More time on research means lower scores for students – study

Universities must ‘recalibrate promotion criteria’ to place more value on teaching, says scholar

May 11, 2022
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Students’ mastery of subject matter in science and mathematics declines as their lecturers become more involved in research, according to a study of thousands of learners.

The paper claims to be among the first studies to establish a causal relationship between teachers’ research publications and their charges’ academic achievement – and challenges the conclusions of past studies, many of which found no correlation between research and teaching quality or student learning.

For the paper, published in Educational Researcher, scholars assessed more than 4,700 students in science, technology, engineering and maths fields across China, India and Russia using a 40-minute test devised to gauge their ability in maths and sciences. Meanwhile, the students’ lecturers were surveyed on how many papers they had authored in the past three years and the time they spent on research and teaching.

With each additional paper published by a researcher, the students they taught received increasingly worse scores on average.

“When compared with studies that typically find small effects from faculty quality…the results suggest meaningful trade-offs between faculty research and the achievement of STEM undergraduate students,” the study says.

Igor Chirikov, one of the paper’s authors and senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, told Times Higher Education that the findings should give universities added motivation to carefully consider the expectations they place on academics who teach.

“Our study calls attention to faculty hiring and promotion policies that emphasise research over teaching…Such policies tend to assign more value to faculty research outputs and, as our results suggest, can potentially negatively impact student learning,” he said.

While the study did not identify the areas in which academics were being forced to make trade-offs, Dr Chirikov said that, broadly, the findings suggested that a heavier research workload reduced the time that lecturers devoted to teaching.

“Basically, faculty have less time to invest in updating their pedagogy, reach out to students that are lagging behind, [and] respond to students’ requests,” he said.

But striking the right balance between research and teaching duties is easier said than done. Even countries that previously separated the two pursuits, including China and nations from the former Soviet bloc, are “quickly moving away” from this system.

“I am not sure that creating a greater institutional divide between research and teaching is a good solution,” Dr Chirikov said. “Instead, it’s important to find the right balance between these two equally important university missions…Universities need to recalibrate their promotion criteria and place more value on faculty contributions to teaching.”


Print headline: More research time means students learn less

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Reader's comments (2)

I think this says something about attitudes today. As a student, I was responsible for my learning and have basically taught myself most things since the age of 16, with variable results. The issue seems to be that students are less self-reliant. I acknowledge that my own conscientiousness in responding to student queries and the like has probably resulted in my promotion stalling but there was no decline in student satisfaction in my most productive publication years. Good all-round performance does not get you anywhere (maybe it should not?) and being unsatisfactory in teaching often does not seem to matter in promotion processes. Perhaps a true merit pay system or discretionary increments would help? Much of the problem in the UK at least stems from the need for fast promotion because salaries have fallen behind.
Some universities claim to reward teaching, but it is nearly impossible to progress to Reader level and beyond on such contracts. So yes the system rewards research outputs only despite what universities might have you believe.