Teaching vs. Research

Academic scientists are familiar with the nomenclature that classifies teaching as a “load” and time for research as “release”. The language, even if unintended, conveys the idea that teaching students is an obligation to be grudgingly met while research offers the true joy of scientific life. My own view, heretofore unsupported by anything resembling data, is that the two activities are equally pleasurable and success in one feeds success in the other.

It is commonly accepted that doing research on the frontiers of knowledge makes one a more effective—or at least a more authoritative—teacher. But is the reverse true as well, i.e. does teaching experience improve research proficiency? Thanks to a recent publication, there is now data on the seemingly age-old dichotomy of teaching and research.

The experimental animals were early career graduate students divided into two groups: one group spent a year doing both teaching and research while the second group engaged only research activities. Both groups were assessed at the beginning and end of the year on their effectiveness at generating testable hypotheses, designing suitable experiments, and effectively interpreting the results.

The results are heartening, at least to those of us who think teaching a valuable enterprise: students who both taught and conducted research showed significantly greater improvement in their scientific abilities over the year than those who limited themselves only to research.

Of course, graduate students are merely professors in training, so these results don’t tell us whether teaching improves research skills among mature scientists. However, if the basis for the enhancement is that both research and teaching require the same types of conceptualization and problem solving abilities, then it stands to reason that practitioners at all levels could benefit similarly. If such a supposition was widespread, teaching might rise in status in research universities with attendant benefits to the next generation of students laboring away at science. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Posted In: Education

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