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Building Bridges Between Research and Undergraduate Teaching

Tomorrow's Research

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Here the authors try to make sense out of the tons of verbiage out there on the subject of research and undergraduate teaching, to review what the research does and doesn't say about whether the nexus exists and how strong it is, and to suggest ways to strengthen it.


The posting below looks at three strategies for a greater linkage between faculty research and undergraduate teching.. It is by Michael J. Prince, Department of Chemical Engineering, Bucknell University, Richard M. Felder Department of Chemical Engineering North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent Education Designs, Inc. Cary, North Carolina, and is based on an article recently published in the Journal of Engineering Education on the research-teaching nexus, 96(4), 283-294.



Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Research


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Building Bridges Between Research and Undergraduate Teaching


Research expectations for university faculty have been rising for over half a century, to an extent that a high level of research funding and numerous publications are necessary (and often sufficient) criteria for tenure and promotion at virtually every research university in the country. Pressure to increase research productivity has also risen at institutions with traditional teaching missions and community colleges.

A common justification for the rising importance of research in the faculty incentive and reward system is the claim that research and teaching are tightly linked at both the institutional and individual faculty levels. This claim has been debated vigorously for decades. Those who support it point out many ways that research supports teaching, such as keeping course content up-to-date and modeling for students the intellectual curiosity and critical thinking that characterize good research. Opponents cite data from dozens of studies that have consistently failed to show the alleged correlations between research productivity and teaching effectiveness. We recently reviewed the literature on the linkage between research and teaching. Interested readers should consult the full study report1 to see the complete bibliography and detailed justifications of our conclusions and recommendations.

We believe that the reason the debate between defenders and critics of the research-teaching nexus has gone unresolved for so long is that the two sides are debating different propositions: (1) Research has the potential to support teaching; (2) Research has been shown to support teaching in practice. Those who argue that research supports teaching argue for the first proposition, pointing out all the ways that it might do so, while those who argue the other way base their arguments on the second proposition, observing that no significant correlation between teaching and research has been found at the individual faculty level, and a massive study involving roughly 25,000 students at over 300 universities and colleges found a significant negative correlation between a university's research activity and many important educational outcomes.

While the finding that faculty research generally does not promote better teaching frequently provokes calls for more extensive or sophisticated analysis of the data, a more productive response may be to use rigorous scholarship to strengthen the research-teaching nexus by identifying and testing potential integration strategies. Our study examined three commonly proposed strategies for building bridges between undergraduate teaching and faculty research: (1) bringing research into the classroom; (2) involving undergraduates in research projects, and (3) broadening the model for academic scholarship. Summaries of our analyses and conclusions follow.

Bringing Research Into The Classroom

Probably the most common argument in support of the research-teaching nexus is that faculty with active research programs bring their research into the classroom, with a variety of instructive consequences. Unfortunately, there is little empirical evidence that this happens extensively or effectively. While some students report that discussions of current research in their classes promote intellectual curiosity and excitement, others see negative effects of research integration, such as skewing the focus of courses to accommodate the faculty's research area or detracting from the instructors' interest in or time for undergraduate teaching. In addition, bringing research into the classroom in disciplines such as the physical sciences and engineering can be difficult for two reasons: hierarchical knowledge structures in those disciplines put most research well over the heads of most undergraduates, and rigidly constrained curricula limit opportunities to bring in new material.

While there is currently little evidence to demonstrate the benefits of faculty integrating the content of their research into their classes, faculty may productively introduce students to the research process by adopting an inductive teaching method (such as guided inquiry or problem-based learning) that emulates research. In an inductively-taught class, students are first presented with a challenge of some sort-a question to be answered, a problem to be solved, or a set of observations or experimental results to be explained-and learning takes place in the context of their attempting to meet the challenge. The potential for this approach to achieve the benefits frequently claimed for bringing research into the classroom (e.g., promoting students' research skills and motivating them to pursue graduate study) seems clear. However, educational research is needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of inductive methods at achieving those outcomes in practice.

Involving Students in Undergraduate Research

Engaging students in research projects is frequently cited as an effective way to link faculty research and undergraduate. Studies have shown that student involvement in research correlates positively with curricular retention, and most participants in undergraduate research programs report that their experiences were both instructive and enjoyable. Participants in those programs also report gains in research-related skills, although direct evidence of those gains is currently lacking, and there are some inconclusive indications that undergraduate research may have a positive effect on students' content knowledge and cognitive development. Research involvement may also have a positive effect on students' plans to pursue graduate study. A major limitation of undergraduate research is that at most universities it is restricted to relatively strong students who constitute a small percentage of the student population, which raises the question of whether the benefits that may result from undergraduate research justify the cost of that research in institutional resources and faculty time.

Broadening the Definition of Research

Another potential strategy for building effective bridges between faculty research and undergraduate teaching is to broaden the definition of research to include the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). Surveys of faculty engaged in educational research suggest that their doing so helps them integrate their research and teaching, enhances the campus climate for teaching, and improves student learning. Those studies are largely based on self-report, however; what is still needed is rigorous research demonstrating the existence and strength of the connections between educational scholarship and student learning. Moreover, it is unlikely that significant numbers of faculty members will be willing to pursue educational research in their disciplines unless and until such research counts in tenure, promotion and merit raise decisions.


The driving forces behind the heavy emphasis on research in the academic priority system-the quest for research dollars and the high institutional rankings that those dollars make possible-are unlikely to go away in the near future. Rather than simply lamenting the negative effects of research on education, academicians might more productively attempt to strengthen the synergy between the two activities whose existence has been long claimed but never convincingly demonstrated. The strategies recommended in this review-using inductive teaching methods that emulate the research process, involving substantial numbers of undergraduates in research, and pursuing research on teaching and learning-are intended to serve that purpose. Rigorous studies are needed to determine how effectively they can do so.


1. Prince, M.J., R.M. Felder, and R. Brent. 2007. "Does Faculty Research Improve Undergraduate Teaching? An Analysis of Existing and Potential Synergies." Journal of Engineering Education, 96(4), 283-294.