Talking About Your Research (in class)

Mar 02 2011 Published by under teaching

Question:

Is it a good idea or a bad idea to talk about one's research interests and results in an undergraduate class? Does this enhance the class or does it bore and alienate the students?

While serving on committees that involve gazing at a large number of teaching evaluations for professors at my university, both within and beyond my department, I have been fascinated by examples in which students comment on professors who mention their research in their lectures in undergraduate classes.

Some students hate it when professors talk about their research in a class. Some students think it is very interesting and a great addition to a class.

But:

What interests me is that it is rare for there to be a mix of opinions for any one professor. That is, either students make mostly positive comments about a professor's discussion of their research or they criticize the professor for discussing research in the class.

It seems, therefore, that there are good ways to talk about your research in class, and there are bad ways to talk about your research in class.

From what I've inferred from reading a large number of teaching evaluations, it is seldom the case that criticism of research-mentions in class is the only negative comment that students make. If students are unhappy with other aspects of the class (e.g., organization, clarity, degree of difficulty of exams, perceived fairness of grading, accessibility of professor), they may interpret the mention of research as one more piece of evidence that proves that the professor doesn't care about teaching. In these cases, students write in teaching evaluations: "Professor X only cares about research."

If, however, students are engaged in the class and feel that the professor cares about them, in-class discussion of the professor's research is interpreted as one more piece of evidence that proves that the professor cares about teaching. In these cases, students write in teaching evaluations: "Professor Z is the perfect example of a university professor because he effectively integrates his research with his teaching. I wish more professors at the university would do this." [real example, paraphrased and included with permission of Professor Z]

In some cases that I have seen in which students wrote in a teaching evaluation that the professor only cares about research (mentioning specifically that the professor talked about his/her research in class instead of the "relevant" materials), there was abundant evidence in the dossier as a whole to show that the professors did in fact care a lot about both teaching and research. These professors, however, are not (yet) effective teachers, at least for certain types of courses (typically large lecture-format courses for non-majors).

Some naturally talented teachers can probably integrate research examples seamlessly into their classes from Day One. For the rest of us, it's best to get the course running smoothly in terms of logistics first, show the students that we respect them and are interested in helping them learn, and then make sure that references to our research are clearly explained in the context of the class.

It might seem like there is a major difference between inserting interesting examples of a topic about which we are passionate and that we think will help our students be more engaged in the course material vs. talking about something that really interests us instead of the boring course material we were assigned to present, but, perhaps from the perspective of the students, this distinction is not so obvious, especially if they are anxious and confused about the course.

Some recent criticisms of US universities have specifically complained about professors who talk about their obscure research interests in class, as if no one could possibly be interested in these topics except the professor in question. A professor who talks about their research in a class is wasting their students' time.

I disagree. I think that talking about research in any class -- from a large lecture-format intro class of non-majors to upper level courses for majors -- can be a very good thing that enhances the class experience for the students and engages them in the topic. The integration of research into classroom teaching has to be done carefully and well, but it can and should be done.

I am speaking from my point of view as a Science Professor who sees a lot of interesting and cutting edge Science being done at her university. It's important to tell students about this, to involve them in the excitement of discoveries, and let them see how scientists work. The research being done at their university is not being carried out by anonymous, unknown people in distant labs. Some of it is being done by their professor and by their teaching assistants, perhaps in the same building in which the class is held. And perhaps some of these students will get involved in a research project as part of their undergraduate studies.

I am most familiar with incorporating elements of Science research in teaching, but I strongly believe that the general principle applies no matter what the academic discipline and no matter how (apparently) obscure the research topic.

16 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    If done well, it's an absolutely wonderful way to motivate an advanced class.

    At the beginning of my optics course last quarter I handed my undergraduate students a paper from my sub-field within optics (NOT a paper that I wrote, however) and said that our goal for the quarter was to master enough foundational material so that by the end of the quarter they could understand the methods and significance of the cutting-edge experiments in that paper. Since this technology has some very wide-ranging applications, I argued that it would be a worthwhile exercise for them, and even if those applications didn't come up in their future careers they'd still be likely to use many of the technologies and tools that went into this work. I then related every lesson to that paper. "Today we are studying lenses, because the experiment in the paper uses many lenses. Next week, mirrors, because they do something very clever with their mirror. After that, diffracti0n, because it governs the behavior of the light in this experiment. Then CCD detectors, because those show up as well. Then, noise in light detection, because it's the main obstacle to getting good results in their experiment. Also, image processing, because that's how they extract the information."

    I delivered on my promise, got excellent evaluations, and some of those students decided to take more classes from me (these are electives outside their major) and even do a minor in my field. So, I call it a success.

