How do we make the significance of research courses more visible for students?

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Studying in higher education usually involves taking courses in research skills: for example, students learn how to use research methods, how to write academic texts, and how to take account of research ethics. However, quite often students question the relevance of research courses and criticise that there are too many of them.

In our new article in Teaching in Higher Education, we used the concept of research skills to discuss this dilemma especially in teacher education. Nowadays, the skills talk has evaded higher education, and why not show students what kind of skills they learn when attending research courses. We also used a concept by Crina Damsa and her colleagues, epistemic agency, which points out to an active and productive relationship towards knowledge. Learning in research courses must develop the students’ sense of agency to give them tools to use research skills in their life, work and further studies.

In teacher education, research skills are not straightforward. Teachers’ work is practical and not everybody thinks that research skills are necessary for teaching children. However, in Finland comprehensive school teachers study five years in the university, and major in educational sciences. Research skills have been seen as important for students to be able to rise above the immediacy of the classroom. Thus, the Finnish model of emphasising student teachers’ own research has aroused interest worldwide.

In our study, we examined the varieties in how epistemic agency arose when Finnish student teachers wrote about using research skills in their practice period. We found four dimensions in which research skills helped the students to orient themselves towards knowledge:

First, the dimension of the self concerned the students’ professional development. Research skills served as a tool for questioning oneself and one’s teaching.
Second, in the dimension of the class, epistemic agency was aimed outwards, towards what happened in the classroom and the characteristics of the children. Here, research skills related to systematic observation and analysis.
Third, the research literature dimension concerned critically relating oneself to existing research-based information. Research skills were used for interpreting educational knowledge and assessing its validity.
Fourth, the dimension of everyday life highlighted the students’ needs to see the teachers’ work in a larger context. Research skills were used to support the teachers when transmitting knowledge to their students and to show connections between school learning and life outside of schools.

Research courses matter because the world we live in is increasingly knowledge intensive. Knowledge development is also required from all professionals. In higher education, more attention should be paid to how the students’ relationship towards knowledge develops. In teacher education, this is important because future teachers should be able to promote the children’s epistemic agency, too. The first step in fostering epistemic agency is paying attention to how relationships towards knowledge look like.

We challenge all teachers in higher education to highlight the significance of research courses by considering the students’ epistemic agency. Is the point that the student will learn to reflect oneself as a professional? Or is it that the student will be able to observe one’s surroundings more clearly, as for example the teacher observes the classroom? Or is the point that the student will be able to get more out of what has been written about the field? Or is it the outside world with fake news and ‘alternative facts’ that needs a critical and active relationship towards knowledge? According to our study, all of these are relevant for the students, and others may arise in the future. Making the significance of research courses more visible could help the students to see the beauty of learning to create new knowledge in their field.

Mirva Heikkilä (University of Turku), Hege Hermansen (University of Oslo), Tuike Iiskala, Mirjamaija Mikkilä-Erdmann and Anu Warinowski (all University of Turku)

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