Reflections on integrity and community at the University of Nottingham PGR conference

This guest post was written by Joyceline Alla-Mensah and Robert Whyte, doctoral researchers in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham.

The University of Nottingham’s School of Education recently held its annual postgraduate research conference. This year, the conference theme was ‘Theoretical and Practical Challenges of Postgraduate Research’. With twenty-five paper presentations, posters, and demonstrations over two days, it offered us a chance to showcase ongoing research projects, receive constructive feedback, and reflect on the many issues encountered by postgraduate researchers.

Events of this nature are crucial to maintaining a positive postgraduate research community. With over 200 postgraduate researchers in the School of Education studying for MA, EdD and PhD qualifications, both local and distance learners, in full-time and part-time capacities, our community is notably diverse. Equally, our work is spread across six research centres focused on learning sciences, educational leadership and management, international and vocational education, arts, creativity and literacy, mathematics education, and human flourishing. Understandably, the broad areas of interest amongst our students can present both opportunities as well as challenges in defining areas of commonality for discussion and collaboration. However, the PGR conference paved the way for students to share their good practices as well as talk about some of the problems they had faced along the way.

One area which was fruitfully explored during the conference was research (or researcher) integrity. Professor Martyn Hammersley, our keynote speaker, distinguished between ethical and epistemic integrity. Focusing predominantly on the latter, he highlighted the need for researchers to be reflective and demonstrate integrity in making balanced or ‘wise’ judgements regarding the production of knowledge, as opposed to showing broad compliance with ‘good’ research practice. He argued that research integrity underlies all the processes of research, from developing the initial research questions to reporting findings. More information on this can be found on Professor Hammersley’s blog site.

Many postgraduate researchers returned to Professor Hammersley’s points in their own presentations. They pointed out the lack of a common rule book for tackling these issues and instead suggested the need for a critical appraisal of one’s own research values in navigating common pitfalls. One academic in particular referred to the usefulness of fictional characters as narrative devices in educational research but added that inventing data for research can erode trust between researchers and their audience. Indeed, this issue encouraged much debate, both in the seminar and during a coffee break, and led to a renewed appreciation of integrity — especially important in an ostensibly ‘post-truth’ climate.

The majority of the conference presentations centred on postgraduate students’ own research and included topics such as collaborative partnerships with local art institutions; designing lessons to enhance middle school students’ learning of 3D shapes; metacognition and computational thinking; using social networking to encourage intercultural communication; and doing research with low-achieving students and investigating teachers’ changes in practice as a result.

Student-led Q&A session with Louisa Penfold, Shah Norwawi, Leonardo Barichello and Maria Jose Opazo Perez and paper presentation from Jingjing Ruan

In addition, several presenters explored more practical areas such as the use of research tools and specialist software. It is interesting to know that, while our students differed in their ontological, epistemological and methodological orientations, certain commonalities were found in discussions on the use of software for referencing, organising, analysing and presenting data. Some of the tools explored were:

  • Cmap, an intuitive tool for creating conceptual maps
  • Painless (or less painful) data transcription with oTranscribe
  • BOS for creating and collecting (secure) online survey data
  • Zotero as a free alternative for managing references

To conclude, postgraduate research can be an isolating and difficult process. This conference gave students the opportunity to showcase their research projects, share knowledge and experiences, and connect with other students in the School of Education. All these are important to our sense of community.

We hope to see you there next year!

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