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Is university research good for teaching?

Australian higher education is dominated by its universities, and therefore by institutions that have dual teaching and research missions. There is a long debate about whether these two activities complement…

A new report shows that universities that conduct a large amount of research aren’t necessarily better at teaching. Lecture image from www.shutterstock.com

Australian higher education is dominated by its universities, and therefore by institutions that have dual teaching and research missions. There is a long debate about whether these two activities complement or contradict each other.

Many believe in a “teaching-research nexus” – that is, ways in which an academic’s research can inform their teaching and vice-versa.

Among the suggested benefits are more opportunities for students to engage with research findings and literature, academics sharing their enthusiasm for research through their teaching, and students collaborating with academics on research projects.

While these benefits are plausible, there are also potential disadvantages. We know that academics tend to prefer research to teaching, and think that research rather than teaching is rewarded in promotion. With only a limited number of hours in the day, it would not be surprising to find that academics favour their research over their teaching.

The limited Australian empirical evidence supports a sceptical view of how research affects teaching. One study found that students at universities with high research ratings tended to be less satisfied with teaching. However, these students also had better employment outcomes.

A new Grattan Institute report released yesterday provides a new empirical analysis of the teaching-research relationship. “Taking university teaching seriously” uses 66 questions from the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) and the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) to compare various aspects of the student experience in high and low research environments. The level of research in the 22 disciplines included in the analysis was principally determined using Australian Research Council ratings.

The study took into account various factors other than research that might affect student responses to surveys. These included the student’s age, gender, and citizenship. Whether the student studied part or full time and whether they lived on or off campus was also controlled for in the statistical analysis. The surveys do not ask about Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), but the median ATAR for their university and discipline was included as an indicator of prior academic performance.

Overall, the level of research activity does not seem to have a major influence on the student experience in Australian universities. In more than two-thirds of results, there was no statistically significant difference between the high and low research groups. They mostly gave very similar responses to the AUSSE and CEQ questions.

Student survey results comparing high and low research environments Grattan Institute analysis.

Examining results for particular questions gives some nuance to the general finding of little difference between the high and low research groups.

Students in low research environments were more likely to agree that they received prompt feedback on their work. That provides some support for the hypothesis that academics doing less research have more time to spend on students. However, other time-use results found no difference between the high and low research groups.

Students in high research environments gave more favourable responses to questions about studying with others. They were also more likely to self-report improvement in their skills.

These results could mean that academics in high-research departments are more aware of pedagogical research into peer learning, and do a better job improving their students' skills.

However, it is also possible that these results reflect characteristics of the students who typically attend high-research universities. Students from high socioeconomic backgrounds may have the time, confidence and networks to do well on the questions where their universities come out ahead. This theory could not be assessed on the available data.

Either way, we are left with an inconclusive result on the effect of research. The AUSSE and CEQ suggest that teaching quality in Australia’s universities is patchy. But research activity in itself is not a major explanatory factor.

The more likely cause is that Australian universities have similar approaches to teaching, which leave many teaching staff without the skills they need. All universities are more likely to hire academics for their research than their teaching ability. They are all more likely to promote academics to senior positions based on research rather than teaching performance. They are all happy for temporary staff to do much of the teaching.

This is a common culture across Australia’s universities, whether they score highly in research ratings or not.

Fortunately, universities generally accept the need for improved teaching. Some are creating new teaching-focused roles that emphasise teaching skills and development, but these positions are often still seen as of lower-status than research positions.

To help speed along the process of recognising and professionalising teaching, “Taking university teaching seriously” recommends a government program to support an expansion of teaching-focused academic jobs.

As Australian universities take increasing numbers of academically under-prepared students, we should not leave their education to teams of casual staff and over-worked researchers. We need skilled teaching professionals to give all students a chance to succeed in higher education.

Join the conversation

21 Comments sorted by

  1. Guy Curtis

    Senior Lecturer at School of Psychology and Exercise Science, Murdoch University

    Thanks for the interesting article, I'll be interested to read the full report. However, to me, the comparison between high and low research universities seems to be the wrong level of analysis. Surely more control, from a research point of view, would come from comparing the teaching quality of more or less active researchers within universities (i.e., where the student cohorts and other factors are similar). I suspect this may show, on average, similar results as the cross-institutional comparison, but this is speculation of course.

