Combining Research and Teaching

Contact: Todd R. Kaplan
University of Exeter
Published January 2007

Every day, a lecturer feels pulled in many different directions and spread too thin among responsibilities, the main two being research and teaching (not to mention administration duties, student advising, referee reports and, god forbid, personal life). It is clear that we got our jobs due to our research abilities. It is also clear that promotions and monetary compensation is primarily tied to research accomplishments. However, most of us feel a moral responsibility to our students — they are in fact the reason for the existence of our positions.

Thus, weighing these considerations, we spread our time over our activities like a microeconomics agent with a fixed budget of time treating the activities as substitutes. We judge every hour spent on teaching to be an hour subtracted from research, hurting our career opportunities (and vice-versa). While easy to fall into this way of thinking, I propose that we should also consider the positive spillovers from one activity to the other. Every hour spent on teaching can improve our research output; every hour spent on research can improve our teaching performance. That is, teaching enhances research and research enhances teaching.

Let me start by explaining how teaching benefits research. First, teaching develops communication skills (not often acquired in our quantitative-based graduate programs) and forces us to explain complicated ideas in a simple, organized manner. This is needed for success in writing and presenting research. Second, teaching helps the lecturer learn. The further one moves on the career path, the more specialized one's research becomes. Teaching helps counter this both by providing an opportunity to keep updated with other fields but — just as important — by helping us fill in the gaps of our knowledge. I often hear that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Third, teaching helps us understand our own areas of research. By teaching others, we rethink old problems and perhaps find new areas to apply our research. In summary, we should view teaching less as a chore to be finished than as a chance to hone one's skills and knowledge.

Let me now explain just some of the ways research benefits teaching. First, adding a bit of current research can help spice up lectures and convey to students the usefulness of what they are learning. Economics has an edge over other fields in that current research can easily be put into the classroom. There are current research articles that cover close to every topic in the undergraduate curriculum. This is obviously different from mathematics or physics. Moreover, with Freakonomics, Steven Levitt showed not only that the public — let alone students — find economics research fascinating, but also that research papers can be brought down to a level of easy comprehension. Second, putting some research into lectures will inspire some students to go into research. Many of us can remember the lecturers that inspired us. For me it was the current research that they put into their lectures. (One of my professors was Richard Feynman, whose thoughts on research and teaching are well worth reading). Finally, the research we put into lectures, particularly our own, will increase the respect that the students have for what we do. From this, they would be more willing to pay attention during lectures to grasp the extra insight we may be able to provide even when our communication skills are still being developed.

On a practical level, there are some simple pointers to combine research and teaching.

When involved in teaching, constantly try to see any open problems or interesting research questions. Keep changing your lectures- try to find new materials or examples to cover. Even squeeze in some material that you may want refreshing in lectures. When involved in research keep one's eyes open for ideas to help teaching. Whether or not the idea is suitable, for each seminar you attend and for each research paper you read or write, think about how you would be able to explain it an undergraduate or graduate student. Ask if there an interesting homework question that can be based upon the work.

Not all is rosy. While it is worthwhile to be involved in both activities and they can provide a break going from one to the other, there are switching costs. Do try to keep a scheduled break to focus on research. I like to keep a day or two open in the week. Furthermore, also save a significant time before each lecture to review material. I find it useful to schedule office hours after teaching. Talking to students helps me wind down from the excitement of lecturing. This is perhaps easy to say than do, but take note of any modifications to material/additional thoughts shortly after the lecture.

When one doesn't see research and teaching in conflict, one can engage both with a more positive attitude, and students do perceive this. Our jobs should not feel like being a part-time high school teacher and part-time governmental economist. Instead, by looking for ways to combine research and teaching we can truly feel like university lecturers.