Research Based Learning

The Case for Research Based Learning in Tourism

by Alexis Papathanassis

1.0  Introduction & Background:

Given the temporary nature of knowledge and the fast evolving tourism-cruise industry, I perceive little value at passing over information and facts, descriptive case studies and personal wisdoms.  For a graduate to survive and be successful in a competitive and complex tourism/cruise industry, they need to be critical, innovative and systematic in the way they approach new tasks or projects.  In line to my experience, the tourism industry is traditionally quite ‘un-academic’ and ‘front-office’ experience remains decisive.  Formal qualifications are not as highly regarded as in other industries and this makes it very difficult for young tourism professionals to climb up the career ladder.  Soft skills and intercultural competence are fairly self-understood and wide-spread amongst tourism professionals. In other words, basic knowledge and social competences are not an exceptional value-added of the education we offer, but an absolute minimum.  Thus, a competitive advantage (in terms of career development) in such a context is the ability to ask the right questions, clearly express thoughts, substantiate arguments and do this consistently over time. This is especially the case in larger companies – tourism is highly concentrated – where ‘political’ reputation is the key to top management.

According to my opinion, our current education system does not sufficiently encourage independent and critical thinking.  Our economic and political development, as reflected in the introduction of and experiences withcompact bachelor programmes, ultimately aims at producing functional members of society, cost-effective workers and team-players.  Nonetheless, professional success requires social-shapers, effective managers and leaders.  This may well be the price of mass-education.

Colourfully stated:

  •  The mere consumption of knowledge produces consumers, not knowers
  • Conformity and standards lead do not trigger creativity, but simply strengthen its monopolisation

Therefore the question posed here is:  How can we nurture and educate our students in becoming motivated, critical, and independent thinkers?  And how can it be done within the resource restrictions present.

2.0  Teaching Approach – RBL Concept

In order to help our students develop those meta-skills, I utilised the scientific process / research as a teaching method:  Research-Based Learning (see table 1 bellow):

Table 1:  Research-Based Learning vs. Traditional Lecturing

  Research Coaching   Traditional Lecturing
Thematic Scope  Specific (Depth focus)  General (Width focus)
Student Role  Active / Creative  Passive / Receptive
Professor Role  Coaching / Supportive  Explaining / Directive
Teaching Method  One-to-One Sessions / Idea Exchange / Discussion  Group Lecturing / Questioning
Learning Process  Question → Application → Understanding → Description → Reflection  Description → Understanding → Question → Application→ Reflection
Critical Success Factors  Motivation / Trust / Emotional Support  Content / Structure / Rhetoric / Entertainment factor
Evaluation / Feedback  Colloquium feedback in person + detailed thesis evaluation report  Written Exam / Presentation / Essay / report grade + comments
Desired Outcome  Experience with a Knowledge Domain  Knowledge within an Experience Domain

 Source:  Alexis Papathanassis

Empirical research is requires experience and practice.  In order for students to effectively conduct research there are a number of skills that need to be practised (e.g. writing, data collection, research planning and design).  In that respect, a foundation lecture on research methodology and then 8-9 weeks to write a bachelor thesis is not adequate and produces rather superficial results.  That is why many bachelor theses tend to be highly descriptive literature collections.  As such they constitute no significant contribution to knowledge, offering little benefit to students and the academic community.  Therefore apart from offering a course on research methods and techniques (incl. class exercises), the examination / assessment of other courses has been used to develop those skills (see figure 1).


3.0  An Example of Integrating RBL in a Tourism Curriculum (CIM – Cruise Industry Management)

CIM Year 1 (Skill – Using academic literature):

Within the scope of the course ‘Competence Building in Studying Successfully’ CIM (Cruise Industry Management) students are required to read, critically evaluate and discuss scientific papers.  Academic citation, referencing and plagiarism topics are covered.

CIM Year 2: (Skills – Relevant question identification, research report writing, data collection):

 The assessment scope of the course: ‘Tour Operating & Travel Distribution’, requires students to regularly read tourism trade press, pick a relevant topic and write a critical essay of 3.500 words.Part of the assessment for the course:  ‘Applied Cruise Management’ requires students to conduct at least 3 in-depth interviews with cruise customers on their latest cruise experience and reflect on the results.  The cumulative findings are discussed in class.

 CIM Year 3:  (Skills – Research methodology design, data analysis):

During their final year, students attend the course ‘Research Methods & Techniques’ , where they are introduced to research paradigms and are required to produce a research proposal as part of their assessment.  This very research proposal serves as an input for selecting their bachelor thesis supervisor and is the basis of the bachelor thesis coaching sessions.  The advantage here is two-fold.  First of all, assessment is used for learning and practicing knowledge acquisition skills and not for simply memorising and reproducing material in a written exam.  Secondly, the assessment results can be ‘recycled’ (i.e. used as an input) for further milestones in their studies.  What students learn for their assessment is not forgotten after the exam, but is recalled again to serve their bachelor thesis.  Simply stated, assessment is not merely used to assess learning, but becomes part of the learning process.

