New paper on simulation in higher education

I’m delighted to announce online publication of my latest paper.

Abrandt Dahlgren M, Fenwick T & Hopwood N (2016) Theorising simulation in higher education: difficulty for learners as an emergent phenomenon. Teaching in Higher Education. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2016.1183620

The url behind the doi number will give the first 50 people to click free access to the full paper. Please only use this option if you don’t have access through your institution (so that free access is preserved for those who really need it). Otherwise you’ll need to go through the normal channels, or you can contact me for a copy.

The paper was co-authored with Prof Tara Fenwick (UK/Canada) and Prof Madeleine Abrandt Dahlgren (Sweden). We looked at data from three studies of simulation in health professional education, and explore how sociomaterial theory can help understand what makes simulations difficult for learners, how that difficult arises, and what this means for educators. This is the latest in a series of papers about simulation, arising from a project I’ve been working on with colleagues at UTS (see here for more information on the project, and this link for a full list of publications).

Here is the abstract:

Despite the widespread interest in using and researching simulation in higher education, little discussion has yet to address a key pedagogical concern: difficulty. A ‘sociomaterial’ view of learning, explained in this paper, goes beyond cognitive considerations to highlight dimensions of material, situational, representational and relational difficulty confronted by students in experiential learning activities such as simulation. In this paper we explore these dimensions of difficulty through three contrasting scenarios of simulation education. The scenarios are drawn from studies conducted in three international contexts: Australia, Sweden and the UK, which illustrate diverse approaches to simulation and associated differences in the forms of difficulty being produced. For educators using simulation, the key implications are the importance of noting and understanding (1) the effects on students of interaction among multiple forms of difficulty; (2) the emergent and unpredictable nature of difficulty; and (3) the need to teach students strategies for managing emergent difficulty.

Theses with a difference: Taking chances in psychology

What a lovely piece of writing, and a lovely set of stories! A treat for all #PhD-ers out there!

Kerry Chamberlain
Helen OE

For some time now I have been banging on about the limitations of the ways that psychologists approach their research uncritically, and lamenting the way that so many psychologists simply take up theoretical ideas and methodological approaches from others, often without providing any substantial argument in support of their choices other than to point at references to published work as a (very weak) attempt at authentication. Doing research this way serves to limit ownership of the research, restrict reflexivity, and constrain creativity around what might be done.

So it’s time to celebrate some of those people I have been fortunate enough to work with – Joanna, Dany, Helen, and Megan – who have been brave enough to go their own way, take chances, position themselves differently, and work creatively in developing and producing their theses.  

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New paper on simulation in nurse education

I’m delighted to announce another publication from the project I’ve been doing with Donna Rooney, David Boud (both UTS School of Education),and Michelle Kelly (former UTS: Health, now at Curtin).

Kelly M, Hopwood N, Rooney D & Boud D (2016) Enhancing students’ learning through simulation: dealing with diverse, large cohorts. Clinical Simulation in Nursing 26(12), 171-176. doi: 10.1016/j.ecns.2016.01.010 

The highlights of the article are:

  • As healthcare simulation matures, new questions about pedagogy are emerging.
  • The challenges of large and diverse student cohorts need to be accounted for.
  • Relevant pedagogies are: informal learning, clinical judgement and sociomaterial.
  • Assist active participants and observers to become attuned to professional practice. Improving students’ noticing skills assists in learning about practice.

The abstract is:

As the field of health care simulation matures, new questions about appropriate pedagogy are emerging which present challenges to research and practices. This has implications for how we investigate and deliver effective simulations, how we conceive effectiveness, and how we make decisions about investment in simulation infrastructure. In this article, we explore two linked challenges that speak to these wider concerns: student diversity and large cohorts. We frame these within contemporary simulation practices and offer recommendations for research and practice that will account for students’ varying cultural expectations about learning and clinical practice in the Australian context.



Creating the literature review: research questions and arguments (Part 3 of 4)

Very helpful strategies for approach the nemesis that is the “lit review”

DoctoralWriting SIG


In Part 2, I explained how to generate the content of the literature review. At this stage it is just a list of assumptions (those labelled A to F in Part 2), and each assumption is a claim to be argued. Before expanding on each of these assumptions-as-claims, they have to be organised into a coherent writing plan.

Technique for connecting the content of the literature review

Finding a logical flow between assumptions can be challenging, but I’ve found a method for creating flow that seems to work well. If one can insert a connecting phrase (shown in italics below) between the assumptions so it reads like one long sentence that makes sense, then the order is probably logical. It might take a bit of arranging and rearranging to find a structure that works.

