Does teaching make grad students better researchers?

I’ve felt for a long time that getting to teach as a graduate student has really helped me as a researcher, a somewhat counterintuitive idea considering the distractions and time involved in teaching. A new paper in Science1 provides some support for that notion.

The basic idea they cite is the overlap of cognitive processes between research and discussing problem solving with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students. Apparently, this introspection pays huge dividends when you return to your own research questions and experimental design. Quote:

When teaching in a context that requires students to effectively conceptualize research and solve problems through inquiry (for example, frame testable hypothesess, design valid experiments, or draw appropriate conclusions based on data), instructors must practice these skills themselves as they reason through these problems in order to provide appropriate guidance to their students.

The key here is the way learning processes are both formally and cyclically reinforced through self-explanation—something that research-only students might not experience as much in a typical research assistantship.

Other benefits of graduate students teaching? Universities can provide instructors at lower cost while graduate students become better prepared for faculty positions in STEM fields. Not to mention, a large number of undergrads have personally told me that their best instructors have often been graduate students.

If you’re interested in the topic, the article provides much more detail about the measures used to quantify the research performance of research-only vs. research+teaching graduate students. Apparently this is one of the first studies that supports the hypothesis with more than self-observations from grad students (students participating in the study wrote research proposals at the beginning and end of the study which were evaluated by a panel of external reviewers).

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides a nice discussion of the topic as well, which you can access here.

  1. F. Feldon, et al., “Graduate students’ teaching experiences improve their methodological research skills,” Science, vol. 333, pp. 1037–1039, Aug 2011. [article] (ht: @jboerckel)