Brad Wuetherick, Director of Undergraduate Student Services in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta looks at how rethinking the teaching-research nexus might enhance both the student and faculty experience of higher education.
Students should all be reading scholarly monographs, not just textbooks, beginning in their first year,” said one academic passionately during a curriculum debate in a Department of History at a large Canadian research university. The immediate reply came from a colleague across the table, saying, “All of this (research-based learning) is applicable at the appropriate level only, and that is the graduate level not the undergraduate level.”
These varied sentiments, arguing about the place of research, teaching, and the teaching-research nexus, have reverberated around the “hallowed halls” of many university campuses across Canada and around the world. These two quotes, taken from a recent study exploring faculty perceptions of the role of research in the undergraduate student learning environment, demonstrate the challenges facing departments, faculties, and institutions as they attempt to come to grips with the teaching-research nexus.
The imbalance (whether perceived or real) between the research and teaching roles of university academics has resulted in several calls for action in the higher education teaching and learning literature, ranging from Boyer’s call almost 20 years ago to move beyond the “tired, old research vs. teaching debate” (1990, ix) to more recent explorations of how rethinking the teaching-research nexus might enhance both the student and faculty experience of higher education.
Inevitably, as campus communities struggle with these issues, debates emerge among all higher education stakeholders. For example, what is meant by the “teaching-research nexus”? Do student and faculty perceptions of the role of research in the undergraduate experience align with one another? What would it mean to effectively integrate research, teaching and learning at the undergraduate level? And what would be the corresponding impact on academic practice? These questions formed the basis of a series of recent studies undertaken at the University of Alberta attempting to unpack the teaching-research nexus and to explore ways of integrating research, teaching and learning more effectively at the undergraduate level.
What is the teaching-research nexus?
Whenever a conversation about the teaching-research nexus occurs, the immediate question arises: what is meant by the teaching-research nexus? In particular, as such conversations unfold, both academics and students struggle with what is meant by “research” in the context of the teaching-research nexus. Simplistically, the teaching-research nexus refers to any aspect of the interplay between the teaching and research roles of universities, whether at the level of the institution, faculty, department, or individual academic. That said, there are still multiple ways of defining research, each of which strongly influence how one might perceive the teaching-research nexus.
For a number of years the prevailing perception regarding the teaching-research nexus was that correlations between traditional measures of teaching and research excellence, usually student evaluations of teaching and publication rates/citation indices respectively, were positive. This informed the perception of many academics and administrators alike that active researchers were the most effective teachers. A meta-analysis of over 50 different studies using these types of measures, however, demonstrated that the correlation between these traditional measures of teaching and research excellence was essentially zero, with the authors concluding that universities instead needed to explore how research and teaching might be more effectively integrated (Hattie and Marsh, 1996).
Five different ways to conceptualize the teaching-research nexus has emerged from the educational literature in the past five years. First, research at the fore of the discipline, as well as the research of the individual academic teaching in the classroom, informs the content of the courses being taught. Second, students can be taught research methods. Third, students can be engaged in active, research-based learning, which can be found in degree programs that are predominantly structured around problem-based or inquiry-based learning but which can be implemented at the level of the individual course where students undertake a research project. Fourth, students can be engaged in discovery research, normally where students work (often one-on-one or as part of research teams) with academics to undertake discovery research, but these can also include students completing dissertations as part of honours programs. Finally, the teaching-research nexus can be conceptualized as academics engaging in pedagogical research, or the scholarship of teaching and learning.
How does the teaching-research nexus relate to academic identity?
Over a number of years there has been a growing consensus in the higher education literature that an undergraduate education needs to ensure that students develop higher order research and inquiry skills. As a result, we have seen a shift towards a research and inquiry-based learning environment across the higher-education sector internationally. Institutions are trying to increase undergraduate students’ exposure to research and inquiry both inside and outside of the classroom through various individual, departmental, or institutional initiatives.
The success of these initiatives is still highly dependent upon individual academics’ perceptions of the teaching-research nexus and the development their own academic identity. A study of academics at two universities in the U.S. confirmed that individuals with a fragmented academic identity (where the academics perceived their teaching and research roles as separate) struggled with the integration of teaching and research, while those with a more integrated academic identity were far more likely to integrate their teaching and research activities successfully (Colbeck, 1998).
Research has also recently explored other factors related to academics’ ability to integrate research and teaching, such as the disciplinary or departmental culture, the research-intensiveness of the institution, or even national research funding policies that enable students to be engaged in working with academics on research projects. These studies conclude that academics who perceived a positive relationship between active research involvement and teaching were influenced strongly by the value they place on research as a part of their academic identity, their perception of how students’ learning develops epistemological belief systems, how research involvement is used as a teaching method with students, and how departmental/faculty/institutional organization and culture supports (and more importantly evaluates) the link between teaching and research.
