Student engagement in research-led learning and teaching

Image credit: Sarah Thomas

In this post, Dr Catherine Bovill and Dr Hannah Cornish, showcase the launch of a new ‘EngagED in…’ guide, designed to show some practical ways to encourage staff to develop student learning experiences in research-led learning and teaching…

There is a rich variety of research-led learning and teaching taking place around The University of Edinburgh, and we’re delighted to announce that there is a new guide celebrating student engagement in research-led learning and teaching: EngagEd in… research-led learning and teaching.

What is research-led learning and teaching?

In the guide, we outline four different definitions of research-led learning and teaching (adapted from Griffiths, 2004), which we are using at The University of Edinburgh:

  • Learning ABOUT RESEARCH: Students’ learning is informed by research – the content of learning is derived from research within the field.
  • Learning TO DO RESEARCH: Students learn how to develop specific or general skills as researchers – they are taught how to do their own research and undertake research themselves.
  • Learning in a RESEARCH MODE: Students engage in active and enquiry-based learning – they are encouraged to develop a researcher mind-set to problem solving.
  • Learning ABOUT LEARNING: What and how students learn is itself informed by pedagogical research – they are encouraged to reflect and enquire about their own learning.

For further discussion of how research-led learning and teaching is defined, it is worth revisiting a previous Teaching Matters blog from Professor Sarah Cunningham Burley, in which she states that “existing literatures stress an inquiry-based approach as key, with students centrally involved in the learning process”.

Why do we need a new guide?

However, despite these definitions, previous blog posts, and a lot of discussion about research-led learning and teaching, there still seems to be a fair amount of confusion about this term – within the literature; on the ground; and particularly in practice. Commonly, we face a situation in higher education where teaching and research are considered as separate entities rather than as endeavours that support and enhance one another, and we wanted to challenge this perception. Also, the hands-on nature of research-teaching and teaching-research links provide excellent opportunities for students to become more actively involved in research, teaching and learning processes. There are plenty of examples and practical tips from around the University, and from further afield, within the guide. These are intended to enable staff from a wide range of disciplines to consider how they could strengthen student engagement in research-led learning and teaching.

Here, we showcase a few tips and examples in practice from the guide, to give you a flavour:

Tip: What research-led teaching is not

It is not about shoe-horning your own research into the curriculum at any cost! Curriculum design should always take into account the diverse range of students you are teaching, and be based on the knowledge, skills and attributes that they need to develop.

EXAMPLE IN PRACTICE: The Historian’s Tool-Kit

This is an entirely new training course for first-year History students at The University of Edinburgh. The course provides students with the ‘toolkit’ of the historical profession by teaching the skills needed at university in an interactive and relevant way. The Historian’s Toolkit takes students through all steps of the historical research process. The starting point for developing the course was to closely examine the skillset that History students require, based on the QAA/SQA History Benchmarking Statement, and the order in which they need to apply them. The course was therefore designed ‘backwards’, from desired outcome to teaching methods. By building up their historical skills, through interactive lectures, independent study groups, and tutorials, The Historian’s Toolkit trains students to think and work like a historian from the very beginning of their time at University, and builds their confidence incrementally.

Tip: Think about structuring some of your courses or assessment activities around solving real problems outside the classroom environment

There are many advantages to making your courses and learning activities more experiential in nature. Although extensive work-based placements are standard in some disciplines, positive benefits have been seen even for short experiences outside of the classroom (Curtis et al, 2009). Building in opportunities for group work, where students are encouraged to work autonomously to solve complex problems and then to reflect on their own learning, are good ways to simulate the challenges that they might face after graduation. By focusing learning outcomes and assessment methods on the process of their individual learning (by using tools such as reflective learning blogs or lab journals), rather than just the final product generated by the group, you can create a safe environment where students can make mistakes and learn from them without failing the course entirely (Simm, 2005).

How do we hope people will use the guide?

We hope that the new EngagED in… guide inspires staff to think about whether they could incorporate some of these ideas into their own teaching. We also hope that the guide encourages reflection on how colleagues’ research can improve their teaching, and how their teaching can improve their research on a day-to-day basis. The strong emphasis on the role of students is intentional, and we hope that the guide might enable colleagues to enhance students’ awareness of research-teaching links within their degree programmes, and that students are enabled to actively participate and collaborate with staff in both research and teaching. As we say in the guide,

If our goal is to equip students with life-long learning skills and develop their attributes of enquiry, then involving them in the practice of knowledge construction is important. Consider how your own classes are structured in this regard: are there ways you can encourage students to be more involved in knowledge creation?

The EngagED in…research-led learning and teaching guide is an open educational resource available as a downloadable pdf as well as in printed format. If you wish to get hold of hard copies of the guide please contact Sarah Thomas, Communications Officer in IAD at

Please note that there are also two further guides in this series: EngagEd in…feedback and assessment, and EngagEd in… learning and teaching conversations. We hope to release further titles in this series in the coming months.


Curtis, S., Axford, B., Blair, A.,Gibson, C., and Sherrington, P. (2009). Making short politics placements work. Politics, 29(1),62-70.

Griffiths, R. (2004). Knowledge production and the research-teaching nexus: the case of the built environment disciplines. Studies in Higher Education, 29(6), 709-726.

Simm, D. (2005). Experiential learning: assessing process and product. Planet, 15(1),16-19.

Catherine Bovill

Dr Catherine Bovill is Senior Lecturer in Student Engagement at the Institute for Academic Development, University of Edinburgh. She is a Visiting Fellow (Knowledge Exchange at the University of Winchester, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Member of the Advance HE UK Teaching Excellence Awards Panel and Editorial Board member for Teaching in Higher Education. She has published and presented widely on student engagement, students as partners and student-staff co-creation of curricula. Cathy is currently on a Fulbright Scholarship at Elon University, North Carolina.

Hannah Cornish

Dr Hannah Cornish is an Academic Developer within the IAD. She has a background in evolutionary linguistics and artificial intelligence, and is interested in research-led teaching and learning, experiential learning, and community engagement.

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