Success is best measured in terms of money (D)

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Habits, practices and dispositions of successful research students

This post brings together a number of things that I’ve come to see as important for research students. They are based on what I know from research I’ve done, literature I’ve read, experience as a supervisor, and conversations with many students and supervisors at universities around the world.

Constantly looking for your thesis thief

I’ve written a detailed blog post about this. Your thesis thief is the person who has ‘stolen’ your research by doing something really similar already! Regularly looking for this person is a good habit to cultivate as it avoids nasty shocks (believe me, I know how it can feel). It also requires and promotes good scholarly discipline in being able to define what ‘really similar’ would mean: in terms of topic, methodology, context, theory etc…


Ask for help… when you need it

Sounds obvious? Well experience tells us that many students ask for help when they don’t really need it. When I speak with other supervisors, we often chuckle about the number of times students approach us with questions where the answer would be on google (let me google that for you), somewhere in the university web pages, handbook, literature etc. That’s just a kind of minor annoyance / time wasting issue. What’s far more important is that any kind of research learning (master’s dissertation, doctoral thesis) requires the student to learn to help herself or himself. Of course, help-seeking is itself part of being an effective student (see below), but defaulting to dependence on others is the opposite of effective.

Student:           Can we have a meeting to talk about coding my data?

Supervisor:      What have you read about coding?

Student:           Er, not much. Just one paper but it was really confusing.

Supervisor:      Who have you talked to about coding? Have you asked any other students who have done it?

Student:           No. No-one.

Supervisor:      Have you tried some coding on your own data, a few times at least?

Student:           No, I wanted you to tell me how to do it right first.

Supervisor:      Sorry, no, I don’t think it is a good use of our time to meet. Come back when you’ve explored these other avenues.

I’m not saying this supervisor is doing the right thing, but it’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?


Cultivate, nurture and strategically access a constellation of supportive relationships

No matter how amazing and available your supervisor is (see below), you’re going to need other people to support you through the research journey. Some of these people it is their job to help you – librarians, IT support etc. I found personally that making a special effort with research / postgraduate administrators is a sound investment as they really are the oil and the fuel in the institutional machine. Others might be helping you as a favour, so you need to build a sense of mutuality in the relationship – peers who will help you with endnote, stats etc. Others have long been supportive of you, but now have to support you in this different endeavour, perhaps at a time when you’re less available to them – those providing emotional support, for example. There are others who might never meet you, or even know they’re helping you. I’m thinking here of Thesis Whisperer, Pat Thomson, and others in the amazing and helpful world of #phdchat and similar in the tweet- and blogospheres. Then there are academics in your field – people you meet at conferences and engage in corridor chat or discussions over coffee or dinner; people whose work you are reading whom you might email now and then; people who might be your examiners. So, your constellation will include your supervisor, family, friends, student peers, other academics; maybe dead people (authors of books can be a great source of support), people you never meet, people who don’t even know you exist!

It’s one thing to build this kind of supportive net around your research and your emotional and physical wellbeing. It is another thing altogether to use it effectively. The key is, when things get tricky, diagnosing what the problem really is, what kind of help you need right now, and who is best able to provide that help. Let me give an example from a study I did. A student doing economic history, Lucy, had waited months to get data from a national archive. It arrived by email and she opened up the file only to find huge holes in the data that meant she couldn’t do the study she had hoped to do. What did she do? She went out for a drink with a chemistry PhD student. Why? Because she knew this person well enough to feel ok crying (she needed to cry), but also because she knew chemists fail all the time (it’s true: they spend months trying to get experiments to work). She realised what she needed, right then, was not a solution to the data issue, but someone who could help her cope with the experience of her PhD falling out from under her feet.


Ensure time with your supervisor is as high value as possible

Your supervisor is important, but not all-important. She or he is very likely extremely busy, and in many countries, research supervision is a relatively (or completely) invisible form of work – ie not something that is awarded much time or money in the grand scheme of things. Yes, she or he is committed to supporting you, cares about you, and wants you to complete your study (as quickly as possible, if you don’t mind). But in the pecking order of things that are important and urgent today, reality is you probably don’t come top or even near the top of the list. So, your time with your supervisor is precious. Very precious. So precious that you’d be really, really stupid to waste it.

So what might ‘waste’ supervision time? I’m taking a rather extreme view here, but bear with me. I think anything more than a couple of minutes on something that your supervisor is not either uniquely or best able to help with, is wasteful. Exceptions might include time spent on things she or he needs to know, for example about circumstances outside your study that are affecting your work (though I’m not at all convinced the juicy details in this are warranted). If your time with your supervisor is limited and precious, why waste it talking about things that other people (or indeed just you) could sort out just as effectively?