Finally, this year we introduced a new elective e-Cruising Conference for the 5th semester. Essentially this is a scientific conference fully organised by students and for students.  The intention is that students experience peer-feedback on their research and that they exchange ideas and experiences with others.   Students are required to prepare and present papers and (blind) review others’ papers.  This is done in cooperation with the Leibniz Universität Hannover and the GISMA Business School.  We have also secured sponsors (Hapaq Lloyd, Fidelio Cruises and Royal Caribbean) who have agreed to donate €7000 and will hold keynote speeches during the conference.  The best student papers are going to be published in the proceedings.  For a course description please follow this link

3.0  A Critical View on the RBL Approach

Undergraduate Research?!

A starting point would be to reflect on my own personal motives and preferences.   Given the lack of PhDs and administrative structures to support research in Universities of Applied Science, I decided to be pragmatic and utilise the only resource available:  our students.  It is tempting to disregard undergraduate students as not mature and motivated enough for ‘serious’ research.  Nonetheless, my experience shows that students are, with the right degree of coaching and training, capable of significantly contributing to knowledge. My colleagues and I were constantly surprised by the quality and originality of our students’ theses.  Ironically, students who were not highly visible in terms of performance often ended up producing theses, which taught us a lot and had a potential for publication.  At that point, I decided to develop this approach further, bringing it to its current form. The question that keeps coming up is whether such an approach is appropriate for a tourism /cruise programme at a university of applied sciences.  At the end of the day, the bachelor thesis is only a small part of the entire curriculum and the focus should be professional practice (not academic research).  Can we, and should we, expect research skills from our students?  Does it really play a role in their professional development?

In terms of academic expectations, the results have been positive so far.  The average grade (2006-2010) of the 41 theses I have supervised as a first examiner is 1,9.  Important to note here is that the expected standard has risen over the last years and that the bachelor thesis grade is dependent on a written report (Thesis) and an oral examination (Colloquium) graded by two examiners.  9 out of 41 theses (22%) can be classified significant contribution to knowledge.  This may appear small – after all there is the rest 78% – but is nonetheless important.  It would not be realistic to expect the majority of our students to excel in research, plus the value of a thesis extends beyond publication.  At the end of the day, students learn and prepare for potential post-graduate (master) education and we learn a lot through reading them.  Worth mentioning is that the number of our students continuing their education at postgraduate level has practically doubled over the last 3 years.

Misplaced Emphasis?

Even though analytical skills are essential for career development research competence is not central in getting a job.  Having said this, the CIM programme contains more than sufficient possibilities to develop practical-, problem-solving- and social- skills (e.g. competence-building courses, internship, company projects).  Therefore, RBL does not in any way ‘compete’ with the practical relevance of the programme; it just complements and enriches it.  My discussions with ex-students have also indicated a hidden benefit of theses.  They often serve as a discussion trigger during job interviews.  Interviewers often show interest on the thesis topic and use it as an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the applicant.  Given that the students are quite familiar with their topic, helps them create a good impression.

Efficient Allocation of Teaching Resources?

One issue here is the degree of effort and time such an approach requires from academic staff. One-to-one research coaching – which is more than ‘supervision’ – necessitates time, mental involvement and availability from academic staff.  In this sense, such an approach may be feasible for small degree programmes (such as CIM with 40 students per semester), but highly problematic for larger ones. As an indication, each thesis requires a minimum of 5 meetings for supervision and feedback. Averaging 12 theses pro semester this results to 60 hours.  Nonetheless, I consider it worthwhile due to its benefits for students AND professors.  We all learn from each other!  Another issue is implementation complexity.  Integrating RBL in standard curriculum is challenging (see figure 1).  Nevertheless, the adoption of a more modular structure in study programmes (re-accreditation requirement) is expected to enable an easier integration of such teaching approaches.

Supervisor Bias

Finally, I must admit that I often found myself indirectly imposing my own research interests and methodological preferences to the students. This became apparent when a large number of my students wanted to write their thesis on e-Tourism and wanted to utilise Grounded Theory.  My fear was that instead of passing over my enthusiasm for research, I ended up passing over my enthusiasm for MY research.  This is a very subtle but yet highly relevant risk when it comes to research-based training and supervision.  As a consequence, I included more actual research exercises (and fewer research examples) in the Research Methods and Techniques Course.  In addition, I stopped proposing bachelor thesis themes to the bachelor students under my supervision.  In effect, this meant more discussion, interaction and frustration for the students(i.e. takes more time to find a suitable topic), but at the end a greater variability on research topics was achieved.

4.0  Closing Word

The main philosophy of RBL is that students can learn how to learn by actively contributing to knowledge, rather than passively consuming it.  Students acquire knowledge through scientific discovery and exploration; not though memorising. The main advantages I experienced are:  increased learning satisfaction (for both students and supervisors) and the discovery of research potential in undergraduate students.  On the other hand, this approach is rather effort- & time-intensive, rendering it unrealistic for larger study programmes.

Those interested in cooperating with the Cruise Research Society to developthis teaching approach further, please contact: