February 20th, 2008

A Bit from the March Issue of The Teaching Professor


A recent analysis of the teaching vs. research debate highlighted in the March issue of The Teaching Professor was a welcome find. The argument just seems to go on an on, even though everybody involved recognizes that teaching and research require very different skill sets. As authors Prince, Felder and Brent (all notables in the field of engineering education) point out, “The primary goals of research is to advance knowledge, while that of teaching is to develop and enhance abilities.” To accomplish those goals, “excellent researchers must be observant, objective, skilled at drawing inferences and tolerant of ambiguity, and excellent teachers must be skilled communicators, familiar with the conditions that promote learning and expert at establishing them, and approachable and empathetic.” (p. 283)

True enough, one person can do both things well. Research (highlighted in an earlier issue of the newsletter) documents that only about 10 percent of faculty do excel at both. Beyond the different skill sets, doing both well takes an enormous amount of time. Spending time on one means less time to spend on the other and stress for the person trying to do both.

Research also debunks the synergistic link between the two—that somehow each contributes to the other and both benefit as a result. The Prince, Felder and Brent article cites all the research that looked for and didn’t find any link.

But the key idea in the article—the one that moves the debate to a different place is the insight that each side here argues for a different proposition. Those who insist faculty can and should do both (mostly administrators) see potential benefits for teaching and research reciprocally and those on the other side point to practice and say but there’s no evidence of benefits being realized.

The authors then look at three ways research could potentially improve classroom practice and review the literature to see if there is any evidence that they do. Those results are summarized in the March issue.

For folks interested in good sources on teaching and learning, I’d put this in the “must have” category of articles. Never mind that it was published in the Journal of Engineering Education, and you aren’t an engineer. It’s another great example of how scholarly work on teaching and learning embedded in the disciplines deserves a wider audience.

Reference: Prince, M. J., Felder, R. M, and Brent, Rebecca (2007). Does faculty research improve undergraduate teaching? An analysis of existing and potential synergies. Journal of Engineering Education, 94 (4), 283-294.