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Graduate Students Who Teach Are More Skilled at Research

2011 September 28

ResearchBlogging.orgAccording to recent research appearing in Science, the traditional advice to graduate students to minimize their time spent teaching and maximize their time spent on research may ultimately harm the development of their research skills.

Previous research examining the relationship between teaching and outcomes has been difficult to interpret.  For example, in one study, 524 students self-reported their publications and presentations, and these numbers were compared between students teaching and conducting research versus students only conducting research.  Students teaching had higher presentation and publication rates.  But this relied on self-report; would it hold true if we had more objective measures?

In their article, Feldon et al.[1] describe their research study in which 95 graduate students within the first three years of their education completed a validated research skills measure at two time points: at the beginning and end of an academic year.  The research skills measure involved the creation and revision of a research proposal in the student’s area of interest.   No feedback was provided between the two time points.

Analyses revealed that student teacher-researchers were moderately better at generating testable hypotheses (d = .40) and at generating valid research designs (d = .48) than student researchers.  This indicated to the authors that “teaching experience can contribute substantially to the improvement of essential research skills.”

Hold on a minute…  how did they conclude causality?  Teaching experience “contributing” to research skills implies that teaching causes an increase in research skills, but that conclusion is unjustified given the non-experimental design.  After a bit of digging in the online supplement, I discovered that they included the Time 1 scores as a covariate in their MANCOVA to attempt to account for pre-existing group differences, but that does not change the fact that this is a correlational study.

Sure, there are differences between groups.  The causal element could be group membership (teacher-researcher vs researcher).  But it could also be any number of individual differences correlated with group membership but uncorrelated with pre-test scores.  Perhaps, as I suggested earlier, more highly skilled/qualified graduate students are attracted to teaching roles?  Perhaps students also teaching simply have more to prove?  The source of this variance is unclear.

Perhaps more disconcerting – the authors only report 2 of the 10 dimensions as statistically significant in the expected direction.  The other 8 were not; in fact, one was even opposite of the hypothesized direction.

Even with these limitations, the results are still interesting.  Graduate students teaching do have higher scores on two outcome dimensions, even when controlling for pre-test differences.  Why does this happen?  Is it causation, or an interaction between graduate student individual differences and time?

In conclusion, I found this study somewhat of a paradox.  It is in Science, which is a top-tier journal by any account, but it is a non-experimental design with causal conclusions.  So most surprisingly to me, this study proves you can get a correlational design from the social sciences with 95 participants published in Science.  Who knew?

Footnotes:
  1. Feldon, D., Peugh, J., Timmerman, B., Maher, M., Hurst, M., Strickland, D., Gilmore, J., & Stiegelmeyer, C. (2011). Graduate Students’ Teaching Experiences Improve Their Methodological Research Skills Science, 333 (6045), 1037-1039 DOI: 10.1126/science.1204109 []
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  1. David Feldon permalink
    October 21, 2011

    Your assessment of the article raises some interesting issues. However, I believe you may overstate your case. Inferring causality is a problematic business–especially in the social sciences–and is justifiably treated with extreme caution. However, the exact quote of the comclusion from the article is “These data provide direct, performance-based evidence of improvement on specific research skills associated with teaching experiences that complement traditional graduate research training.” I do not believe this asserts a causal relationship. The abstract does use the word “can” but in this case is best interpreted as “may” or “could,” which are appropriate synonyms. The findings are important, because they belie the common assumption in the natural sciences that time spent teaching is detrimental to research skill development. In this case, the nonsignificant differences are supportive of an overall argument that there is no harm to students’ skill growth associated with teaching activities on the specific competencies measured. The significant findings indicate that there *could* be a benefit–especially as they are predictable from multiple well-validated theories regarding how people learn effectively.

  2. October 21, 2011

    If I drop a few unnecessary words in the sentence that you have provided, it reads, “These data provide evidence of improvement associated with teaching.” This quite strongly implies “teaching improves,” which is a statement of causal effect, regardless of whether or not this implication was intentional by its author. But I find it hard to believe this was not intentional, especially considering the title of the article – “Graduate Students’ Teaching Experiences Improve Their Methodological Research Skills”.

    Predictability from learning theory certainly lends support to these ideas, but they do not make up for limitations in experimental design. The implicit argument from those in the natural sciences against teaching is that teaching takes up too much time that could otherwise be spent engaged in research or personal development. Time on task has been linked to learning outcomes, so this is a valid argument, and there is nothing in this study that counters it.

    I agree that this is an interesting and potentially important piece of the puzzle; but the tendency for the scientific community and journalists to assume maximal research quality in articles appearing in Science means that authors have an even greater responsibility to clearly communicate their findings.

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