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physiotherapy research writing

Developing research and scholarship in our department

I often speak to colleagues who seem surprised when I describe our departmental structure to develop capacity among our staff members. I thought I’d make a few notes here as an example of what I see as a system that works quite well(for us anyway).

My university has an Institutional Operational Plan (IOP), which includes a 5 year strategy to develop capacity in both research and teaching & learning (T&L). This implementation plan is mirrored at both faculty and departmental levels. The idea is to have departmental versions of the university’s vision, and to strive to achieve those goals within set periods of time.

There are 2 main “legs” of the IOP, namely T&L and research. Both of these have their own 5 year implementation plans that are again mirrored at faculty and departmental levels, with each plan split into several key areas. For example, the T&L plan in my department has 9 key areas, which include (the following points are summarised):

  • Enhance and promote the status of T&L within the department
  • Develop and promote the scholarship of T&L
  • Infuse technology into T&L
  • Develop an infrastructure for T&L
  • Embed graduate attributes into the programme

Each of these key areas is split into:

  • Actions that required to develop the area / achieve the objective
  • Performance measures to evaluate progress towards the goal
  • Expected outcomes i.e. how do we think this will make things better?
  • People and resources required
  • Timeframes

We realised almost immediately that without someone to drive the implementation plan, it was just a collection of words on paper. So we appointed a T&L co-ordinator in our department who uses the T&L implementation plan to set yearly objectives and to evaluate our progress towards achieving them. The more complex areas are divided into sections and we evaluate each section over time. We know that we can’t do everything at once. For example, one of our objectives was to incorporate peer review of teaching practices into our T&L portfolios (developing a T&L portfolio was another objective). We began by developing a rubric that worked for us, and then committing to being reviewed once, and conducting one review. Having been through that process, peer review is now part of our T&L practices.

We have a similar structure for the research component. The departmental plan mirrors the institutional plan, and there is a policy and guiding framework, all driven by the research co-ordinator within the department. We re-visit each of our implementation plans at the end of every year at our annual planning meeting to evaluate our progress. We’re held accountable for the goals we set as a department, as well as individuals, and for the time we were given to achieve those goals.

With heavy teaching and supervision loads (we have 8 permanent staff members and 4 contractors with a student population of about 240 undergraduates and about 30 postgraduates), it is challenging to see the implementation plans as living documents that need to be embedded in our practice. In order to move forward, we need a very supportive environment in which no single person has too large a burden to bear. We divide work up equally (well, as equally as possible), sharing our teaching, supervision and research loads. There is no favouritism and our professors are as involved in the undergraduate curriculum development as we are.

In addition, we provide substantial support to novice teachers and researchers. For example, when I’m working on an article I send it to at least 2 of my colleagues for critical review, preferably colleagues with a mix of research and writing experience. I get to receive feedback that will help me strengthen my work, but it also gives novice authors the opportunity to learn about the review process. This support extends to contract staff, no matter how recently they’ve been appointed.

I recently spoke to a colleague who only got a supervisor after more than 1 year as a PhD student. She’s almost 3 years into the programme and still hasn’t been able to submit a proposal. It’s not that she’s a slacker…she’s been let down by a broken system. Our postgraduate applicants must submit a 5 page concept paper, which is discussed and reviewed. If the idea seems feasible, the student is accepted and immediately assigned a supervisor. There is an expectation that the proposal will be submitted and accepted 1 year after admission to the programme.

The point of this post wasn’t to suggest that we’re better than others. I just thought it might be useful to share how we do things, especially when I often come across colleagues who have very different approaches. If you have a different way of developing staff members that works for you, please share it in the comments.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.