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    1. Andrew Norton

      Program Director, Higher Education at Grattan Institute

      In reply to Guy Curtis

      The empirical literature on this subject has a mix of individual academic level studies and studies at varying levels of university organisation. There is a case for both, as the culture, practices and policies of the department/faculty/university are likely to influence the behaviour of individual academics. I think that is the case here, as academics feel like their teaching is not properly recognised or rewarded. Also the institution is the organisational level at which recruitment is made, and that is why people are being selected for research more than teaching ability.

      It's also very hard to get individual-level data. Even if unis will supply it in principle, they often have very little info on the casual staff who do much of the teaching in Australian universities. We don't even know their precise numbers. Taking a unit of analysis higher than the individual can better capture the effects of a heavily casualised teaching workforce.

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  2. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    This replicates the finding of Hattie and Marsh (1996) that there is no relation between university teaching and research at the level of individual academic, academic organisational unit or institution.

    I gather that 'Taking university teaching seriously' proposes that this be done by government intervention rather than leaving this to the market or to institutions' discretion. I further understand that it proposes that resources be redistributed by government decision rather than by the market.

    This link requires a password and so is essentially useless to anyone outside the University of Melbourne -

    ' One study found that students at universities with high research ratings tended to be less satisfied with teaching.'

    Hattie, John and Marsh, H W (1996) The relationship between research and teaching: a meta-analysis, Review of Educational Research, volume 66, number 4, pages 507-542.

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  3. Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

    logged in via Facebook

    During my student time at both low and high research universities, I came across many great university educators who were able to combine their knowledge on the subjects acquired through their research works and conscientious teaching disciplines; that has made some boring dry difficult units required for the degree become mind expanding experience and life long interests. However, I must admit that there are cases where university professors who, for some unknown reasons, were teaching a subject…

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    1. Dao Nguyen

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

      Keep it up & u will b another academic. Don't forget Einstein failed his first uni attempt. Don't give up.

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  4. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    In my experience, no-one gives a shit about high teaching loads, and we certainly don't get rewarded for prioritising our teaching over research. You could say we are doubly stigmatised: teaching larger classes with more students who have literacy issues, and then in trouble for not having a higher research performance. Our part-time teaching budget is cut each year - we don't have enough to give much work even to the higher research degree students who are actively looking for casual teaching.
    If academically under-prepared students don't turn into HD ones in first semester, then that turns out to be our fault too.

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  5. Pearl Helms

    Academically inclined at Higher Education.

    Thanks for your straight talking Alice---so true. Thanks Andrew and commentators for beginning to point out what is happening on the ground, or at the whiteboard face. The universities increasingly use 'casual' ( the only thing casual is the employment conditions) tutors to teach particularly first year students. The first and primary face to face interface between student and university is a casual tutor hired for 16 weeks at an hourly rate varying between adequate and measly. Casual tutors are like a Guatemalan nanny. Got a fundamental job and the least status and work conditions.
    It is important that universities start to take account that they use increasingly large pools of casual labor. This may be necessary or not. If it is surely it needs to be part of the discussions about how universities work. Other industries that rely on seasonal casual labour are the hospitality industry and agriculture such as fruit picking.

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  6. Jeremy Hall

    PhD student

    A lot of this reads to me like an indictment of the funding system. The publication race doesn't encourage helping other scientists, nor development of the skills needed to do so. Top researchers who happen to also be good teachers are rare, and become rarer as those with a passion for teaching lose out in the research race.

    The natural result is a body of top experts with reduced communication skills and limited ability/interest in sharing their research with the general public. And so (drawing only a slightly longer bow), science becomes increasingly powerless against the fast-growing band of people who have learned to warp scientific results for political means.
    :/

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  7. Michael Klunzinger

    Dr - Honorary Research Associate - School of Veterinary and Life Sciences at Murdoch University

    I believe that teaching and research go hand in hand, as this study shows. The fact that the two cannot be separated statistically suggests that they support one another. Research should be creating knowledge to incorporate accurate and up to date information into teaching courses.

    In my experience, research skills are largely self-taught in Australian institutional culture. Casual teaching is good experience that provides relief to heavily-burdened lecturers / associate professors, but not…

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Michael Klunzinger

      The studies do not show that 'teaching and research go hand in hand' nor do they show that 'the two cannot be separated statistically'. They show that there is no correlation between the quality of teaching and the quality of research by individual academics, schools or institutions. There may be a correlation at the level of system or country, but these haven't been studied.

      Most Australian university academics have a PhD which is surely a training in research skills.