Student perceptions of, and experiences with, research
Several studies exploring students’ perceptions of, and experiences with, research have been undertaken around the world, including three separate studies that have been conducted at the University of Alberta. These studies at the U of A concluded that undergraduate students are largely aware of research happening on their campus, with the proportion of students who report being aware of research increasing significantly with the respondents’ year of study. The relatively high awareness of research activities does not, however, necessarily translate into a high level of reported experiences with research.
Many students reported having their instructor or a guest lecturer discuss research in a class, but relatively few students are receiving opportunities to undertake independent research projects (either inside or outside of a class), to work as research assistants, or to contribute to some form of research output (conference paper/poster, publication, etc.). That said, in a recent comparison study between the one Canadian and two U.K. universities, Canadian undergraduate students were significantly more likely to report having participated in a research seminar outside of a class or having contributed to a research project/paper/conference abstract or working as a research assistant (Turner et al, 2008).
The students’ perception of the positive or negative impacts of research on the learning environment, however, may be more revealing. About half the students responded that research positively impacted their learning by increasing their understanding or stimulating their interest in the subject area. On the other hand, as many as one-quarter of students responded that research negatively impacted their learning environment through their instructor’s lack of interest in teaching or the students’ well-being, the instructors’ lack of availability to undergraduate students, the distortion of course content towards research interests, and the inability of the instructor to communicate at an appropriate level.
On the whole, students placed a low importance on research when compared to other academic priorities, such as having instructors who are good teachers or who care about student learning, and courses or programs that help prepare them for a future career. Only 40 per cent of respondents in one study indicated that feeling engaged with research throughout the undergraduate experience was important, while just over 30 per cent responded that it was of little or no importance. Students largely agreed, however, that instructors actively engaged in research are more likely to be enthusiastic about their subject matter, that the most effective teaching is when the lecturer involves them in aspects of the research process , and that they learn the most when undertaking their own research project.
One of the most interesting results of these studies was the increased positive perception of research among students in academic programs (including the faculties of science and arts) when compared to professional programs (such as business, education, nursing, medicine, or engineering). For example, significantly more students in academic programs perceived a positive impact through their increased understanding, stimulated interest and enthusiasm, and motivation to pursue postgraduate studies. As well, students in academic programs were significantly more likely to feel that engagement with research throughout the undergraduate experience was important.
Faculty perceptions of their students’ experiences
As the results of these studies exploring students’ perceptions of, and experiences with, research were shared around the University of Alberta, there were a number of interesting reactions from the academic community. Anecdotally, faculty reported that the views of the students they interacted with were different than what was being reported out of these studies. This prompted a follow-up study exploring faculty perceptions and experiences of the teaching-research nexus to see how it related to the perceptions and experiences reported by undergraduate students.
Faculty were asked their perceptions of students’ awareness of research, as well as their perceptions about the teaching-research nexus. Most respondents felt students were aware that faculty wrote for publication, a similar proportion to the actual responses of students who were surveyed earlier. In other areas, however, faculty significantly underestimated how much students would be aware of various research-related activities in the institution, including that faculty were supervising research students, that research seminars or conferences are held in the department or institution, that faculty were undertaking funded research, that research centres or institutes existed on campus, and that areas with national or international reputations existed on campus. While respondents largely underestimated students’ awareness of research, they largely overestimated the proportion of students who gained specific experience with research. For example, they significantly overestimated the number of students who experienced having an academic staff member lecturing about their research, having read a research paper by a faculty member, undertaking independent research projects as part of or as a whole course, learning research techniques, and working as a research assistant.
Across the board, faculty respondents believed strongly that their involvement in research had a positive impact on students’ learning. For example, roughly three-quarters or more of respondents believed that faculty involvement in research helped increase students’ understanding in the learning environment, stimulated student interest and enthusiasm as well as increased awareness of methodological issues in the discipline, or motivated some students to continue into postgraduate study. Over half believed it positively impacted the development of student research skills. In each of these cases, however, faculty’s perceptions of the positive impact were significantly higher that than students’ perceptions of the positive impact.
An inverse pattern emerges for faculty’s perceptions of the negative impacts of research on the student learning environment. In each case students were more likely to perceive a negative impact on the learning environment arising from faculty involvement in research. For example, no faculty respondents felt that research negatively impacted the learning environment by making them unavailable to students or by decreasing their ability to explain material to students effectively. While not statistically significant, faculty were also less likely to perceive an increase in the lack of interest in facilitating student learning, a lack of interest in students’ academic well-being, and research interests distorting what they teach.
Some faculty, however, identified issues that potentially could have an impact on their ability to effectively integrate teaching and research. For example:
“Research need not distort a class but it has that potential. Often the problem is one of time – publishing priorities come before class time.”
