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Durham University

Department of Physics

Research-led teaching

Durham University prides itself on being both research-intensive and student-orientated. Achievements in both areas of activity are high, and the University aims for excellence in both by closely aligning the teaching and learning experience with the research-intensive values and practices of the University.

The University Strategy aims to safeguard the quality of teaching and learning while ensuring the viability of provision. It acknowledges the importance of ensuring that research-led teaching is delivered in a way which:

  • encourages deep learning
  • explicitly develops the relevant skills
  • is effective within the time available
  • brings together the process and the content of research activity.

The Physics Department is equally committed to enhancing provision of the undergraduate and postgraduate curricula through research-led teaching. It provides high quality, research-led programmes of study that introduce students to the latest findings in their chosen discipline, while also developing their powers of intellectual synthesis, the skills necessary for independent study and the capacity to work in a variety of professional contexts. The academic staff in the Department are actively engaged in research at the frontiers of physics and this excitement and knowledge is brought into the undergraduate programme. Below are listed a few examples that illustrate that research content and methods are at the heart of the Department's learning and teaching.

Research-oriented learning

  • Curriculum emphasises teaching processes of knowledge construction in the subject.
  • Teaching of rigorous experimental techniques from Level 1 onwards.
  • High expectations for assessed laboratory reports. From the start, students are expected to produce reports in the style of professional research articles. Detailed guidance is given, both in written form and in timetabled sessions. The Department awards annually a Florence Nightingale Prize for Graphical Excellence to one student at each level of study.

Research-based learning

  • Curriculum emphasises students undertaking inquiry-based learning.
  • The research project which is undertaken in the final (fourth) year of the MPhys degree. This project accounts for half of the marks for the year (equivalent to more than 22% of the marks for the whole degree programme), which is one of the very highest weightings among UK physics departments.
  • The increasingly open-ended nature of the laboratory projects undertaken within the Department.
  • Each year a number of summer studentships are available in the Department for current students. These give students at all levels the opportunity to work on a real research project alongside active researchers. In addition to enhancing the students' subject knowledge and skills, these studentships give them valuable experience of working in a research team.

Research-tutored learning

  • Curriculum emphasies learning focussed on students writing and discussing papers or essays.
  • As part of the Level 3 computing project, students take part in tutorials where they prepare a poster presentation, which they then present to the whole year group and discuss with staff.

Research-led learning

  • Curriculum is structured around teaching subject content
  • Modules at Levels 3 and 4 are strongly influenced by the Department's research strengths and provide opportunities for students to specialise in some areas. They lay the foundation for research in physics and related sciences.
  • Efforts to engage the students with recent research results at all levels of teaching. For example, a lecturer might use a recently-published (or even forthcoming) research paper as the basis of an exploration of a particular physical concept during a lecture. The Level 2 Research-led Investigation requires critical reading of relevant scientific papers and the Level 3 computing project typically aims to reproduce and then extend the results of a classic research paper.
  • The Level 4 project offers the opportunity to carry out an extended scientific investigation on a topic at (or close to) the forefront of the discipline.

Curriculum design and the research-teaching nexus

Curriculum design and the research-teaching nexus (source: Healey (2005),