    • GEARS says:

      That seems like an effective way of teaching a class, with or without mentioning the research paper. You could do something very similar by saying "Here's this telescope [generic object]. See how nifty it is. By the end of the semester, you will be able to design [understand] fancy telescopes [objects] by following the principles taught in this class." (Not my intention to disparage, because either way is really effective way to teach IMHO)

      I think what SP is referring to is going off on tangents in a course on research stuff when it is only loosely related to class. So you have a class on Widgets and before the students are well versed about Widgets and their full functionality, you go on and talk about your fancy Red BioNanoMedi Widget that you (and maybe a few grad students) fully grasp. That's the clear case where the Prof is much more interested their own little research world than teaching.

      My overall guess is that effective teachers are generally going to bring up any topic, controversial, research-based, etc, in a better light than non-effective teachers. That seems to be what SP is suggesting with her data.

      Non-effective teachers, for the most part, aren't aware that they are non-effective teachers, otherwise they would try to do something about it. Presumably, they're happy in their own research world, don't want to teach, and that comes across directly to the students.

  • I've had a really positive response to talking about my own research for 5ish minutes as a part of my course overview on the first day of my large undergrad course. It is enough for the more interested/advanced students to get a taste of what I do, and not so much that it annoys the uncaring majority.

  • Sen says:

    I think it's important to show application of theories. After all, theories came after research. Showing the development of theories followed by an application seems reasonable because it will help understanding. If that application is in the teacher's own specific field then the onus is on the teacher to not get carried away. Everything in moderation.

  • SamW says:

    As a student still taking classes, I find that generally, I enjoy professors who mention their research. However, this enjoyment has increased through my years at university.
    Especially in higher level courses, we have several lecturers per course, who each talk about what they are specialised in. Thus I would expect them to talk about their research. One professor did this very nicely by also including a small picture of the student who had actually done the work in his lab on the bottom of the slides. This shows effectively shows that these are real people doing real research. However, I find it important that the professor not only mention his work in the lectures. There are other people working in the field who have done relevant work that should also be mentioned. We get given a reading list at the end of each lecture and I find it highly annoying if the professor only cites his own work. I know he works in the field and I can easily find his papers myself, but what ELSE is out there regarding this field?
    In lower level courses, some professors manage to explain their research on an appropriate level to the course, others go into to much technical detail. It is nice when their enthousiasm shines through but they have to do it at the right level and not overwhelm us with detail. Some asked us to read research papers at a much too high level, when actually at that stage we should have been given reviews to read instead. So as long as the lecture is at the right level, I think talking about your own research is a good thing.

  • Liz says:

    If it is done well so that the relevance to the course material is clear, than I think it is great. The problem is that this relevance is very often not clear to UG students, even if it may be obvious to the professor and so students are left thinking "why on earth is s/he telling us this?" We can argue as to whether it is a bigger problem that the majority of students only care about the 'testable' material and not advances in the field as a whole, but that is reality. UG students are often stressed and overwhelmed and info that seems irrelevant, understandably, seems annoying.

  • Mr Undergrad says:

    Absolutely discuss your research in class. I came to college not to listen to a lecture about things I could find on the internet, but to learn about things that are new and cutting edge.

    That said there is obviously some foundational material we have to learn. But what is foundational material if there is nothing above it. It has to be a foundation to something. If your research relates (at least somewhat) to the material *please* talk about it. I want to learn about what my professors are doing.

    Alex's approach to the class is patronizing. If I'm taking a class there is a very good chance I know why I have to learn the material. What he could do is as he teaches the class go through the paper and discuss the relevant parts so that by the end of the class the students *actually know* what the paper is talking about instead of just knowing that they *are able to know* what the paper is discussing.

  • Jenny says:

    I credit an undergrad prof who used an example from his research in class for getting me interested in research. It was one brief example in just one class during the semester, but it changed my whole perspective on what I could do with my engineering degree (my first intro to biomedical research). So - I totally agree that using personal research examples can engage students and enhance the classroom experience for undergrads.

  • studyzone says:

    I incorporated one aspect of my research into an undergraduate genetics class I taught, in which traditional labs were replaced by a semester-long research project doing a reverse genetic screen in my favorite model organism to identify novel genes that affect a particular developmental process There are some caveats to such a setup - I had a small enough class that it was financially possible to do on my course's shoestring budget, my model organism is amenable to working under the time constraints of an undergrad course, and the phenotype we were screening for is easily observed. Students learned all of the skills we'd normally teach in the course, including standard molecular biology techniques and basic genetics, but in the context of a larger research question. My evaluations from this course were by far the best I have ever received, and the students were enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in a "real" (their word) research project. I'll admit it was a huge time-suck for me for both the short-term and long-term lab prep (I didn't have a lab aide or TA to help), but the payoff was worth it.

