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Introduction to the Virtual Issue: Higher Education Research & Development

Ly Thi Tran & Craig Whitsed

Over the past 37 years, Higher Education Research & Development (HERD) has addressed key topics pertinent to the past, present and future of higher education. A wide range of empirical, theoretical, philosophical and historical articles and essays on HERD have provided fresh critical insights into the changes, developments and challenges in higher education around the world. This Virtual Special Issue for Higher Education Research & Development comprises ten most viewed articles and considers some of the important and emergent issues in higher education in our current fast-changing globalised world, including the nature of teaching and learning, graduate employability, and new demands for technology in higher education. Addressing these core issues in the higher education landscape, the ten articles included in this Virtual Issue have made original and enduring contributions to the theory, practice or research of universities across the globe.

HERD Most Viewed Articles

Article Title Author Volume/Issue
What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learningJohn BiggsVol. 31 Iss. 1 (2012)
The graduate attributes we’ve overlooked: enhancing graduate employability through career management skillsBridgstock, Ruth
Vol. 28 Iss. 1 (2009)
The criteria of effective teaching in a changing higher education contextDevlin, Marcia; Samarawickrema, Gayani
Vol. 29 Iss. 2 (2010)
Motivation and cognitive load in the flipped classroom: definition, rationale and a call for researchAbeysekera, Lakmal; Dawson, Phillip
Vol. 34 Iss. 1 (2015)
Who succeeds at university? Factors predicting academic performance in first year Australian university studentsKristen McKenzie and Robert Schweitzer
Vol 20 Iss. 1 (2001)
Critical thinking and disciplinary thinking: A continuing debateTim John Moore
Vol. 30 Iss. 3 (2011)
Developing generic skills at university, during work placement and in employment: graduates' perspectivesGay Crebert, Merrelyn Bates, Brry Bell, Carol-joy Patrick and Vanda Cragnolini
Vol. 23 Iss. 2 (2004)
Scaffolding critical thinking in the zone of proximal developmentRob Wass, Tony Harland & Alison Mercer
Vol. 30 Iss. 3 (2011)
The quality of guidance and feedback to studentsDai Hounsell, Velda McCune , Jenny Hounsell & Judith Litjens
Vol. 27 Iss.1 (2008)
E-learning in higher education: some key aspects and their relationship to approaches to studyEllis, Robert A.; Ginns, Paul; Piggott, Leanne
Vol. 28 Iss. 3 (2009)

Drawing on data from the HERD’s homepage on Taylor & Francis website these articles combined have been viewed nearly 170,000 times. These high‐visibility articles in HERD indicate the level of public awareness of the crucial issues pertaining to the higher education sector over time. While citation rates are often cited as the key index of a journal article’s impact, we argue based on our own experience as academics, researchers and editors, the impact of an article cannot be limited to the number of times it is cited. In formulating our own understandings and research we have ‘viewed’ numerous works that helped stimulate or frame ideas, which do not make it into the reference list. Many of these articles provide the seeds of thought that germinate over time to find expression.

The higher education context is dynamic and in a constant state of flux, which brings with it numerous challenges. Increased student diversity, rising student expectations and changing university governance necessitate a rethink  about what constitutes effective teaching and learning in higher education. The articles included in this Virtual Issue showcase nuanced collective understandings of what constitutes effective teaching and learning that take into account key factors shaping the landscape of higher education such as: past, current and future trends, ever changing government priorities and policies, stakeholder expectations and student needs, all of which assert an influence on what is achievable, desirable and possible in an ever shifting educational context.

Other significant topics addressed in this Virtual Issue include student retention and progression, higher order learning processes, problem-based learning and the learning portfolio. These articles offer examples of effective aligned teaching and learning practices as well as robust approaches to the provision of guidance and feedback as an integral holistic process. In particular, several high visibility articles on critical thinking underscore the increasing emphasis on the development of this crucial capability in higher education and the importance of encouraging students to develop the capacity to navigate through different modes of critical thinking.

Graduate employability has become a pressing issue on the agenda of universities worldwide due to new developments and trends in education as well as the dynamic labour markets of  knowledge economies. However, practices and policies related to graduate attributes have been driven by various and sometimes conflicting desires, values and ideologies of both universities and diverse stakeholders. Papers on this issue argue for the importance to adopting a holistic approach to planning and implementing graduate employability agendas and considering the kind of cultural, institutional and policy changes required to implement the graduate skills agenda. Significantly, authors in this Virtual Issue point out the need to move beyond narrow lists of generic skills to consider lifelong career development including self-management competence and career building capabilities.

