Do Scientists Value Teaching?

By Chris Mooney | May 6, 2010 8:50 am

There have long been complaints that teaching gets relatively short shrift in academe–especially at major research universities–and that what everybody really values is research.

Well, there’s some new data out on the topic–a survey by Nature Education, reported on by Times Higher Education:

The analysis is based on a survey of 450 university scientists from more than 45 countries who have both undergraduate teaching and research responsibilities.

It states that while in theory most consider teaching to be as important as research, their actions suggest otherwise.

While 77 per cent say that teaching and research are equally important and only 7 per cent say that research takes precedence, when asked to select a candidate for a role involving both duties, 48 per cent chose a star researcher with no significant teaching experience.

The report says that the respondents believe that this is the appointment their institution would want them to make, adding that despite missions to educate, most top-level universities are “far more interested” in pursuing a research than a teaching agenda.

It notes that such institutions tend to “direct more funding, awards and job security to outstanding researchers than outstanding teachers”.

You can read the full report on the Nature Education study here.

My take: We knew this already. But compelling data can compel action, so having some is a very good thing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Education, Unscientific America

Comments (6)

  1. Walker

    Why should it compel action? It is generally accepted that grant overhead is a bigger money maker than tuition. In that light, prioritizing teaching is bad business.

  2. ponderingfool

    Of course what is teaching? Just in the classroom? What about graduate students and post-doctoral trainees in a research setting?

  3. TT

    Ponderingfool has a good point — grad students and postdocs learn from the research component, more than from the classroom component. And this teaching is paid for in many departments by research funding.

    More generally, why do top Universities have a research component at all? Yes, that is “how it is done”, but nothing forces this division of labor in common entities. I think there are good reasons. If you go to a major research University, you get exposed to people actually pushing the boundaries of knowledge. Such people may not make the best teachers that exist (since they at best spend half of their time teaching, by definition they shouldn’t), but they bring something to the learning process which I think can be argued is beneficial for the students.

    And there are many non-research smaller schools. If their focus on teaching without research produced better-trained students as output, they would be the ones everyone was jockeying to get into. Instead, everyone wants to go to the big schools, which are seen as being superior. I think the fact that their instructors do research is exactly the reason why this is so.

  4. At most large research Universities, only a fraction of the faculty are actually involved in teaching. That may not be a good thing but it ensures that the school is well funded and that only the people who are really interested in teaching do so. I went to school at UCSD, where most of my biology classes were 100+ students, but I got a fantastic education. The professors were always accessible and were generally very good teachers.

    And I know that promotions/tenure decisions were based in large part on teaching and student feed-back. Some professors were publication and grant powerhouses and didn’t teach, but they were on roughly the same footing when it came to advancement as those that took the time to educate undergraduates.

  5. Brian Too

    My experience was the opposite of @4 Kevin’s. Maybe I’m dreaming in technicolor but I don’t think universities pay more than lip service to teaching.

    It’s research that attracts the funding, is sexy, and generates the licensing and spinoff revenue. Research creates the papers that feed into the academic tenure system. Research is what the profs want to do.

    The teaching is a (drudge) duty and the undergrads get the worst of it. Most students want an undergrad degree and then head out into the world for a job and new horizons. Yet what the universities like, want and cater to, are the advanced degree seeking individuals. Sounds a bit funny since the TA’s and Research Assistants are underpaid and treated like slave labour, but at least they get attention. Students working on their first degree rarely get even that.

    How much training does the average prof get on teaching itself? Little or none. Tells you what you need to know right there. They hire domain experts and figure that such people can automatically teach their knowledge to others. It’s bogus logic but that’s the attitude. And hey, if the profs can’t teach, well the university wanted to weed out the junior students anyways, right?

    And there’s the attitude. The average university has an attitude that they teach because they must, but they research because they want to. Students are a burden necessary to get to the good stuff, the research.

  6. To add to what others have already pointed out (e.g., in terms of the mandate to bring in outside funding, which is nearly always for research activities — not to mention the fact that scientists can value teaching all they want but still need to satisfy the tenuring committee and what *it* values), let’s recognize that many scientists (indeed, many academics in non-scientific fields) seem to assume that teaching “comes naturally” rather than requiring any special skills or training to cultivate those skills. If someone knows his or her field (and does cutting-edge research in that field), well then surely s/he can teach it, too.

    This leads to some very interesting dynamics within chemistry departments (for example) that include faculty that do research in chemical education — the faculty who do “real” chemical research act as though their chem ed colleagues are researching something so obvious as to be silly to subject to empirical study.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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