Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Teaching-Research Trade-Off

By Richard Vedder

A very fine teacher from my undergraduate days once told me that "research enhances teaching, and makes it better." I have long believed that, and think I am a better teacher because of the writings and publications I have done over the years. Indeed, I think the most compelling argument for the research university that combines teaching and research functions under one roof is that there are synergies between the two functions --senior researchers train students in research techniques, and insights from the research can make the classroom teaching more interesting.

Yet these synergies have limits, and overemphasis on research at the expense of teaching can hurt students. One problem that arises is when universities lower teaching loads for tenure track faculty and increase the proportion of teaching done by inexperienced graduate students intent on becoming research professors themselves --students who these days often have difficulty communicating well in English.

There is an inverted U shape curve that can be drawn, where teaching effectiveness is plotted on the vertical axis and research activity on the horizontal one. Up to a point, research activity improves student learning, but at some point it reduces it. At some point, there truly is a trade-off between the two functions. The positive spillover effects of research with respect to teaching exist, but they are finite in magnitude.

All of this has come back into my mind recently. My Whiz Kids at CCAP have examined carefully student evaluations of professors on the ratemyprofessors.com web site. On average, kids going to liberal arts colleges rate their professors higher than ones at research universities --even controlling for perceived course difficulty. There is a teaching-research trade-off. At the research universities, there is some cross-subsidization of graduate teaching and research with funds ostensibly devoted to instruction.

Incidentally, showing a trade-off exists between the two functions does not tell us what optimal policy is. One has to weigh the deterioration in undergraduate learning that occurs when research emphasis increases against the gains to advanced students who help with the research as well as the gains to society from the insights that the research produces. But here, too, diminishing returns exist. The marginal contribution to knowledge of three-quarters or more of the papers written in my own field of economics are close to zero. At the margin, having fewer papers written will not set back the creation of intellectual capital much, but if accompanied by renewed interest in advising and instructing undergraduates, it could have net positive good.

Shortly, CCAP is probably going to release, via a nationally prominent magazine, a somewhat more student-centered, outcomes-based, ranking of colleges and universities. In general, it will show somewhat higher rankings for some relatively less-research oriented schools than is the case with the gold standard of rankings, those of US News & World Reports. Stay tuned.


Daniel said...

As a graduate student teaching an intro course, I am quite excited with the opportunity. I was advised by several colleagues "not to spend too much" time preparing for the class, but I am taking the responsibility very seriously and am focused on helping my students learn the material. As a student, I can appreciate when a professor spends time preparing for class and shows interest in helping his students. This is the attitude that I take in preparing materials.

With that being said, I am probably an exception. As Dr. Vedder said, there is a growing number of graduate students that are focused on research and have trouble communicating in English.

Students are shelliing out too much tuition money for an education to be pawned off to instructors that don't give a two shakes of a lamb's tail about the learning outcome of their students. Don't get me wrong, I have had some great professors over the years, but I've also had some that might have had a more meaningful career as an astronaut with all of the time that they spend in space.

Ken D. said...

Does anyone have any thoughts on this question: 'Why is some university research administered through academic departments, (e.g. Engineering, Chemistry, etc.) while at the same time other university-dependent research is administered through autonomous research institutes located on the same campus?".

Obviously there are great positive externalities between research and technical academic departments. However I wonder if administering the research through autonomous but co-located organizations, (similar to the way the Battelle Memorial Institute is set up immediately adjacent to the Ohio State University campus), isn't really the preferable organizational structure for this type of activity.

It seems to me that the autonomous research institutes provide nearly identical benefits to the campus-administered research, while at the same time greatly simplifying the administrative problems and pitfalls that can arise from trying to administer both endeavors out of a single business office, especially as regards properly associating costs with revenues.

Louis and Lisa said...

"My Whiz Kids at CCAP have examined carefully student evaluations of professors on the ratemyprofessors.com web site."

Uhh, there wouldn't be a selection bias issue with this voluntary survey?