“I am not sure what the ‘link’ intended is, but what I research is too esoteric to have much influence on undergraduate teaching. They are not in a position to understand.”
When positive and negative factors were explored further some interesting patterns emerged from the comparison of faculty and student data. Both faculty and students agreed (close to three-quarters for both faculty and students) that instructors involved in research were more enthusiastic about their discipline. As well, both students and faculty were more likely to agree that students learn best when undertaking their own research project or paper or that the most effective teaching is when the instructor involves students in aspects of the research process.
There are, however, several areas where students and faculty perceptions differed significantly. For example, faculty were far more likely to believe that students have little awareness of their professor’s research interests, that students were not aware of the positive impact research has on the learning environment, and that faculty involvement in research has an impact on the amount of time spent with students. In only one case was the pattern reversed. Faculty were far more likely to believe that insufficient attention is given to developing student research skills.
The survey also provided respondents an opportunity to reflect more broadly on the teaching-research nexus. The major theme that emerged from faculty responses were related to the fundamental purpose of higher education and the purpose of teaching and learning in the context of higher education. Examples included:
“In the long run, university teaching is not about only conveying information – it is primarily about teaching students HOW to learn, ask questions and find out answers for themselves – in short, ‘research’ in some form.”
“Our teaching should be, at least in part, informed by research and students should be exposed to some of the debates over how we collect and use evidence.”
“Universities are fundamentally teaching AND research institutions. The education students receive ought to reflect that.”
Several secondary themes emerged from the qualitative responses, including whether or not being research-active or not is acceptable to teaching in the discipline.
Only research-active scholars can communicate the most recent results of research along with practical knowledge of how to do research. Scholars who do not pursue scholarship/research themselves or at least keep up with their fields in an active way will soon be teaching in a way that reflects a past version of the discipline ….”
Moving towards making research-based learning the norm
Several scholars have argued that the key to the teaching-research nexus is to base the curriculum around the idea of inquiry. Research suggests, not surprisingly, that senior undergraduates, in particular those students in honours programs, are far more likely to have experienced research-based learning opportunities. More emphasis needs to be placed, however, on bringing inquiry-based learning into the learning environment earlier in the degree program and expanding opportunities for all undergraduate students. Universities need to provide opportunities for our students to become scholars in their own right and contribute to the creation of new knowledge across all disciplines.
One way that we can begin to approach the idea of involving students in both inquiry-based and discovery learning is by providing opportunities for students to become part of the scholarly community. The development of inclusive, scholarly knowledge-building communities, which engage everyone from senior academic staff through to first- year undergraduate students, is a model that has been gaining momentum in the higher education literature (Brew, 2006). In order for this to succeed, however, the hierarchy implicitly built into the organization of universities must be challenged, as must the definition of who can legitimately be a scholar. We must critically reflect on the ways we enable undergraduate students to be a part of this scholarly community. This could result in a profound transformation of the nature of universities the nature of how we construct our academic identity, and perhaps how we evaluate our academic practice.
The research universities have often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate populations, thousands of students graduate without seeing the world – famous professors or tasting genuine research.” The Boyer Commission, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A blueprint for America’s research universities (New York: Stony Brook, 1998), p. 3.
Our view is that university research often distracts from the quality of teaching. We regret the continuing elevation of research and the systematic neglect of the quality of instruction … University research … is often specialized and far removed from the needs of undergraduate students … Universities must come clean about the relationship between teaching and research.” T. Pocklington and A. Tupper, No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2002), Chapter One.
I believe that the main hope for realizing a genuinely student centred undergraduate education lies in the re-engineering of the teaching-research nexus.” P. Ramsden, “Strategic management of teaching and learning”, in C. Rust, (ed.) Improving Student Learning Strategically (Oxford: OCSLD, 2001), 1-10.
Boyer E. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered. Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of University Teaching.
Brew A. (2006). Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.
Colbeck C (1998). Merging in a Seamless Blend. Journal of Higher Education. 69 (6), p. 647-671.
Hattie J. and Marsh H. (1996). The Relationship Between Research and Teaching: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 66 (4), p. 64-85.
Turner N, Wuetherick B, and Healey M. (2008). International Perspectives on Student Awareness, Experiences, and Perceptions of Research. International Journal for Academic Development. 13 (3), p. 199-211.
The study exploring faculty perceptions of the teaching-research nexus referred to in this article was made possible by the collaboration of Dawn Alexandria Berry, currently a PhD student in History at University of Oxford in the U.K.
Brad Wuetherick is currently the Director of Undergraduate Student Services in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta. He previously spent several years leading the Research Makes Sense for Students initiative of the Office of the Vice-President (Research) at the U of A, a special initiative focusing on issues relating to the integration of research, teaching, and learning across the campus.