Skip to content Skip to navigation

More on the Teaching-Research Relationship

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
346

Those making the case that disciplinary research is essential for effective teaching need to do more than raise doubts about the numerous studies that do not support their argument. Instead, it is incumbent on them to show a positive correlation between teaching and research, using the best available data. Simply put, there is no hard evidence to support the original premise that research activity correlates with effective teaching.

Folks:

The research-teaching relationship topic continues to generate thoughtful comments. Below is one such submission by Michael Prince, associate professor Chemical Engineering Department, Bucknell University (prince@bucknell.edu).

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Content of Department TA Training

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

 

--------------------1,293 words ------------------------

MORE ON TEACHING-RESEARCH RELATIONSHIP

 

The topic of teaching and research always sparks a strong response from faculty, probably because the available data challenges the widely held and cherished values of many professors. And of course there is no simple answer to the question of the relationship between teaching and scholarship. There are obvious ways in which research activity can support excellent teaching and obvious ways in which research activity can detract from excellent teaching. It does not advance our understanding, however, when research advocates make statements that are not supported by the numerous studies on this topic. It is ironic that the strongest proponents of scholarship are often those most dismissive or unaware of the available scholarship on this issue!

It would be worthwhile to examine some of the literature regarding the points made by Dr. Donchin. [TP Msg. #337 FURTHER COMMENTS ON THE TEACHING-RESEARCH RELATIONSHIP]. While it is impractical to provide an exhaustive treatment of the relevant literature in this forum, a more scholarly analysis of the issues is certainly appropriate. Let me briefly respond to each of Dr. Donchin's 3 comments in turn. Others may respond as they see fit, bringing in their own references. The result can be a better appreciation of the issues for all concerned.

1. Dr. Donchin dismisses the numerous studies that fail to find any correlation between effective teaching and research activity because these studies often rely on student evaluations to measure good teaching.

Response:

There is an extensive literature on the validity of student evaluations, much of it showing that student evaluations correlate reasonably well with other assessments of teaching quality [1]. For example, student evaluations are generally consistent with the evaluations of administrators, faculty and alumni. In addition, student evaluations of teaching effectiveness have been found to correlate with some objective measures of educational outcomes, such as performance on achievement tests and common examinations. This is not to say that student evaluations are perfect measures of teaching effectiveness. As with any assessment, it would be best to use several different measurement techniques rather than relying on a single tool. However, to the best of my knowledge, there is no assessment tool that demonstrates a positive correlation between research activity and effective teaching. Where is the evidence, for example, that the best scholars among the faculty are best at promoting the learning outcomes that Dr. Donchin is after?

Those making the case that disciplinary research is essential for effective teaching need to do more than raise doubts about the numerous studies that do not support their argument. Instead, it is incumbent on them to show a positive correlation between teaching and research, using the best available data. Simply put, there is no hard evidence to support the original premise that research activity correlates with effective teaching. Given this situation, it is surprising how tenaciously faculty hold this opinion. The fact that the best available information consistently argues against the premise only makes this situation more curious.

2. Dr. Donchin argues that a meta analysis of student ratings vs research that does not take into account the nature of the institution and the nature of the faculty is worthless. Instead, one must look at the best researchers and institutions and take into account the quality of the research being conducted to find a correlation between research and effective teaching.

Response:

The issue of research quality and effective teaching has been examined in the literature. For example, "the quality of publications (as assessed by frequency of citation) is considerably more likely than any other publication measure to correlate negatively with teaching effectiveness, and individual authorship of books and first authorship of articles also showed strong negative correlations. [2]" Therefore, the argument that the best researchers should be examined to find examples of good teachers is not supported. This trend is also true on an institutional level, where the quality of research has been found to correlate negatively with a number of student learning outcomes. For example, "Attending a college whose faculty is heavily research-oriented increases student dissatisfaction and impacts negatively on most measures of cognitive and affective development. Attending a college that is strongly oriented toward student development shows the opposite pattern of effects" [3].

3. Finally, Dr. Donchin argues that any first class researcher can be deployed as a teacher in a manner that would make quality teaching highly likely. He states, however, that the converse is not true. There can be very effective teachers who have neither the talent, nor the inclination, for being active and creative scholars. Given this unfortunate situation, he argues that it is wise to assure that your colleagues are outstanding scholars and then have department chairs manage their teaching assignments.

Response:

Many researchers make inspiring teachers. It is equally true and obvious that many do not. In fact, it is the conclusion of many articles [2, 4] that teaching and scholarship often require different attitudes and skill sets - and that both can be full time jobs if done conscientiously, energetically and professionally.

However, Dr. Donchin's third argument confuses the original point of discussion. Since it is true that undergraduate education is not the primary emphasis at many universities, it makes sense to hire and reward excellent scholars. On the other hand, to the extent that we are trying to promote excellent teaching, we should hire and reward excellent teachers. We should not confuse the two. Research can be a good in and of itself. It is not, however, an indicator of effective teaching.

Closing Comments

No one doubts that faculty who are actively engaged in disciplinary research can be excellent teachers. In many cases, research provides an opportunity to directly or indirectly improve the educational opportunities for students. This is not only true at the graduate level, but can hold true for undergraduate education as well. Where one needs to be cautious, however, is in making sweeping and unsupported arguments about the necessity of research for effective undergraduate teaching. There is simply no evidence to suggest that faculty must be active researchers to be effective educators. Many of the arguments put forward to suggest this are patently untrue and it is surprising how stubbornly they persist. For example, it is often argued that research is essential to "keep up" in one's field. The reality is that research and "keeping up" are fundamentally distinct activities. Furthermore, for faculty teaching 4 to 8 courses per year, significant research in one area is likely to detract from a faculty's ability to keep abreast of developments across the spectrum of courses that are taught.

In addition, while an emphasis on research is not necessarily inconsistent with quality education, the available data suggests that in practice the two do not generally go hand in hand. That is probably one of the reasons why faculty react skeptically to studies which consistently fail to find a positive correlation between teaching and scholarship. The potential for one activity to support the other is very real, as all faculty know from their own experience. However, institutions and faculty must make the effort to bring the two together. This often does not occur, so the potential synergy is lost. At the same time, faculty who are not active in disciplinary research often devote their energies to keeping abreast of the educational literature or to developing creative educational course structures. In those cases, the loss of one enriching activity is substituted with another. And this is the final point. There are myriad ways in which faculty can be intellectually engaged throughout their careers and so contribute to the education of their students. Disciplinary research is one way, but not the only way or necessarily the best way. Let's not restrict our model for faculty to a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to recognize the diversity of faculty talent and the range of student needs.

References:

1. Felder, Richard, "What Do They Know Anyway?" Chem. Engr. Education, 26(3), 134-135 (Summer 1992).

2. Felder, Richard, "The Myth of the Superhuman Professor." J. Engr. Education, 82(2), 105-110 (1994).

3. Astin, A.W., What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1993.

4. The Teaching Professor, "Teaching and Research: The Evidence Mounts", October 1997.