      No Australian study has shown a relation between the quality of graduates and teaching loads.

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  8. Stephen Moston

    Associate Professor in Psychology at University of Canberra

    Hi Andrew
    Interesting article, thanks.
    My memory may be failing, but are there any questions on the CEQ asking students to comment on the research of the staff? I suspect not. From what I have seen in psychology, many students are blissfully unaware of the research done by their lecturers who prefer to keep everyone happy by teaching straight out of a text book.
    Sadly, too many students switch off when a staff member starts talking about their own research. The question: 'Is this coming up on the exam?' tends to get asked at about this time too. I have even seen some lecturers having been accused of 'showing off'.

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Stephen Moston

      There is no ceq question about teachers' research. But that would be begging the question that proponents of the teaching-research nexus seek to establish. One of the arguments of the teaching-research nexus proponents is that teaching is better if it is informed by the teacher's research. If the nexus exists that should be evident from the quality of the teaching. If the ceq asked about teachers' research it would assume that it was relevant to their teaching.

      While students' preoccupation with assessment is sometimes annoying, it reinforces Biggs and Tang's (2011) argument for the alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

      Biggs, J and Tang C. (2011) Teaching for quality learning at university, McGraw-Hill and Open University Press, Maidenhead.

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  9. John Canning

    Professor at University of Sydney

    Interesting article but one would have take such surveys based on student assessment with some critical scepticism...If most people look back at their undergrad you'd recall our highly entertaining and seemingly brilliant lecturers we thought were fabulous and supported by their numerous teaching awards actually taught us very little in practice and note instead how years later we remember more the material we struggled with from the more difficult and less pleasing lecturers....today we have the equivalent of poll driven lecturing policies and forget the role of research summarized eloquently by one comment below...The trivialisation of the research environment that in fact feeds into surrounding teacher only lecturers should also be analyzed...

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    1. John Canning

      Professor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Hi Gavin, Could that be principally because the survey follows the majority of graduates who never really use their course content in jobs? I know most people I have met that have degrees comment that they use very little of the content and really speak of general terms when answering surveys so they tend to back those feelings that they did learn something in the courses they felt they were more entertained than what they actually did learn in application. On the other hand, if a careful analysis…

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    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to John Canning

      I agree that the teaching-research nexus is likely to exist for a minority of students, for example, the minority who proceed to honours and research degrees.

      But I think the better argument is that while surveys of student satisfaction may be useful, they do not evaluate the quality of teaching (completely). I expect that peer evaluation is necessary to evaluate teaching, and presumably academics who believe in the teaching research nexus look for research when evaluating teaching. While some Australian universities are starting to incorporate peer evaluation of teaching in promotion applications, we are far away from the extensive use of peer evaluation in research.

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    3. John Canning

      Professor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Agreed. That peer evaluation may be a combination of both internal and external, including academic and relevant non-academic sectors depending on the subject matter.

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  10. John Canning

    Professor at University of Sydney

    Universities also teach post graduate students and I would have thought this is also quite important ...yet there is a persistent belief amongst some academics that this is not teaching . partly because there is potentially more income and partly because some teachers who push undergrad programs ahead of postgrad often less spend less than an hour a week actually involved in teaching advanced postgraduate students ...

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  11. Danny Butt

    Research Fellow at University of Melbourne

    Using student-only feedback to assess "good teaching" is the equivalent of using child-only feedback to assess "good parenting".

    It's important data, but there is also an important role for evaluation from experienced professional peers, which is totally neglected in this article. Because the historical role of university teaching is to provide preparation for life-events decades in the future, it may or may not be possible to know what good teaching is when you are having it performed in front…

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    1. Andrew Norton

      Program Director, Higher Education at Grattan Institute

      In reply to Danny Butt

      Danny - This is an 800 word article based on a 20,000 word report (http://grattan.edu.au/publications/reports/post/taking-university-teaching-seriously/), which covers most of the points you raise. Like all researchers in this field that I have come across, we know that student surveys don't tell us everything we need to know. But they are useful in getting an overview of what is going on.

      While most student surveys conclude with a general question on satisfaction (incidentally, usually among the most positive responses) they are mostly made up of specific questions, which are in turn based on research into what makes for a good learning environment. If students disagree that they are getting helpful feedback on their work, or that they were clear about what was expected of them, or that staff are good at explaining things (and so on) then the most plausible explanation is that we have a problem.

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