Background to URB@N

At a meeting of PRaSHEN (Pedagogic Research and Scholarship in Higher Education Network) just before Christmas in 2008, a small group of university colleagues agreed to work together on a collaborative research project the following year (primed with a little start-up funding from the then Office of Learning and Teaching) to explore the benefits of undergraduate students working with academics (members of the research network) as novice researchers.

The pilot project, in a moment of brilliant creativity, was called URB@N (Undergraduate Research Bursaries at Northampton). A small sample of course tutors were approached in February, and their interested students (predominantly second years) were pitched involvement as follows:

"Participating in a ‘real world’ research project like this is a great way of getting valuable work experience and developing new skills. A total of 8 places are available on the scheme this year and successful students will receive a bursary (tax free payment) to support their involvement in the research project. In short, URB@N provides a way to ‘earn while you learn’ alongside your studies, gain extra credentials for your CV and make an important contribution to a piece of scholarly research!"

History: the first call to students (2009)

For the inaugural scheme, we deliberately aligned our call with the theme for our upcoming Learning and Teaching conference at the university, which happened to be based on ‘Transitions’. This is the information we circulated to advertise URB@N:

"Over the last few years, a great deal has been written in academic journals along the broad theme of “transition” – from school, college or work to university, from Year 1 to Year 2, and so on.  A great deal of this work has tried to address the issues from the perspective of a student, using methods such as focus groups and questionnaires, but the vast majority have been published by established academics who have not experienced the issues for several years.

Project URB@N will give you, as the students experiencing the transitions, the exciting chance to explore the ideas which have been raised by academic staff, and present them as a poster at the 2nd Learning and Teaching Conference in mid-May 2009.  The sky is the limit for ideas for projects, but they could include things such as:
  • Student voice: becoming an independent learner
  • Student use of assessment feedback
  • Student engagement with employability

You will get the support of a member of academic staff, and receive some training on how to go about the research itself.  Projects can be completed by individual students, but will more usually be carried out by small groups of students, who may or may not be from the same discipline.

You will also receive a tax-free bursary of £500 per group at the end of the project."

The result was a labour intensive but immensely satisfying engagement with four students, who contributed significantly to intensive pedagogic research on: transitions in Psychology learning; transitions in engagement with History seminars; professional transitions amongst new lecturers.

Reflecting on the experience of this pilot scheme, three of the academic staff (who became the de facto URB@N coordinators) noted three very different working models with URB@N students, which they identified as:
  • Apprentice model (co-researching)
  • Supervisee model (guided autonomy)
  • Research Assistant model (contributing to existing larger project)
This recognition that different staff and different projects, require different ways of working with undergraduate researchers, has provided a flexible framework in which the scheme has grown from its small beginnings.