Now, there are a lot of things that fall under the category of things your supervisor is uniquely or best able to help you with. She or he knows you (in a research capacity sense) and what you are doing better than anyone else (although of course pretty soon in the process you know more about your specific topic than your supervisor). But there are others who know just as much about administrative process, how to find literature, how to work software, how to correct grammar etc.

By implication, there is an onus on the research student to figure out what does indeed fall into this category that makes something an appropriate (ie high-value) use of supervision time. This will change over the course of your study. And there is responsibility on both sides to try to preserve supervision as a high-value-added activity.

Student:           Can you show me how to format endnote for APA 6th?

Supervisor:      Let me google that for you.

[No further dialogue needed]


Internalise your supervisor(s)

This connects with the previous point, because it can make time with your supervisor high value. After a while, you should be able to anticipate what your supervisor might say about a chapter you’ve sent to her. In which case, write your draft, leave it for a few days, then look at it as if you were your supervisor: what would she say about my structure? Where would she be confused? What would she like? What would she say needs more work, and why? Then re-write the chapter. Then send it in. A sign you’re not doing this is that your supervisor is giving the same kind of feedback each time. For example, you sent in your first findings chapter and your supervisor said you had ‘quotitis’ (hiding behind raw data too much). So when you send in the discussion chapter, check beforehand that the same problem isn’t there too.


Know the early warning signs, monitor yourself (and others) for them, and act accordingly

Most people come off the rails, or are at risk of doing so, at some point during a research thesis or dissertation. Being on the rails means studying productively, effectively, efficiently, while also maintaining physical and emotional wellbeing, and also being the husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, sibling, friend etc that you need to be for others around you.

Kearns and colleagues have a checklist of self-sabotaging behaviours that are very common (I have experienced all of them personally, in my time), but often unnoticed or ignored. They are:

  • Overcommitting. Attempting a study that is bigger or more complex than it needs to be. Taking on too many other responsibilities, spreading yourself too thinly. Refusing to let go of things that are important in your study, but not crucial. Setting yourself impossible volumes to read etc.
  • Busyness. Doing lots of work but none of it actually being productive work (eg spending a morning printing things or downloading things to read, when you should really be reading).
  • Perfectionism. A proper academic disease. There is no place for perfectionism in research. Sure we want to avoid sloppiness, and yes we want our writing to reflect the best of what we can do. But that is not perfection. No-one ever wrote a perfect paper, dissertation or thesis. Trying to do so can only be harmful.
  • Procrastination. Either putting off thesis work, or putting off the unpleasant and difficult aspects.
  • Disorganisation. If you find you’re not getting time to read and write, you’re not as organised as you think you are.
  • Not putting in effort. It’s a long, gruelling journey. Our motivation flags. That is normal and natural. But should be spotted and dealt with.
  • Choosing performance-debilitating circumstances. Working in unsuitable locations (you think you are productive reading in the coffee shop, or at home with the kids around, but are you? Really?)


There are other early warning signs too. Things like: not wanting to go onto campus because you feel really stressed about your research. Having a knot in your stomach when you see an email from your supervisor. Deferring meetings, not turning up, or just asking for email feedback (ie avoiding direct contact with your supervisor). I’m veering into territory that I’m not at all qualified to write about (eg symptoms and signs of anxiety, depression etc), so I’ll go no further. But you get the point.

Make time to read and write

If you don’t read and write you will not complete your dissertation or thesis. If you spend hours each week doing other things but not reading or writing, sooner or later, you will plateau and stop making any progress. This is a deal-breaker. You simply have to make time to read and write.

Act as if you are fearless

Sending writing you know is not perfect off to your supervisor can be scary. I know. Submitting your thesis or dissertation for examination is even scarier. Being scared is fine. Letting that fear affect your actions is not fine. You have to send your writing off for feedback. You have to submit (abandon is probably a better word) your thesis or dissertation at some point, even though it is not perfect.

Walk the fundamental scholarly tightrope

To be an effective student you have to be confident, assertive and ready to defend your point of view (even if that means disagreeing with people more senior or experienced than you). But you also have to be humble about what you and others know, subject yourself relentlessly and ruthlessly to self critique (asking could it be otherwise, could it be better, could I be wrong?), and be open to change suggested by others. This is one of the tensions that is written into the DNA of academic work and it’s far from easy to know when which aspect is more appropriate. But it is clear, I think, that falling exclusively or even predominantly on one side or the other does not bode well for success.

