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The Research-Teaching Nexus - A Priori Truth or Myth

Tomorrow's Research

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When we talk about research, we know who is doing it (I) and we know what the subject is (recalcitrant organics). When we talk about teaching, the language has more nuances - teaching is a verb that often has two objects. As in, 'I teach chemistry to sophomores'.


Below is another thoughtful set of comments regarding the link between research and teaching. In this case the author, Professor Jeanne VanBriesen of Carnegie Mellon University, looks at how "learning" serves as the bridge that connects these activities.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: An Ethical Framework for Faculty Development

Tomorrow's Research


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Jeanne M. VanBriesen Assistant Professor

Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Biomedical & Health Engineering

Carnegie Mellon University


The newly minted NSF RET program seeks to facilitate professional development of K-12 teachers by involving them in the research of NSF funded investigators. When I first heard about this program, I was excited. Having been a high school chemistry and physics teacher before returning for my Ph.D. and moving into academia, I believed strongly that involving K-12 educators in the 'real' science we do would enhance their teaching of scientific concepts, their attitude about scientific careers, and their enthusiasm for engineering. I didn't stop to think about why or how research would have these positive effects. I know my research influences, informs, and enlivens my teaching. I know high quality research and high quality teaching are inexorably, sometimes inexplicably, linked.

As the RET program for this year was commencing, I was asked to give a presentation about the relationship of teaching and research. My audience was the high school teachers who would be experiencing research for the first time this summer. My goal was to explain what it is we mean by research and how it might be related to their day-to-day teaching. Given my certainty that research and teaching are tightly coupled activities, I assumed this talk would be a breeze to put together. Then I began the research.

As noted by many others, the statistical relationship between being a good researcher and being a good teacher is fraught with uncertainties. Repeatedly studies have reported no correlation between research and teaching success. Granted, the study protocols can be challenged and measuring good teaching is problematic; however, there was an overwhelming agreement in the literature that the teaching/research nexus that we in academia hold as an a priori truth is, in fact, a myth.

I was shocked. Not only had all my mentors and colleagues assured me that pursuing my research would lead me to better and better teaching, but I felt this to be true at a gut-level. I have been both a full-time teacher (for high school students) and a full time researcher (as a student in graduate school), and I am now a classic teacher-scholar. I know these activities are linked and that my research makes me a better teacher and my teaching makes me a better researcher. How could I reconcile the published research in this area with my own (and so many of my colleagues) experiences?

I dug deeper. Where did the presumption that excellent research led to excellent teaching first come from? The earliest mention I have seen is Humbolt (1809) "the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student: both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge, and hence there is unity of research and teaching." This statement is definitive, unquestioning, and absolute. The certainty with which faculty, administrators, and program managers assert that high quality research and teaching are coupled at universities is obviously nothing new. This fundamental belief made its way into the original vision of the National Science Foundation. As noted by MIT President Charles Vest "the most valuable and farsighted concept to emerge from the original NSF vision was that by supporting research in the universities, the government would also be investing in the education of the next generation - a beautiful and efficient concept. In short, every dollar spent would be doing double duty. This integration of teaching and research is at the heart of America's unique system of research universities."

Granted that the integration of teaching and research is the heart of American research universities, it is not unexpected that research productivity is seen as inherently indicative of teaching excellence as well. It is not simply that universities feel research is more important than teaching (as is often asserted in the media) or that it is easier to measure research productivity than teaching excellence (as is sometimes asserted in promotion/tenure decisions). Collectively, we in the academy believe there is an inescapable link between our research and our teaching. Despite the repeated studies in this area that show no link, we continue to assert that not only is there a link, but it is critical and central. Why?

I believe the original idea, and its longevity, are related to a singular link between the activities. The relationship between teaching and research is LEARNING. Research, or scholarly inquiry, has been likened to teaching oneself. It is active and self-directed - "I research recalcitrant organics." Teaching is teaching others, and definitions range from "imparting knowledge and skills" to "conditioning to a certain action." Thus, giving an inspired lecture and paper-training your dog are both teaching. There is a subtle change in the nature of the activity when you move from teaching yourself to teaching others. When we talk about research, we know who is doing it (I) and we know what the subject is (recalcitrant organics). When we talk about teaching, the language has more nuances - teaching is a verb that often has two objects. As in, "I teach chemistry to sophomores". The structure of this sentence implies the active person is the teacher (I) when the reality is that the active people need to be the learners (sophomores). The sentence implies the teaching is something I do to the students - sort of like programming a computer. This implication is at the heart of the factory model of education with the students as the product created by the teachers. While the idea seems simple, all of us who have been learners and teachers understand that a human being is not a computer; teaching is not pressing a button and letting the file upload.

We can restructure our language about teaching to focus on the real activity that must take place. Thus, "my students learn chemistry," is a better way to put it, but how many of us are bold enough to make the second statement about what goes on in our classrooms? We invented tests because we know the "I teach" is true, but we're not so sure the "they learn" is true. Clearly by testing their understanding, knowledge, application and synthesis skills we are implying that what we do (teach) is much less important than what they do (learn).

Now that the key component - the learning - is transparent, the relationship that we all profess exists between teaching and research is much clearer. Of course, when we do research we are learning something new. As Westergard (1991) has said, "We read, scan, dig into sources, calculate, ponder, disentangle others' work and our own, try to put it together again to different effect; deconstruct, reconstruct, tear our hair out over the intractability of the worlds - natural, technical, cultural, social - that it is our business to try to grasp. This is the case for teaching and research." What researchers do on a regular basis is what students do (or we hope they do) when they come to our classes and study our subjects. Research and learning are intensely active, frustrating, challenging, amazing, sometimes life-changing, experiences. The daily pursuit of new knowledge, our research, is what makes us able to understand the daily pursuits of our students. Their questions and struggles with what we now consider to be "simple" concepts remind us that the world is a complex and challenging subject and that we must repeatedly re-engage with the "simple" if we are to move forward with the next knowledge development.

In closing, we all can cite examples where excellent teaching and excellent research were not found in a single individual and examples where as individuals became better at one, they also improved in the other. Despite these anecdotal data and the statistical data so widely reported on the myth of a link, I think we need to change the focus of the discussion on the relationship between teaching and research. Whether, in general, faculty who are excellent researchers also are excellent teachers is less important than discovering what it is that leads to excellence in both areas. For example, does an understanding of the close relationship between these activities (as discussed above), affect how teachers interact with students, how they bring (or elect not to bring) research findings into their lectures? How are the multiple demands of teaching and research integrated into the workday or workweek? Do those most successful at integrating their research and their teaching lives (the true teacher-scholars) work differently from those who find their research and teaching in conflict? If so, what skills and attitudes are the hallmarks of being a truly successful teacher-scholar?

More than the existence or lack of existence of a relationship between teaching and research, it is these more qualitative questions that interest young faculty as we learn to live in the nexus.


Humbolt, W (1970; original publication 1809). On the spirit and the organizational framework of intellectual institutions in Berlin. Minerva, 8, 242-267. Cited in Hattie, J. and Marsh, H.W. (1996). The relationship between research and teaching: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66(4): 507-542.

Westergard, J (1991). Scholarship, research and teaching: a view from the social sciences. Studies in Higher Education, 16: 23-28.

Vest, C. (1995). This quote is taken from a speech given at Cornell. It is widely quoted within NSF (see for example, Remarks by Dr. Neal Lane, then NSF director, at the Workshop on NSF Recognition Awards for Integrating Research and Education, June 11, 1996, Washington DC).