The Graduate Training Trade-Off 'Myth'

New study says "tension" between graduate training in research and teaching is false and that teaching training may actually build research confidence and output.

June 27, 2018
 
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Graduate school takes long enough already. That’s one of the reasons, among others, why Ph.D. programs tend to focus on research over teaching. A new study challenges assumptions that building teaching expertise has to come at the expense of research preparation, however.

Looking at a national sample of life sciences Ph.D. students, the study’s authors considered how increased training in evidence-based teaching practices impacted students’ confidence in their preparation for research careers, their ability to communicate about their research, and their publication counts.

In a challenge to conventional but previously untested wisdom, the authors found that the research confidence and output of Ph.D. students who "invested" time in learning evidence-based teaching, or EBT, practices did not suffer. In fact, data revealed what the authors called a “slight synergy” between investing in evidence-based teaching and research savvy. That is, learning about teaching actually appeared to benefit students’ research skills.

The long-standing “tension" between developing research and teaching skills "may not be salient for today’s graduate students,” reads "The Trade-Off Between Graduate Student Research and Teaching: A Myth?" The study was published this week in PLOS ONE. “This work is proof of concept that institutions can incorporate training in EBT into graduate programs without reducing students’ preparedness for a research career.”

Although some institutions already bake pedagogical training into their programs, the authors note, "increasing these programs at scale, and including training in EBT methods could create a new avenue for accelerating the spread of evidence-based teaching and improved teaching across higher education."

The paper’s message isn’t necessarily new. Many academics and some professional associations have previously said that rounding out graduate training to build skills beyond research better prepares students for a variety of jobs inside and outside academe. But new here are data to back up that argument, the authors say. (And of course there's a major push for evidence-based teaching practices in science at the undergraduate level, in part to encourage diversity in the field.)

Cutting Through the ‘Tension’

“The tension between research and teaching has been investigated for decades for faculty, but we were interested in if there is data to support the trade-off between investing in research and in modern evidence-based teaching for graduate students,” co-author Erin E. Shortlidge, an assistant professor of biology at Portland State University, said Tuesday. “I hope that this is only the beginning of research on the topic.”

Shortlidge and her co-author, Sarah L. Eddy, an assistant professor of biology at Florida International University, developed their own survey instrument for gauging students’ self-reported awareness of, training in and use of different evidenced-based teaching methods. To do so, they borrowed heavily from two published surveys of faculty and postdoctoral researcher awareness of such practices and shaped them based on various feedback. The survey instrument also asked students to rate their confidence and training in research, teaching and communication, and about how many papers they'd published.

The survey's ultimate set of evidence-based teaching practices was presented with written definitions, to include case studies, clickers, concept maps, discussion-based instruction or Socratic method, flipped classroom, problem-based learning and/or inquiry-based learning, process-oriented guided inquiry learning, and think-pair-share.

Student participants were recruited through professional scientific society Listservs, departmental Listservs and snowball sampling, or chain referrals. The final sample, which did not include first-year Ph.D. students who hadn’t been studying long enough for their answers to be relevant, for example, was 338 students. They represented 19 subfields in what the authors call “traditional” life sciences (not biology education or philosophy of science, etc.).

Results

In an advanced analysis, increased training in evidence-based practices did not reduce students’ confidence as researchers, but rather had a slightly positive effect. Training in EBTs also increased students' confidence in communicating their research.

Interestingly, teaching experience alone, as opposed to direct instruction in best practices, did not increase research communication confidence.

Controlling for whether students had earned a master’s degree and year in their Ph.D. program, the analysis also found no negative relationship between number of papers published and investment in evidence-based teaching practices.

To the contrary, the paper says, “the trend actually hints at the potential for the opposite pattern: for each unit increase in a student’s average training in EBT practices, they were 1.04 times more likely to have at least one additional paper.” For example, students with the mean EBT training index had a 47 percent chance of having zero publications and students in the third quartile of the EBT training index were slightly less likely to have zero publications, or a 43 percent chance.

Shortlidge and Eddy wrote that, based on other research, many graduate students report having to seek out voluntary evidence-based teaching training and that training of one semester or longer is most effective in building lasting skills. They note that their study is based on self-reported data from self-selected students, and so may not be applicable across the life science graduate student population.

Still, Shortlidge told Inside Higher Ed that in her own experience, based on a forthcoming study, “graduate students perceive that their institutions generally only give lip service to professional development and teacher training -- that such training is not a real priority.”

So maybe the new data will help convince institutions that investing in evidence-based teaching training won't negatively impact students' research, and even "render them more prepared for their future academic positions," she said.

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