003 to March 2004. These students were from the Media Communications field at the University of Gloucestershire. An asynchronous online focus group was established and the project leaders, both senior lecturers in the field, acted as e-moderators which involved facilitating discussions between the six undergraduates and posting questions but largely observing their discussions unfold in a virtual learning environment. During this process, the students sought the advice of the Level I student representative to the field because they found that the key question they were addressing ‘how to develop a research culture at level 1’ could only be answered if the representative acted as an e-consultant. This involved responding to the students’ call for more information on the needs and problems that new students face on entering university, how new students research and what skills are needed in order to undertake successful research at university level.

2) A problem-based learning (PBL) activity
The fundamental activity that motivated the online focus group discussions was a PBL task, which required that the students solve the problem of the lack of a research culture for new undergraduates. This meant planning, preparing and delivering a half-day ‘Research Conference’ for new students based on a series of interactive workshops and presentations in March 2004. Three workshops would be created, designed by the students themselves, based on their consultations with the Level 1 field representative. The conference would consist of a welcome meeting from all six students, break-out workshop sessions created and run by the six students who had organised themselves into three pairs, and then a plenary again presented by the six undergraduates. The nub of the conference was to establish (and evaluate) a community of learning across all levels of the curriculum centred on the development of a ‘research culture’.

3) The half-day research conference
Held in March 2004, the student-led conference was attended by 48 first year undergraduate delegates whose attendance was a mandatory part of their level 1 Learning and Personal Development module. The level 1 students were asked to attend two out of three workshops of their choice, interact with the presenters and complete an evaluation form. They also completed a written assignment based on their reflections on the conference as part of their course work for the Learning and Personal Development module. The conference ran as a welcome meeting (voice recorded) delivered by the six undergraduates and it addressed the following: what are the expectations of tutors with regard to the level of research at university; where does research happen and where is it expected in the curriculum; why module documentation is vital for understanding research skills; their own experiences of researching, particularly independent research on modules and for their dissertations. The three 45-minute workshops ran n two repeated sessions. These were entitled:

  1. Bridging the Gap: From A-Level to Degree
  2. Broadening Research through Big Brother (Channel 4)
  3. Being Creative with Research

The video-recorded workshops were run by the students without the presence of the project leaders. While the project leaders were on hand to help with any organisational issues, they did not attend the workshops. In the final plenary session the six presenters summarised along with the project leaders what their evaluations of the sessions with feedback from the delegates. The use of a bespoke up-to-date conferencing facility and conferencing refreshments usually reserved for staff effectively conveyed to the students that their research was of value and that the delegates’ attendance was being taken seriously.

Hot tips and things to look out for:

While the student presenters are competent to work autonomously on their PBL activity of designing the research conference, the use of VLE discussion boards can lead to stagnation or tangential discussion if the project leaders do not act as e-moderators. A blended approach of face to face meetings with the project leaders and observation of how the online student discussion is progressing is necessary. Allowing the students any-time access to a meeting room to plan the project is also beneficial.

In order that the project is seen to be taken seriously the project leaders need to manage the conference facility, refreshments and room bookings as well as the budgets for these. Giving presenters and delegates access to bespoke facilities and refreshments lends an air of seriousness and value to the conference event. Project leaders also need to market the event and can integrate attendance into a PDP unit so as to make it compulsory. A good turn out on the day is essential. This is only possible through assessment of the conference by the delegates and through hourly payment to the presenters.

To consolidate the sense of autonomy without compromising the need for evaluation and feedback it is essential to set up video cameras in the workshop rooms so as to record the conference workshops. This allows the project leaders to view the results of the active learning without actually being a physical part of it.

Does it work?

Evaluation of the conference by the student delegates suggested they found the opportunity to connect with other levels beneficial to get a sense of where they were going with their degree. The conference showed that the students promoted support, guidance and clear structure as the key ingredients to encouraging independent researchers. Therefore, it is recognised that research-based learning is hard to achieve and has to be carefully managed. Encouraging undergraduates who are engaged in dissertation research to present their strategies, ideas and thoughts through a research conference to new entrants provides opportunities for peer mentorship, collaborative learning and a sense of a joined up curriculum.

What problems/issues have arisen?

