July 24, 2006

Does researching make you a better teacher?

Writing about web page http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=913421

It's an age–old conundrum for universities: research is what builds your reputation and lands the big contracts, but teaching is what's expected of you, and given that it's hard enough to do one thing really well, how on earth can you hope to do two? One approach is to divide your staff into pure researchers and pure teachers. Another is to expect as many academics as possible to do both teaching and research, and a popular line to take in support of that strategy is to assert that academics who are active in research make better teachers because of it.

But is that really true? It sounds somewhat plausible; research makes you better informed which improves your teaching. Or, researching something means that you're interested in it, so you'll teach it better (but then research is just acting as an indicator of interest, not as something important in its own right). Disconcertingly, though, a recent paper suggests that the answer is unambiguously no. From the abstract:–

This empirical study attempts to answer an age-old debate in legal academia; whether scholarly productivity helps or hurts teaching. The study is of an unprecedented size and scope. It covers every tenured or tenure-track faculty member at 19 American law schools, a total of 623 professors. The study gathers four years of teaching evaluation data (calendar years 2000-03) and creates an index for teaching effectiveness.

This index was then correlated against five different measures of research productivity. The first three measure each professor's productivity for the years 2000–03. These productivity measures include a raw count of publications and two weighted counts. The scholarly productivity measure weights scholarly books and top–20 or peer reviewed law review articles above casebooks, treatises or other publications. By comparison, the practice–oriented productivity measure weights casebooks, treatises and practitioner articles at the top of the scale. There are also two measures of scholarly influence. One is a lifetime citation count, and the other is a count of citations per year.

These five measures of research productivity cover virtually any definition of research productivity. Combined with four years of teaching evaluation data the study provides a powerful measure of both sides of the teaching versus scholarship debate.

The study correlates each of these five different research measures against the teaching evaluation index for all 623 professors, and each individual law school. The results are counter–intuitive: there is no correlation between teaching effectiveness and any of the five measures of research productivity. Given the breadth of the study, this finding is quite robust. The study should prove invaluable to anyone interested in the priorities of American law schools, and anyone interested in the interaction between scholarship and teaching in higher education.

Clearly there's room for debate and interpretation on the question of whether American law schools are good predictors of other disciplines and countries. But even so, the robustness of the finding is food for thought.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Robert O'Toole

    Perhaps there is a similarity between the situation in US law schools and the UK. However, even then it might be the case that there is a significant difference between a law school and another academic discipline.

    Ultimately it is a matter of economics. Reducing the teaching load of star academics would need to be funded. That probably means fewer academics actually doing research. Would these more isolated researchers then be as successful? Or perhaps they would not be as productive if they were so isolated from a large number of other researchers?

    28 Jul 2006, 15:38

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