Overview  

The Department of Physics at Imperial College London recruits approximately 250 undergraduate students per year from a wide range of countries and communities. After noticing apparent trends in attainment gaps during the course between certain demographic groups a preliminary study was undertaken which showed that these gaps are indeed significant.  

Funding has been secured to conduct research on this subject, initially in Physics, and then further on throughout College, running from 2020 – 2024. The broad aims are to investigate the extent of attainment gaps between demographic groups, plus those students with protected characteristics, research the causes of any such gaps and implement targeted strategies in pedagogical and pastoral practices within the College to improve the university experience for all students and ensure parity for all.  

The project is a collaborative venture between the Department of Physics, the Centre for Higher Education, Research and Scholarship (CHERS), and the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (CLCC).  

Summary of proposed work  

The project has three main themes:  

(i) students’ attitudes, identity and sense of belonging, 

(ii) modes of delivery and type of assessment of the modules that comprise the undergraduate physics degree programme, and,  

(iii) building datasets and models for analysis within and beyond the department.  

There are seven current staff members in the aforenamed departments and divisions at Imperial who will be officially working on the project. In addition, we are recruiting three full-time fixed term positions: a PhD candidate, a Research Associate, and a Strategic Teaching Fellow, all based in the Department of Physics.  

PhD candidate  

There is existing evidence that attainment gaps between demographic groups, areat least in partcaused by different attitudes, identity, and a disparity in sense of belonging (e.g. Lewis 2016). We are recruiting a PhD candidate whose principal focus is to investigate these phenomena and trial interventions. The candidate’s primary supervisor is in CHERS and secondary supervisor in Physics. In the first instance, the student will analyse data within the Department of Physics. Thewill investigate whether there is a difference in attitudes such as self-efficacy, attitude to learning and engagement, and sense of belonging amongst different demographic groups and groups of students with protected characteristics, and to what extent these measures correlate with attainment. In aid of this we will use qualitative research methods to learn from students themselves about the differences in attitudes and sense of belonging between their Physics courses, and the optional courses they take in the CLCC; as student who take courses in the CLCC consistently praise the sense of community and strong inclusion within the courses when compared with those taken as part of their core degree programme.   

For more information please see here. All applications are via the College gateway - go to "Apply now" for doctoral courses where applicants must set up an account. Under "Proposed Stream" please check "Teaching". Under "Financial support" please check "Other" and state it is fully funded by Imperial College. For further queries please refer to contacts. 

Research Associate (RA) 

We are appointing an RA who will focus on developing an analytical methodology to explore attainment gaps in Physics and branching into other department in order to test the validity of any hypotheses in these different environments. The RA will liaise with the Strategic Planning Division to gain necessary access to data and to build on College-wide efforts in similar areas (e.g. the Access and Participation Plan (APP) evaluation) and with CHERS for curriculum evaluation and research. We will thus obtain a measure of the generality of the results beyond Physics.  

The project will then investigate targeted interventions that seek to alleviate the attainment gap. A published example of this is the values affirmation project by Miyake (2010), which helps an individual reaffirm their self-worth and thereby activate internal resources for coping in a threatening environment. Based on the (preliminary) outcomes of the PhD project, we aim to implement measures to foster a greater sense of belonging and a common identity for all our students. We will involve the students themselves in these activities through funding specific student initiatives in this area as studies have shown an increase in sense of belonging when first-year students engage with higher-year students. This can be of great value towards building a genuine and inclusive learning community for both students and staff within our department. 

For further details including a full job description and the application link please see here

Strategic Teaching Fellow (STF) 

A second area of existing education research with regard to attainment gaps is the mode of course delivery and the type of assessment. For example, studies have found that interactive teaching methods reduce the gender attainment gap. Haak et al (2011) showed an increase in the performance of all first-year biology students and a reduction in the achievement gap by implementing active learning elements such as pre-class reading quizzes, which is a theme within another ongoing investigation within Physics. Other work found that question structure in assessments, such as level of scaffolding and the use of diagrams or multidimensional context (e.g. Dawkins et al. 2017Gibson et al. 2015) can affect the achievement of female versus male students. We are recruiting an STF who will specialise in this area. They will be embedded in the Faculty of Natural Sciences (FoNS) community of education specialists, and work across the faculty, initially to collate and compare assessment and course delivery strategies. They will gather a dataset similar to that of Physics (i.e. module-level attainment plus demographic characteristics) for other FoNS departments, which will allow the STF to investigate a wide range of assessment types and their impact, identify good practice and share it throughout FoNS and beyond.  

The STF will also liaise with staff from the CLCC with whom we will be looking to explore the small intersecting group of students who are of interest in the Physics cohort who also have experience with the CLCC. It is relatively uncommon to be able to ask students to compare different educational experiences as most students in higher education stay with their cohort within their discipline for the duration of their studies, making this a valuable and potentially enlightening cohort to investigate.The STF will investigate whether there are any correlations between attainment within CLCC courses and within student’s core disciplines (across FoNS), with the view of determining which factors might be most relevant. Within Physics, the STF will be able to use the pre-existing data to compare delivery as well as assessment style between modules that show a large attainment gap and those that do not. The results of this can then immediately be compared throughout FoNS. Subsequently any validated interventions can inform assessment strategy and course delivery throughout College 

For further details including a full job description and the application link please see here.

References  

Dawkins, Hedgeland, and Jordan, 2017, Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res., 13, 020117 
Gibson, Jardine-Wright, and Bateman, 2015, Eur. J. Phys. 36 
Haak, Hille Ris Lambers, Pitre, and Freeman, 2011, Science Reports, 332, 1213 
Lewis et al., 2016, Phys. Rev. Phys. Ed. Res., 12, 020110 
Miyake et al., 2010, Science Reports, 330, 1234 

Contacts  

For general queries about the project, the RA and STF positions please contact Dr. Mark Richards (email mark.richards@imperial.ac.uk 

For queries regarding the PhD position please contact Dr. Camille Kandiko Howson (email c.howson@imperial.ac.ukor Dr. Vijay Tymms (email v.tymms@imperial.ac.uk)