Sarah Aiston

  • Improving research as learning outcomes: responses to variation in students’ conceptions of educational research

    Sarah Aiston, University of Durham
    Jan HF Meyer, University of Durham

    Research paper

    Within the student learning literature, there is repeated emphasis on the pivotal role that assessment procedures, and particularly students’ perceptions of them, can play in shaping the manner in which students engage with learning. As Brown et al. note:

    Assessment defines what students regard as important, how they spend their time and how they come to see themselves as students and then as graduates…Put rather starkly: if you want to change student learning then change the method of assessment. (Brown et al., 1997, p 7.)

    However, in order to design appropriate forms of assessment that will influence the way in which students engage learning, we need to pay particular attention to the variation in students’ conceptions of their academic discipline. Research suggests that those students whose conceptions of the discipline are incongruent with the fundamental conceptions with that subject areas (i.e. they hold misconceptions) face difficulties before they start (see for example Meyer et al. 2001, Lucas and Meyer 2005). Becoming aware of this variation is therefore important if we are to design assessments that are sensitive to such variation.

    Research focus

    The present study sets out to explore, in this instance, education students’ understanding of educational research in order to consider how such variation can inform assessment procedures. Specifically, the research question is what are the empirical dimensions of variation in students’ conceptions of educational research?


    Data yielded by three cohorts of students undertaking compulsory research methods modules (total n=151) form the basis of the present study. Cohort one was comprised of full-time undergraduates engaged on an Initial Teacher Training degree. Cohort two were full-time undergraduates undertaking an Educational Studies degree, whilst cohort three were students studying for an MA in Education, largely on a part-time basis. The research methods modules go well beyond the remit of simply preparing students to undertake a dissertation, encouraging them to critically engage with the research base of their discipline and think around such issues as, what can actually be established through educational research.


    Each cohort of students responded at the beginning of their module to a series of open ended questions:

    • How would you explain to a stranger what educational research is?
    • What do you think are the main reasons for doing educational research?
    • Could you describe what you think educational researchers actually do?

    Students were also asked to give a self rating of how well they thought they were going to do on the course. In respect of one cohort, additional data was available in the form of written assignments on the nature of knowledge in education and the means by which it is established. The data is currently been analysed using a grounded theory approach in order to delineate such categories (of qualitative variation) that may exist.


    The work described here is still in progress and findings will be reported at the conference. It is anticipated that these finding will provide an initial conceptual basis for interpreting how education students may differ from one another in terms of their conceptions of educational research and the consequences of such variation with regard to the design of appropriate assessments.


    • Brown, G, Bull, J and Pendlebury, M (1997). Assessing student learning in higher education. Routledge.
    • Lucas, U and Meyer, JHF (2005). ‘Mapping the student world’: the identification of variation in students’ conceptions of, and motivations to learn, introductory accounting. The British Accounting Review, in press.
    • Meyer, JHF, Shanahan, MP (2001). A triangulated approach to the modelling of learning outcomes in first-year economics. Higher Education Research and Development, 20, 127-145.