Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Impact of Research on Student Motivation

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 

Both undergraduates and postgraduates think that research activity makes their lecturers more enthusiastic, increases their credibility, and ensures that their knowledge is up to date. They also think that involvement in research means that lecturers are less accessible, and can sometimes lead to curriculum bias if narrowly focused research is given too much attention.


The posting below offers an interesting take on role of faculty research in motivating both undergraduate and graduate students. It is from Chapter 3 Academic Research and Student Motivation in Higher Education, in Reshaping Teaching in Higher Education, Linking Teaching with Research, Alan Jenkins, Rosanna Breen & Roger Lindsay with Angela Brew. First published in Great Britain and the United States in 2003 by Kogan Page Limited. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Departments That Work: Building and Sustaining Cultures of Excellence in Academic Programs

Tomorrow's Research


--------------------------------------- 1,243 words --------------------------------------


Linked research studies


A series of research studies on the impact of lecturer research on student learning was initiated at Oxford Brookes in 1995. The results seem to be quite systematic, and to suggest that lecturer research is, generally speaking, positively valued by students and perceived by both undergraduate and postgraduate students to have beneficial effects on their learning (Jenkins et al, 1998; Lindsay, Breen and Jenkins, 2002). (See also the previous discussion in chapter 2 where this research was but part of the wider issue of student perceptions of (staff) research.)

Both undergraduates and postgraduates think that research activity makes their lecturers more enthusiastic, increases their credibility, and ensures that their knowledge is up to date. They also think that involvement in research means that lecturers are less accessible, and can sometimes lead to curriculum bias if narrowly focused research is given too much attention.

While both undergraduates and postgraduates agree about the generic benefits of lecturer involvement in research, postgraduates also apparently expect the lecturers who support their learning to be involved in research; and they insist that this research should be relevant to the content of their courses. In one study for example, out of eight different university departments, there was only one case in which the frequency of negative comments about research outweighed those that were favorable, and interestingly this was the department that received the lowest external RAE rating in the sample.

Given that the undergraduate and postgraduate student samples were drawn from the same eight disciplines, the differences between them in attitudes to research suggest immediately that motivation is involved. To put it crudely, undergraduates are seeking to extend their education, and they expect the people who teach them to capture their interest, to present current knowledge, and to speak authoritatively within their discipline. The great majority of postgraduates also have more specific goals: either they want to become researchers themselves (requiring knowledge of current research issues and mastery of relevant methodologies), or they want to acquire knowledge that can be applied in some professional or commercial context (requiring knowledge currency and experience of the contexts of application). The more specific expectations about lecturer research reported by postgraduates are clearly related to the more specific goals by which they are motivated.

Student goals

Research studies investigating student motivation have confirmed that attitudes towards research activity in their department are strongly influenced by the goals that students are pursuing (Breen and Lindsay, 1999; Lindsay, Breen and Jenkins, 2002). Amongst undergraduates 'intrinsic motivation' and a specific form of 'course competence' are associated with positive attitudes to departmental research activity while 'extrinsic', 'social' and 'achievement' motivations are not. Amongst research students and Masters students, positive attitudes towards research are associated with an orientation towards acquiring theoretical knowledge for the purpose of 'developing one's potential', attaining 'freedom at work', becoming involved in 'interesting' and 'creative work', 'influencing society' and 'achieving important things' in professional practice. Motivations that are not associated with positive attitudes to research tend to emphasize the obtaining of qualifications, or establishing a successful or a secure career without any reference to the acquisition of knowledge.

Disciplinary variations

As well as varying with motivation, student attitudes to research by their lecturers are also affected by academic discipline. For example, Breen and Lindsay's (1999) data suggest that positive student attitudes and motivations can be enhanced by interactions between undergraduates and faculty that employ or concern shared beliefs and values derived from the discipline. Lindsay, Breen and Jenkins (2002) found that hard-pure-life type disciplines (for instance, biology) have more positive attitudes towards research than applied disciplines. Several of the Oxford Brookes investigations noted a consistently negative attitude towards research among business administration students. Jenkins et al (1998) suggest that this could result from an inappropriately narrow conception of research ('ivory-tower', 'blue skies', 'theoretical' and so on), and certainly the meaning of 'relevant research' can shift dramatically between for example, sciences, humanities and applied disciplines.

Amount of research

The amount of research going on in a department might be expected to affect the impact of a lecturer research activities on student learning. Using RAE rating as a proxy for the quantity of research Lindsay, Breen and Jenkins (2002) reported a clear relationship between student views on the value of lecturers' research, and the RAE rating of their department. The higher the RAE rating, the more positive comments students made about the way research affected their learning. Amongst undergraduates, the number of negative comments also increased with RAE score. Postgraduates however said less negative things about research as RAE ratings went up. This pattern of results can be explained by the following assumptions:

* Both groups of students value research by staff because it enhances enthusiasm, credibility, currency etc. * A high level of research activity in a department will increase student awareness of ongoing research and its impact upon teaching, and students will be more likely to have positive comments to make. * For undergraduates, negative features of lecturer research activity (reduced access and availability etc) are also likely to become more evident as the amount of research activity in a department increases, leading to more negative comments. * Postgraduates are more likely to be involved in lecturer research and to see direct benefits for their own learning. They are less likely to experience reduced access because of different patterns of contact (eg longer teaching year, small group or one to one supervision etc). Hence more research leads to fewer negative comments.

A single picture

If these variables are put together into a single picture it is clear that the question of how research by lecturers interacts with student motivation is complex and subtle:

* Students as a whole seem to prefer to learn from staff who are involved in research. * Students who are motivated to seek knowledge, value research activity more than those who seek qualifications. * Students in disciplines organized around a cumulative knowledge base (for instance, biology) are more likely to value research than those from disciplines based on the application of softer and more transient knowledge (for instance, business administration). * Postgraduates are more likely than undergraduates to see themselves as stakeholders in lecturer research, and are less likely to perceive negative effects. * Students value research activity, but as its impact upon them increases, undergraduates become increasingly aware of downside effects while postgraduates do not.

In the rest of this part of the chapter, we shall be suggesting ways in which research activity can be used to enhance student motivation, and ways in which student motivation can be used to assist them to gain benefit from lecturer research activities, and to reduce negative impacts. The reader should continue to bear in mind the important differences within the student population that have been summarized here.

Though most of the following discussion focuses on the impact of lecturer research on student motivation to learn, other effects of such research upon student motivation are also important. Quality impressions of universities among academics and others who advise students are often influenced by reading or hearing about research activity. It is therefore likely that directly or indirectly, student motivation to apply to an institution is affected by the quantity and quality of its research achievements. Once embarked on a programme of studies, students certainly report that their opinion of the course and its staff, and their pride in being a member of a particular department are influenced by its research reputation.


Breen, R and Lindsay, R (1999) Academic research and student motivation, Studies In Higher Education, 24 (1), pp 75-93

Jenkins, A (1998) Assessing David Blunkett on teaching a researching, Teaching Forum, Oxford Brookes University, 45 (Spring), p 8

Jenkins, A (2000a) Where does geography stand on the relationship between teaching and research. Where do we stand and deliver? Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 24(3), pp 325-51

Jenkins, A (2000b) Rs and gripes? Head for the US, Times Higher Education Supplement (June), p 44

Lindsay, R, Breen, R and Jenkins, A (2002) Academic research and teaching quality: the views of undergraduate and postgraduate students, Studies in Higher Education, 27 (3), pp 309-27.