Numbers need stories: part of the case for more narrative-based research of teaching and learning

OPINION: Dr Don Houston

Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT


Narratives of teaching and learning sit in an uncomfortable, paradoxical space: narratives win teaching awards but narrative seems to be devalued as research.

Recently I was at a workshop for potential national teaching award applicants. In the process, participants were provided with examples of winning applications to critique, and heard from eminent awards assessors/reviewers and equally eminent award winners. One theme permeated the day: the importance of narrative. The written applications all told a story (usually the hero/quest narrative, but some were tales of ‘tricksters’ who questioned and changed boundaries of practice). The assessors said the really good ones ‘make me want to be in the class’. The winners said you have to write about what you did, what you achieved, and that writing in the first person can be powerful. There was the need for the student voice and the voice of others as part of the ‘evidence, evidence and evidence’ needed to substantiate the claims from the story. But mostly, the story needed to be compelling to pass internal institutional review (by peers) and external review by the (peer) assessors.

The applications, assessors, winners and others at the event all told compelling stories (including numbers). The stories in the successful applications had been subject to extensive critical thought, careful crafting, peer feedback, and multiple rounds of peer review. All contained, contextualised, and gave meaning to facts and data.

The clear message here is: great stories ‘win’ recognition of teaching excellence; teaching excellence is evidenced through narrative. But these stories by and large remain private, although there are some exceptions. Iain Hay (Prime Minister’s University Teachers of the year 2006) opens the introduction to his edited anthology of stories of international winners (Hay, 2011) with the words: ‘It was 1983. I was a 23-year-old brand new Junior Lecturer …’ He goes on to narrate the story of the ‘awful experience’ for him and the students that later shaped his award-winning approach to teaching. There are a few other examples of narratives of academic identity: ‘the multiple stories by which academic staff live’ (Churchman and King, 2009). It is within these stories that facts gain their importance.

But predominantly, the research published in Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SoTL) journals focuses on particular facts: data collected from students mainly through the use of surveys (Divan et al., 2017). Nevertheless, Hamshire and others (2017) explore the potential of student narratives, while Hubball and others (2010) note the ‘significance of “narratives in practice” (i.e., the lived experience of SoTL researchers)’ for participants across 10 years of their SoTL program for beginning practitioners (Hubball et al., 2010). There seems to be something of a misfit between what is seen as important (stories) and what is researched (‘facts’).

Scutt and Hobson (2013) make the observation that ‘researchers on higher education are also researchers in higher education. Our research choices … over time help to co-create what it is to be a university’ (p 25). This observation is made as part of an article advocating for ‘The stories we need’: stories of the lived experience and meanings of being in and of the university.

Scutt and Hobson also pose the question: ‘the thousand pieces of paper can’t be wrong, can they?’ (p 19). Well, it is possible, just as it’s possible that they are not quite right or impoverished in the story they tell.

The mean result of student evaluations of teaching don’t tell us of ‘the moment thinking entered the room’ with a palpable shift in the atmosphere, or of the student who left the room troubled and unsettled but later acknowledged the profound learning that later grew from their discomfort. Similarly the ‘low/poor’ numerical responses to the question ‘I learned a lot in this session’ disguise the experience of participants who ‘didn’t learn much new, BUT my beliefs, values and practices were confirmed and validated as best practice’.

With most numbers, we make sense of them by weaving a story around and from them. We make sense of the numbers in Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) by looking at the open text comments and by reflecting on the teaching and learning experiences that we as teachers tried to create for and with students. We created the narrative of the course, the particular challenges, the web of intentions, the day-to-day or class-to-class taken for granted experiences that are invisible in the numbers: we should make these things public through research.

If we base our research on numbers, then we help to co-create and validate the university and its teaching as/of numbers. If we craft our research around people, their experiences, the ‘moment when thinking entered the room’ and other critical incidents of learning, then perhaps we can help to re-create and re-value the university as communities of learning.


Some reading

Aysha Divan, Lynn Ludwig, Kelly Matthews, Phillip Motley, Ana Tomljenovic-Berube (2017) Survey of research approaches utilised in the scholarship of teaching and learning Teaching and learning Enquiry 5, 2, 16-29

Deborah Churchman & Sharron King (2009) Academic practice in transition: hidden stories of academic identities, Teaching in Higher Education

Claire Hamshire, Rachel Forsyth, Amani Bell, Matthew Benton, Roisin Kelly-Laubscher, Moragh Paxton & Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki (2017) The potential of student narratives to enhance quality in higher education, Quality in Higher Education, 23:1, 50-64, DOI: 10.1080/13538322.2017.1294407

Harry Hubball , Anthony Clarke & Gary Poole (2010) Ten‐year reflections on mentoring SoTL research in a research‐intensive university, International Journal for Academic Development, 15:2, 117-129

Cecily Scutt & Julia Hobson (2013) The stories we need: anthropology, philosophy, narrative and higher education research, Higher Education Research & Development, 32:1, 17-29

Iain Hay, (ed.) ‘Inspiring Academics: Learning with the World’s Great University Teachers’ (2011). OUP  [A book of stories by great university teachers – award winners – who achieved their ‘winner’ status by each telling their teaching story: stories reviewed by peers (just like research)]

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