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Learning Through Research—Teaching and Research Combined

In research-based learning, students investigate subject-related research topics and gain insights that may also be relevant to others. Learn how to integrate research-based learning into your teaching in this post.

In a nutshell: What Constitutes Research-Based Learning?

Research-based learning is the link between research and teaching at a university. The focus is not on academic knowledge, but on action competence; distinct phases of the research process, in which students help to shape, experience and reflect, are essential elements and motivators.

In research-based learning, students generate their own cognition and question it. They develop the goals of their research project themselves and formulate their hypotheses. They choose their methods—with guidance and support from the teacher—and apply them to the respective inquiry. The focus is on findings that could also be relevant for third parties.

Step by Step

  • What research and action competence (methodological and practical research knowledge) should the students have acquired by the end of the process?
  • Which social and mental competencies should students acquire through research-based learning? Examples are communication skills, frustration tolerance, and self-confidence.
  • How are the acquired competencies assessed? This can be done, for example, through a joint final project, a scientific poster, a technical discussion, an experimental demonstration or a learning portfolio. Since research is open-ended at its core, the examination cannot consist of asking for specific content.
  • Choose research topics that really interest students.
  • Support students in identifying an appropriate research question.
  • Encourage intrinsic motivation by developing authentic and practice-relevant questions.
  • Make it clear that you do not know the answer to the research question yourself.
  • Create a team spirit.
  • Ensure that students are at the same level of knowledge in terms of subject matter and methodology.
  • Make sure that the necessary resources are available.
  • Have students independently formulate sub-questions, develop a research design, and self-direct the actual research.
  • Guide and give feedback. Do this as much as necessary, but without overdoing it, for example, in regular face-to-face meetings and/or individual consultation appointments.
  • Encourage students to give each other feedback during the proceedings. Provide the organisational framework for this.
  • Make it clear that setbacks and obstacles are also part of the research and learning process.
  • How is the (shared) research process to be evaluated?
  • What insights do the students gain from their own learning experience?
  • How do you as a teacher evaluate the process within the framework of research-based learning?

Basics: Why Research-Based Learning?

Research-based learning is deep-level learning. It allows multiple approaches to a topic, and thus does justice to the diversity of learners. It enables students to identify a problem in a team and to solve it in a reflective, criterion-driven way, using a specific method within a reasonable time frame. In this way, students learn to act efficiently, even in complex, unpredictable situations. By co-working on research processes, they gain insights into current research topics as well as results in their area of study, while growing into the scientific community.

Research-based learning is the link between research and teaching, and thus a didactic concept that is virtually tailor-made for the university.

Research-Based Learning Profile, ZLE (Centre for Teaching Development), TH Köln

Challenges and Solutions

Increased workload: At the beginning, students are sometimes overwhelmed by the high degree of independence and are only familiar to a limited extent with common research methods and projects in their own subject. Advice and encouragement from experts on research topics and methods can help here.

Research processes need time: One semester is often too short to comprehensively complete student research projects. Thorough research, workarounds, setbacks, new findings, adapting the initial question, presenting it to third parties, and much more require time. If possible, though, a research project can extend beyond one semester. Question formulation, research, and scientific methods can be the content of one semester, while the subsequent semester can be about implementing, evaluating and presenting the research project.

Meaningful integration and linkage: Research-based learning must be integrated into the curriculum in a meaningful way in terms of content and at an appropriate number of credit points. Linking several courses in a semester offers a possible framework for this.

The 8 Phases of Research-Based Learning

In research-based learning, students are involved in and help shape all the essential phases of a research process.

Picture: Zentrum für Lehrentwicklung (ZLE), TH Köln (Darstellung nach: Huber „Forschendes Lernen“)

Find a topic around which a focused research question can be formulated.

Formulate a question that can actually be researched and investigated.

What research has already been done on the question? What findings already exist?

Select procedures and techniques that are suitable for clarifying the question (e.g., interviews, experiments).

Compile and plan survey and evaluation methods, set survey dates and define the object of study, and sample with regard to the research question.

Investigate the formulated research question with the chosen research design and the appropriate methods, taking into account the current research situation.

Save and document the results and findings, and present (publish) them in a comprehensible format.

Discuss and assess the quality of the approach, the cooperation, and the results.

Good Practices

Header-Bild: © ThisisEngineering RAEng/

  • Zentrum für Lehrentwicklung (ZLE)

    The ZLE is a central academic institution. It offers all members of the university a platform for the exchange of experiences between colleagues as well as access to current teaching and learning research and scientific support. Teachers can develop, test, systematically reflect on and publish teaching concepts with the support of university and media didactics.

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