Advancing Practice In Academic Development: Chapter 12 Researching academic development


Edited by David Baume and Celia Popovic
Routledge – The Staff and Educational Development Series
Publication January 2016

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Chapter summaries and extracts will on the SEDA Blog over the coming months. (There may be small differences between these and the published versions)

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Chapter 12 – Researching academic development

Kathryn Sutherland and Barbara Grant


This chapter explores the nature and purposes of academic development, and relates this exploration to an analysis of what, how and for whom research in academic development has been and is undertaken. The history and the growth of research in academic development are reviewed. Current trends in academic development research are identified, through analysis of recent issues of three journals and through categorisation of papers by research paradigm and methodology.

Topics and futures for research into and the scholarship of educational development are suggested. The chapter concludes with advice to new academic developers on how to become researchers of academic development.



In placing ourselves in the academy as practitioners and scholars, several big questions have perplexed academic development researchers. One has concerned our identity as a discipline. Are we a disciplinary community with all the rules and supposed privileges associated with such a claim (Bath and Smith, 2004)?

Or are we, as others have suggested, a distinctive field of practice (Clegg, 2009; Shay, 2012), influenced by many disciplinary communities, backgrounds, leanings, histories? Or should we, as still others have proposed, be resisting any such classification, identification or categorisation (Grant, 2007; Lee and McWilliam, 2008; Webb, 1996)?

A second cluster of questions concerns the communities and purposes we serve (academics, students, institutions, governments, ourselves?) – and, thus, for whom we do our research. As Stefani and Baume suggest in Chapter 10, on evaluation, many academic developers are expected to produce evidence-based evaluation of their work in order to ensure their unit’s (if not their own) survival through the securing of ongoing funding. Much of our day-to-day research may be directed towards producing evidence of the effectiveness, or impact, of our own and others’ practices. Yet this accountability regime does not always resonate with the kind of research and writing that brings us joy and intellectual stimulation (Peseta, 2007). Slightly more academic developers come from narrative literary fields than come from scientific backgrounds (Green and Little, 2015), and take a scholarly approach that favours questioning, storytelling, and opening up ideas for scrutiny and debate, rather than pinning down the claimed best evidence or identifying conclusive claims of certainty. Thus, academic development research serves many masters – from the vice-chancellor who wants to know that it is worth continuing to fund the operation of a Learning and Teaching Centre or where to direct a discretionary fund for digital learning innovations, to the academics whom we try to convince a practice is worth attempting, to national centres for higher education and government funding bodies who solicit or desire research on the impact of large-scale empirical teaching and learning projects, to ourselves as a community of practitioners and as individual researchers/scholars. Is there space for different kinds of research and are we reaching all these stakeholders?

A third set of questions relates to what and how we are researching. What and who are the subjects of our research? For example, Chapter 11 reports and applies extensive research into development with communities of academics. What methodologies and methods do we employ to investigate the answers to our research questions? What theories inform our approaches? By focusing on these questions in the light of past and current practice in academic development research, this chapter aims to open space for further conversation, especially about what kinds of research questions and designs, and modes of writing, we might pursue in the future. We look at the research that academic developers have been and are doing in, on, for and about academic development, as well as consider the likelihood that much of our research is about learning and teaching, and about helping others to do research into their teaching and learning. We also point new academic developers in the direction of good readings on research in academic development and, to a lesser extent, higher education more broadly.


Advice to new academic developers

As we close this chapter, we pass on our best advice to those of you who might be about to start researching in the field and those keen to (re)invigorate their understanding of the field:

1 Review the first three years of IJAD – there are many good articles by leading researchers/practitioners in the field and you will start to get a feel for the kind of research that has been done in the past.

2 Get hold of a good book on researching higher education. For an accessible and practical overview of common research method/ologies used in higher education research (many of which we have seen reflected in the pages of academic development journals), see Glynis Cousin’s book, Researching Learning in Higher Education (2009). She provides an overview of 11 different methods, explains their provenance and their key proponents, unpacks the ways in which the methods are applied, and provides examples from higher education research of such application. It is a useful book for new academic developers seeking an overview of different research approaches and for more experienced academic developers interested in reading about a new way of conducting their research.

3 If you come from a discipline outside of education, don’t assume you have to throw your old method/ologies (your research expertise) away. Think how to use them and look around for others who are doing this kind of academic development research. They are out there!

4 Once you’ve found your feet, don’t keep them stuck in one place. Read beyond the common research method/ologies into newer ones (at least new for education/higher education/academic development). Look at books on ethnography and autoethnography (for example Chang, 2008; Pelias, 2004); books that problematise the idea of ‘voice’ (for example Jackson and Mazzei, 2009), or some other core concept/assumption; books that explore different theories and what they have to offer research (for example Jackson and Mazzei, 2012), or that explore indigenous ways of researching (for example, Smith, 1999).

5 Having read in, of, about, and around the field of academic development, read some more.

6 Then, write. Add your voice to those we’ve cited here and help us all to grow, define, shape, and influence our field, our thinking, our scholarship and our practice.

About the Editors

David Baume is an independent international higher education researcher, evaluator, consultant, staff and educational developer and writer.

Celia Popovic is Director of Teaching Commons at York University, Toronto, Canada.

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