Student presenters will reflect deeply upon their degree and they may well criticise the way the degree is run, taught or constructed. This is vital to understanding the problem and to implementing solutions. For example, during the discussion the students made it clear that the way the field delivers the learning and personal module — a module which is supposed to instil research skills — was not viewed as successful and tended to use a passive approach.

Grandiose notions of students wishing to develop an exploratory curiosity of the subject area soon gives way to the realisation that students are so assessment driven they often seek a paint-by-numbers approach to gaining knowledge, packaging it neatly and presented it back to tutors who equally assess this knowledge in line with criteria and descriptors. This alongside the time-constraints around assessment points suggests that anyone using this method needs to be aware
that students will reveal themselves to be strategic researchers.


Our research revealed that there were a number of other ways in which a research culture could be encouraged in an undergraduate programme

  • course and faculty awards for dissertation research
  • letters of congratulations from tutors and external examiners for research assignments of exceptional quality
  • using examples of undergraduate research projects on university websites
  • extra credits in a course for extra research undertaken
  • embedding of a virtual learning environment within courses to encourage research discussions and to integrate the rich internet resources available
  • promotion of peer mentoring either face to face, online inside virtual learning environments or through credits
  • involving students in academics’ discipline research and/or pedagogic research projects
  • establishing research opportunities in the local community: through interviewing, vox-pops or running after-uni workshops alongside tutors
  • group dissertation tutorials online or face-to-face
  • establishing research ‘blogs or personal digital research archives


Details of support material/course work/assessment methods

The following is a copy of the PBL activity sheet the six undergraduates received in their first meeting with the project leaders:


‘Research Conference’ Activity

To design a conference programme for Level I students on how to research


  • You have been asked to design a programme of events for Level I students on how to research. There will be 60-80 delegates at the conference.
  • You have been allocated a timetable of slots to fill, which include:

9.30-9.45:  Coffee and registration

9.45-10.15: Keynote Speech (20 Minutes)

10.15-11.15: 3 45-minute workshops (15 minutes for evaluation of session, feedback and moving to next rooms)

11.15-12.15: 3 45-minute workshops (15 minutes for evaluation of session, feedback and moving to next rooms)

12.15-12.30: Coffee

12.30-1.00:  Plenary Session

  • Your principal task in the next hour is to discuss and begin to map out the proposed content, titles and operation of these various sessions
  • Your other task is to create an action plan for the next meeting which will be to plan the conference activity

Conference Outcomes:
By the end of the conference delegates should be able to:

  • Better understand what research means to undergraduates
  • Better understand the role of research on their degree programme
  • Better understand how to acquire skills that will help them with research later in their studies


Relevant references

Chan, V. (2001) ‘Learning Autonomously: the learners’ perspectives’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 25:3, 285-300
Garde-Hansen and Ben Calvert (2007) ‘Developing a research culture in the undergraduate curriculum’, in Active Learning in Higher Education 8: 2, 105-116
Hattie, J. and Marsh, H.W. (1996) ‘The Relationship between Teaching and Research: A Meta-Analysis’, Review of Educational Research, 66: 4, 507-542
Jenkins A, Breen R, Lindsay R and Brew A (2003) Reshaping Teaching in Higher Education: Linking Teaching and Research, London: Routledge
Marshall, S. (1999) Supervising Projects and Dissertations in Fry, H., Kettering, J. and Marshall, S. (eds) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Enhancing Academic Practice, London: Kogan Page
Peat, M. Dalziel, J. & Grant, A. (2001) ‘Enhancing the First Year Student Experience by Facilitating the Development of Peer Networks Through a One Day Workshop’, Higher Education Research and Development 20:2, 199-215
Pearson, M. and Brew, A. (2002) ‘Research Training and Supervision Development’ Studies in Higher Education, 27: 2, 135-150
Ramsden, P (2001) Strategic management of teaching and learning, in Improving Student Learning Strategically, ed C Rust, pp 1-10, Oxford: OCSLD
The Re-invention Center at Stony Brook

This case study is also available as a pdf: Developing a Research Culture in the Undergraduate Curriculum


University of Gloucestershire, The Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 2RH. Telephone +44 (0)844 8010001.