Surveying the articles for this Virtual Special Issue John Biggs (1999/2012) “What the student does: Teaching for enhanced learning” (41,182 views) introduces what is now widely known as constructive alignment arguing ‘it’s the teacher’s job to organize the teaching/learning context so that all students are more likely to use the higher order learning process’. In the Australian context with the introduction of the TEQSA Higher Education Standards Framework and an insistence that learning outcomes be aligned throughout a program of study, this paper therefore remains highly relevant.

Graduate attributes or capabilities have received considerable attention in the literature as they have come in and out of favour and back again as an educational priority across the higher education sector. Ruth Bridgestock’s (2009) “The graduate attributes we've overlooked: enhancing graduate employability through career management skills” (28,865 views) is the second most viewed article. In this article, Bridgestock argues that in the ‘rapidly changing information‐and knowledge‐intensive economy, employability involves far more than possession of the generic skills listed by graduate employers’ and that education for employability must provide opportunities for students to develop ‘self-management and career building skills’. In the context of the ever-evolving employability discourses this article’s continued currency is self-evident. 

In a similar vein to Bigg’s paper our third top viewed article addresses teaching quality and effective teaching. Marcia Devlin and Gayani Samarawickrema’s (2009) “The criteria of effective teaching in a changing higher education context” (17,955 views) argue understandings of what constitutes effective teaching have to evolve as the higher education sector changes. ‘Context is critical’ and in the contemporary university ‘it is subject to continuous and multiple changes imposed by forces from within and outside’. As such, they argue, ‘understandings of competent, professional, and effective teaching must continually evolve’ to accurately reflect and respond to these changes. When so much emphasis is now placed on teaching quality in the contemporary university and how this is documented and evidenced, this article remains important for academics, administrators and policy writers.

“Flipped learning” has become somewhat of a buzzword across the sector as universities increasingly move into the digital learning space and move to embrace the digital disruptors that challenge established modalities of educational provision. The fourth top viewed paper addresses student motivation and cognitive load in a flipped environment. Lakmal Abeysekera and Phillip Dawson (2015; 14,992 views) observe, in this paper, that there is ‘little evidence of effectiveness or consisteny in understanding what a flipped classroom actually is’. Abeysekera and Dawson present a ‘catch-all definition’, construct a theoretical argument for the efficacy of flipped approaches with the potential to improve student motivation and cognitive load management. They conclude with a call for further specific research into the effectiveness of the flipped classroom approach.

One of the more enduring issues in the higher education sector pertains to student retention and progression. Some 18 years on since publication Kristen McKenzie and Robert Schweitzer’s (2001) article, “Who succeeds at university? Factors predicting academic performance in first year Australian university students”, ranks fifth with 12305 views. Clearly student retention and progress continues to be a vexing issue across the sector and as such this article continues to be of interest.

Ranked sixth top viewed article (11,277 views), Tim Moore (2011) in, “Critical thinking and disciplinary thinking: A continuing debate”, examines critical and disciplinary thinking and argues that rather than critical thinking a more useful operant is ‘metacritique’ wherein the ‘essential quality to be encouraged in students is a flexibility of thought and the ability to negotiate a range of different critical modes’. At seven, Gay Crebet et al (2004; 10,357) report on a survey of graduates’ perceptions, from three Schools within Griffith University, of the ‘contributions that the learning contexts in university, work-placement and post-graduation employment made to the development of their graduate skills’ in “Developing generic skills at university, during work placement and in employment: graduates' perspectives”.

In eighth spot with 10,248 views is Ross Wass, Tony Hartland and Alison Mercer’s (2011) “Scaffolding critical thinking in the zone of proximal development”. In a three year study with 26 zoology students Wass et al (2011) using Vygotsky’s developmental model of the Zone of Proximinal Development argued if critical thinking is to remain a key aim of higher education then research ‘should be an integral part of the first year’. At number nine, with 6082 views, Dai Hounsell et al (2008) address a perennial issue for students and academics in their article “The quality of guidance and feedback to students”. Based on their mixed method research with 69 students they elaborate a guidance and feedback frame with six interrelated steps. In tenth position with 5,255 views, Robert Ellis, Paul Ginns and Leanne Piggot (2009) in their article “E-learning in higher education: some key aspects and their relationship to approaches to study” discusses the key tennets of e‐learning  that are linked to ‘student approaches to study, so that a better understanding of the internal structure of these aspects is achieved’.

Focusing on some of the core issues in higher education, including teaching and learning quality and approaches, student retention and progress, graduate employability, and e-learning, the ten most viewed articles in this Virtual Issue have made a substantial and distinctive contribution to the theory, practice or research of higher education. These articles address critical debates and provide implications for continuously improving higher education by informing and challenging key stakeholders including researchers, teachers, administrators and policy makers to rethink a range of practices and policies in higher education.

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Higher Education Research & Development

Table of Contents for Higher Education Research & Development. List of articles from both the latest and ahead of print issues.

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