Faculty Focus


Moving Past the Old 'Teaching vs. Research' Debate

The argument persists: teaching and research are complementary—each in some synergistic way builds on and supports the other. Standing against the argument is an impressive, ever-growing array of studies that consistently fail to show any linkage between teaching effectiveness and research productivity. Because administrators have a vested interest in faculty being able to do both well, the two sides continue to exchange arguments and accusations in a debate that has grown old, tired, and terribly nonproductive.

Could it be that the two sides are actually debating different propositions? That’s what Michael Prince, Richard Felder, and Rebecca Brent (all well-known in the field of engineering education) propose in the article referenced below. The first proposition rests on the notion that research has the potential to support teaching. The second side is arguing whether it has done so in practice, and the evidence supporting that it has not is comprehensive and persuasive.

In an extraordinarily well-referenced article, these authors move the discussion forward by exploring the effectiveness of three strategies that could strengthen the research-teaching nexus:

  1. bringing research into the classroom,
  2. involving students in undergraduate research projects, and
  3. accepting broader definitions for scholarship.

They review the literature to see whether and how much each of these strategies has improved undergraduate teaching, ways each nexus might be strengthened, and what further research questions merit attention.

Briefly, here’s what they discovered about each. “Integrating research into the classroom in the way integration is normally conceived—i.e., instructors discussing the content of their research—has not been shown to occur frequently or to improve instruction.” (p. 286) What these authors propose as a richer potential nexus are those forms of teaching (inquiry-based approaches and problem-based learning, for example) that mirror the research process. In this case, “a faculty member’s research provides experiences that have the potential to enrich instruction by introducing students to the research process and to important research skills.” (p. 285)

The effects of undergraduate research experiences have been studied in some detail. Does the opportunity for students to be involved in research projects strengthen the teaching-research nexus by producing better learning for the student? The authors answer that question with a qualified yes. Involvement in undergraduate research does correlate positively with retention and with the decision to pursue graduate study. Students evaluate their experiences positively and say those experiences helped them learn. But direct evidence of impact on learning is scant.

“[T]here is very little evidence that undergraduate research has much of an effect on students’ content knowledge.” (p. 288) Another limitation of this nexus: very few students have the opportunity to be involved in undergraduate research projects, and those that are tend to be the very best students.

As for whether broader definitions of scholarship make it easier for faculty to integrate their research and teaching work, the authors found “limited but encouraging evidence” that these models do help faculty make stronger connections between teaching and research.

It is time to move past the old teaching vs. research debate and this article provides a new and useful way to consider and talk about these related but very different parts of a faculty member’s job. “The primary goal of research is to advance knowledge, while that of teaching is to develop and enhance abilities. Researchers are valued mainly for what they discover and for the problems they solve, and teachers for what they enable their students to discover and solve.” (p. 283)

Reference: Prince, M. J., Felder, R. M., and Brent, R. (2007). Does faculty research improve undergraduate teaching? An analysis of existing and potential synergies. Journal of Engineering Education, 96 (4), 283-294.

Excerpted from Teaching vs. Research: Finally, a New Chapter, The Teaching Professor, March 2008.