My Shadow CV

The idea of the shadow CV

I have been inspired to write this blog post Devoney Looser’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which she asks: What would my vita look like if it recorded not just the successes of my professional life, but also the many, many rejections? After doing some digging I realised this wasn’t the first instance – I found one going back to 2012 by Jeremy Fox, another by Bradley Voytek from 2013 and a piece by Jacqueline Gill from the same year in which she mooted the idea (but refrained from sharing the dirt, yet).

I have long been an advocate for more candid and open sharing of the often harsh realities of academic work. Here is my attempt to mimic Devoney’s wonderful example, and hopefully model the sort of warts and all honesty that I advocate and wish to see in others.

Aren’t I nervous about making this kind of stuff public?

Let’s face it, academia is a highly competitive and often insecure work environment. While I currently have the privilege of an ongoing, full time contract, who knows what the future will bring. It seems reasonable to expect that someday, someone might be looking at my CV and doing some digging around my online scholarly identity, considering whether to appoint me to another job, or perhaps even just as part of a promotion panel.

Devoney wrote about the tendency for us to hide our rejections, arguing: “That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection.”.

While I don’t claim to be a senior scholar, I do believe that all academics face considerable rejection. Therefore in what follows I’m not revealing anything that I wouldn’t expect to be broadly true of any colleagues competing with me for whatever job or promotion it might be.

More importantly, if a prospective employer thinks twice about offering me a job because of what they read below, then I probably don’t want to be working for or with that person.

The values I see reflected in presenting a public shadow CV are ones of honesty, openness, and trust. My Shadow CV actually isn’t that shadowy: it shows me to be resilient and determined. I never claimed to be a perfect academic. Success in academia is not about never failing, never being rejected. It is about bouncing back. If I preach this but don’t have the gall to match generalisations with concrete detail, I should just shut up. So here goes.

My career path

My CV has a lovely little paragraph talking about an internationally recognized research profile that spans work in schools, universities, health services, and workplaces. It all seems wonderfully coherent, planned, deliberate.

My Shadow CV would say something more like this: Nick started education research doing a MSc and PhD focusing on young people’s learning about geography and sustainability. However there were no jobs in this area when he graduated (see ESRC failure #1 below), so he had to look elsewhere. He got a job looking at doctoral education, and so there was then a period when this was his main focus. When that (4 year contract) job ended, again there were no jobs in that field (or none he could get in a place he was willing to live), so he applied for a postdoc at UTS. To be successful in that, he had to change fields again. In short: Nick’s research interests have gone where the jobs and money are. True, there are some consistent questions and approaches that I’ve been exploring and developing through these broad contexts. But a lot of it was to do with opportunity and constraint.

My employment history

My CV shows how I went from a funded postgrad scholarship to a full time job on a project at Oxford, to my UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which was converted into an ongoing position at UTS.

My Shadow CV would mention:

ESRC failure #1 – I applied for an ESRC postdoc, but didn’t get it. I found that out 6 weeks before I was due to finish my PhD, and had no job lined up. Panic stations.

  • Not getting interviewed, twice: about 3 years into my postdoc job at Oxford, I applied for two jobs advertised at Lecturer/Senior Lecturer level. I felt I had a pretty good publication track record, and relevant teaching experience. I wasn’t even called for interview. I had no idea how small a fish I looked in such a big, competitive pond.

My funded research

My CV shows I have consistently been able to get funding for the research I want to do, starting with an ESRC 1+3 scholarship for my postgrad research, including international funding from the NSF in the USA, and concluding with a whopping $371,000 from the Australian Research Council for my current DECRA project.

My Shadow CV would mention:

  • ESRC failure #2 – I was part of a team that applied for funding for a project on doctoral education. The reviews were pretty blunt. No cash registers ringing anywhere near me this time!
  • ARC failures #1-5 – The Australian Research Council funding is highly prestigious, and undoubtedly a tough nut to crack. I heard of success rates around 17%. If that is true, then I’m no better than the average person. I was involved in two Linkage submissions that were not funded, and two Discovery submissions that were not funded. I was also part of a proposal that started as a Linkage, fell over before it got submitted, came back to life as a Discovery, got submitted, and then was not funded. Yes I got a DECRA, but that was the 6th knock on the door (and yes, I do think I’ve learned a lot on the way… the irrational part of me thinks this will mean I get the next ‘hit’ in fewer than 6 tries, but someone should probably tell me I’m dreaming…)
  • Spencer Foundation – another research application that was not funded. All the more galling because I’d roped in some key international people to join in, and they put some time in… I feel it all falls on my shoulders. Though interestingly, both the key people stuck by me and are now involved in my DECRA.
  • ANROWS – yup you guessed: another detailed proposal that took months to put together that resulted in $0.

