The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

The relationship between research and teaching has always been contentious, if only because of the tension that exists between competing demands on the time and energy of academic staff. This applies especially strongly in institutions where promotion (and appointment) depend more upon research excellence and publications than upon the ability to deliver learning and teaching effectively. It has been argued that students at a university, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level, should be exposed to the research that is such a central part of a university’s mission. The undergraduate curriculum is thus expected to deliver ‘research-led teaching’.

Although there may be a widespread agreement that there should be research-led teaching, there is much less consensus on what this actually means, and it has been interpreted in different ways in different contexts. Broadly, we can identify four different approaches.

At one level, there are many university websites that include statements such as ‘you will be taught by experts who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines’. This is one interpretation of research-led teaching. Students will be taught by researchers with a proven track record of excellence. The efficacy of this approach may vary. The mere fact of being taught by an active researcher in itself does not guarantee that the research will rub off on the students. A lecturer may spice up the lectures with anecdotes about research or present some of the results in an accessible way, but the scope for this when teaching introductory mathematics or consumer demand may be limited. The curriculum must thus present opportunities for researchers to inject research into their teaching. A common way of doing this is through the menu of options provided for students, so that researchers have the opportunity to present units that are closely related to their own area of expertise. It has to be admitted, however, that this form of research-led teaching, valuable as it is, is rather passive from the students’ viewpoint.

A second level of research-led teaching is to ensure that the curriculum delivers the skills needed for students to engage in research. A unit in research methods might fit the bill here, and this could be fully or partly assessed by having students prepare a research proposal on a topic of their choice.

A third level would be to require students to engage in a research project or dissertation. It will be clear from the case studies presented in section 6 that this is indeed a common feature of many economics degree programmes. Students can find this one of the most rewarding parts of their programme.

Another rather different interpretation of research-led teaching is that teaching should be informed by pedagogic research. This goes beyond the scope of this chapter, as it is not a curriculum design issue as such. This is perhaps more to do with staff development and the need to expose academic staff to the results of pedagogic research.