  • another young FSP says:

    I find it is very effective to talk about other profs' research in the school, in places where it is directly relevant to the class content. I usually introduce it as current research exploring the boundaries of topic X, Y, or Z, or illustrating a way in which topic X Y or Z is being applied outside of the classroom.

    If I just talk about my own research and no one else's, students find it narcissistic. If I bring in multiple examples through the course and my own research is not the first project I discuss, it helps to put it in the right context. Then, students tell me it sparks their interest, helps them understand the relevance of the lecture material, etc.

  • Laura says:

    This year I'm part of a program that is based entirely upon the concept of graduate students and postdocs teaching undergraduates about our research. In the fall, I co-taught a seminar for 18 first-years, and this semester I'm teaching similar material to 22 juniors and seniors. We frame the course by saying that we are going to teach our students about the scientific method and the research process, and we will do this using our own work as examples. As they learn about our research, the students also design and implement their own research projects: the first-years work in groups to carry out some sort of study and write it up, while the upper-level students write individual mock grant proposals based on their own interests.

    The course is not limited to the sciences. I'm a PhD student in neuroscience, but I've been working with a microbiologist, a sociologist, and a student from the graduate division of religion. So, our students learn about a broad variety of topics. We try to focus on the similarities in our research processes: reading the literature to get to know a field, developing a novel research question, choosing methods, analyzing our findings, communicating our results, etc.

    It's been a lot of work, but our students responded positively (if last semester's teaching evaluations are to be believed), and many of them have expressed interest in conducting research as undergrads or in graduate school after completing the course.

  • BoneGirl says:

    I talk about my research all the time in my introductory anthropology course. I may need to dial it back some after reading this post, but in general I get much more student interest (as judged by students coming up to me after class to ask questions/saying they might want to major) on the days that I use my own work as an illustrative example of whatever concept or question about anthropology that I'm presenting. I generally try to focus on the outcome of the research and importance to the field rather than on the methodology, though. Even though I think the chemistry and geology behind strontium isotope analysis is awesomely interesting, I only mention it as a way archaeologists find immigrants within a cemetery, because the students would rather hear about the lifestyle differences between immigrants to Rome (whom I found using Sr isotope analysis) and locals. Mostly, though, I just like talking about what I do because it's more interesting than what other people do. 😉

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    In non major courses, and in first major courses, I have used up 15 minutes of the first lecture on a slide show about my research. I think of this as letting the students know who I am professionally. I will occasionally use examples from my research if they are germane to the topic under discussion. I don't recall any reaction, positive or negative, in student evaluations.

  • Miss MSE says:

    Ask yourself this question: does my research relate to the content we're covering right now? If yes, proceed, making sure to explain relevance. If not, please don't talk about your research.

    When were talking about ferromagnetics, I really don't want to hear about your photovoltaic research. If it's a class about electronic materials, please do. Illustrative examples are awesome. Rambling tangents aren't. I've also had professors who end up skimping on covering fundamentals in order to talk about why what they do is so spiffy, and usually in this case, we don't have enough of a foundation to understand the research in the first place.

  • UnlikelyGrad says:

    I think it is good for professors to tie cutting-edge research into their lectures at any level of instruction. However, I don't think research should be the prime focus of any lecture at the undergraduate level. Five minutes is about right for an introductory class, no more than fifteen minutes for an upper-division course.

    Furthermore, I think it is ideal for a professor to only talk about his/her research once or twice during the course of a semester. Rather than discussing the same material over and over, bring in other profs (or grad students or industry folks...) to talk about *their* research. I think you do your students a big favor when you expose them to lots of ideas, not just your own.

  • Timo Kiravuo says:

    I think it is not "what" but "how". If you take off and talk for half an hour about some detailled problem that the student's can't understand or how unfair the reviewer of your lates paper was, it is bad and students will rightfully complain. But if you can tie the research to the course material it is great. Even in first year courses there is often a possibility to expand some relevant detail to a research question, as the first year material often glosses over the details. And you can leave the questions open, like "Answering this gets you a PhD..."

    Also it is OK to _occasionally_ go off the deep end and get excited about something that goes totally over the students' heads, but only for a brief time (it is fun to be a "mad scientist" and scribble on the blackboard "...and if we solve this we get..."). And this might be a cultural thing, Americans seem to be always excited about everything, which we don't do in the Nordic countries as much.

    kiravuo