Publishing rejections and other shadowy truths

My CV states how I’ve published 28 refereed journal articles, 4 scholarly books, an edited volume, and 14 chapters in books. It boasts of my h-index (15 at the time of writing, Nov 2015), and high citations.

My shadow CV would acknowledge that I still get plenty of papers rejected (one only weeks ago, which I did blog about). My book proposals didn’t all sail through at the first attempt either. I would hope that my rejections these days tend to be for ‘good’ reasons (foibles of peer review, fact that I’m presenting complex, sometimes challenging arguments) rather than ‘bad’ reasons (failure to do my homework, Early Onset Satisfaction etc.). My shadow CV would also point to the many papers that haven’t been cited by many people, including those that have only been cited by me. My published work is clearly not of uniform or universal appeal or value in the eyes of others.

In conclusion

I could add sections about awards (Shadow CV mentioning those applied or nominated for that I didn’t do so well in), about reviewing (the times I’ve said no, I’m too busy; the reviews where I have been harsher than was warranted), etc. etc.

Well, I doubt this post has achieved much except echoing Devoney’s brilliant piece. I’m just trying to say “Yes, she’s totally right! We need to do more of this kind of thing!”.

New book out: ethnography of professional learning and parenting pedagogy

A day that has been a long time coming: I finally received the hard copies of my new book “Professional Practice and Learning: TNick PPLimes, Spaces, Bodies, Things”, published with Springer. It is part of the Professional and Practice Based Learning series, edited by Stephen Billett, Christian Harteis, and Hans Gruber.

The book is a major work, based on my ethnographic study of professional services for parents with young children at risk. Fieldwork as conducted at Karitane‘s Residential Unit in Carramar, Sydney. The research was funded as part of my Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at UTS.

The reference for the book is (doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-26164-5):

Hopwood N (2016) Professional practice and learning: times, spaces, bodies, things. Dordrecht: Springer. 


Highlights and special features

  • Applies of sociomaterial / practice based approaches in a full ethnographic study
  • Draws both on practice philosophy, and practice-based approaches from organisational learning
  • Develops of unique arguments concerning relationship between practice and learning
  • Provides unique insights into pedagogical role served by professionals in coproductive practices.

This book explores important questions about the relationship between professional practice and learning, and implications of this for how we understand professional expertise. Focusing on work accomplished through partnerships between practitioners and parents with young children, the book explores how connectedness in action is a fluid, evolving accomplishment, with four essential dimensions: times, spaces, bodies, and things. Within a broader sociomaterial perspective, the analysis draws on practice theory and philosophy, bringing different schools of thought into productive contact, including the work of Schatzki, Gherardi, and recent developments in cultural historical activity theory. The book takes a bold view, suggesting practices and learning are entwined but distinctive phenomena. A clear and novel framework is developed, based on this idea. The argument goes further by demonstrating how new, coproductive relationships between professionals and clients can intensify the pedagogic nature of professional work, and showing how professionals can support others’ learning when the knowledge they are working with, and sense of what is to be learned, are uncertain, incomplete, and fragile.

Comments on back cover from leading scholars

“Meticulously researched and at once measured and authoritative, this constitutes an important and innovative contribution to the field. Based on an in-depth ethnographic study, it develops a rich account of practice in action and context, and provides new insight into professional learning and its associated pedagogies. Highly recommended.” Professor Bill Green, Charles Sturt University (Australia)

“This book forms a significant contribution to our understanding of professional practice and learning. It brings together recent sociomaterial approaches, and adds to these in important ways. I strongly recommend this book for scholars and practitioners who take interest in professional work and learning, and in sociomaterial approaches to practice more generally.” Professor Monika Nerland, University of Oslo (Norway)

“This book contributes a distinctive approach to researching workplace learning, specifically learning in professional practice. The ethnographic research that is presented imbues practices, knowledge work and pedagogy with suspense and uncertainty. Hopwood’s style of presentation is both rich and rewarding. This is a book to surprise you and it will.” Professor Silvia Gherardi, University of Trento (Italy)

“This splendid book offers many insights that will be appreciated by a wide range of readers. Hopwood proposes his own thought-provoking framework for understanding the relationships between professional practice and learning. The fruitfulness of Hopwood’s framework is demonstrated in analysis of empirical material derived from a major ethnographic study. Overall, this book is an impressive achievement.” Emeritus Professor Paul Hager, University of Technology Sydney (Australia)