A PhD in educational research: making the transition

Luke McCrone, PhD student, Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship

If someone had told me 6 years ago that I would one day be studying for a PhD in Higher Educational research at Imperial College, I would have smiled back at them in disbelief.

My acceptance of one of the first PhD studentships under the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship illustrates an important point: educationally speaking, we have come a long way in a relatively short period. Yet being new to this field has required me to adapt. Given that educational research adopts paradigms from psychology, sociology and philosophy, the approach to methodology, data collection and analysis is initially alien to a geoscientist like myself. Learning about these fields has made me recognise the transformative potential of putting yourself out of your disciplinary comfort zone.

My previous experience representing students and living among student hall residents has granted me a window into the realities and challenges of the modern-day learner at Imperial. Students are now learning, socialising and spending their ‘spare time’ on virtual platforms. This is forcing us to review how we design space, pedagogy and curriculum to keep ‘distracted’ students engaged. My anecdotal experience would suggest that students see value in learning with others since they often do it all by themselves outside of the classroom, hence my support for active modes of pedagogy which encourage students to discuss and critique information, not just receive it via didactic transmission. The World Economic Forum similarly states that the development of critical thinking, social intelligence and analytical thinking skills will be most attainable using active learning strategies.

Through my PhD, I hope to build upon my previous experience by investigating how students perceive and engage with physical, curricular and cognitive educational ‘spaces’. My methodology (phenomenology) therefore supports the incorporation of my preconceptions when collecting and analysing data. My preliminary data is showing something interesting: learning activity inside the classroom influences culture and behaviour outside; ‘formal’ learning therefore frames ‘non-formal’ learning. This may seem relatively obvious, but how we teach and organise learning vastly influences the way students continue to interact outside of the formal setting (independently, in groups or not at all). Ensuring students have access to ‘non-formal’ space, be it common rooms, breakout spaces or cafes, is crucial. If we think carefully about the skills, knowledge and behaviours we wish to instil in our graduates to be adaptable lifelong learners, then a holistic view of physical and curricular space design is paramount.

Educational research and the broader social sciences are receiving increasing national limelight. A £10m initiative between the Wolfson Foundation and British Academy was recently announced as one of the largest grants of its kind for the humanities and social sciences. This stands as evidence for the increasing importance placed on research into not only Higher Education, but also the wider social sciences and humanities.

I look forward to reporting continued updates about my research. If anyone has any questions or ideas then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Luke McCrone, PhD student