John Richardson obituary

Other lives: Specialist in qualitative research who helped to prepare the ground for the influential National Student Survey

My friend and colleague John Richardson, who has died aged 73 of bowel cancer, enjoyed a distinguished career, first in cognitive psychology and lately as a student-centred higher education researcher. He was a leading contributor to the development of the UK’s National Student Survey and a greater understanding of students from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Born in Overseal, Derbyshire, John grew up with his mother, Mavis (nee Watts), in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, following her separation from his father, Edwin Evans, a miner and Baptist lay preacher. In 1956 Mavis, by then a civil servant, married Denis Richardson, a clerk whom she had met when both were working in different branches of GCHQ.

At a time when access to higher education in the UK was limited, John secured an open scholarship in mathematics at St John’s College, Oxford, having excelled at Cheltenham grammar school and benefited from a role model in his uncle, Cedric Watts (the first in the family to pursue higher education).

He transferred to Oxford’s joint degree programme in philosophy and psychology before completing a PhD in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex. In 1975 he took up a lectureship in psychology at the nascent Brunel University, where he was appointed head of the department of human sciences in 1989 and was promoted to professor in 1991. His early research looked at human memory and cognition in healthy individuals, but he also studied the effect of brain damage in human patients (especially after minor head injuries).

John promoted the use of qualitative methods such as interviews, diaries and focus groups on the part of researchers and their students. During the 1990s he organised training funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which led to a widely used textbook on qualitative methods in psychology and the social sciences.

In 2001 John moved from Brunel to the Open University where he had been appointed to a new chair in student learning and assessment, based in its Institute of Educational Technology. His work began with the experiences of students who were deaf or hearing-impaired, and later examined the role of gender, social class and ethnicity in participation and attainment in UK higher education.

He contributed to a 2003 report on collecting and using student feedback for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and was part of a team that carried out a pilot study for Hefce that led to the introduction of the National Student Survey in 2005 – now a highly influential source of annual information about the experiences of nearly half a million students in UK higher education.

John was a fellow of both the Society for Research into Higher Education and the Academy of Social Sciences. He retired from the OU in 2017 and was appointed emeritus professor. He continued to supervise research students and to publish. His last work was a review of the research literature comparing the legibility of serif and sans serif typefaces, published in February 2022.

In 1984 John marrried Hilary Robertson, who was working at the OU when they met. Hilary survives him, as do their daughters, Kat and Annie.

Bart Rienties

The GuardianTramp

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