Talking to parents and students at a recent Family Weekend event reminded me of how little some of them understand about what professors really do. Students at least get to see us in the classroom and during office hours, although they are not sure what we do with the rest of our lives. Parents have even less exposure, and less of an idea of how professors spend their time, or how it benefits their children as students. One question that illustrates this misunderstanding is why they care whether the professors teaching their children are good researchers. After twelve years at primarily teaching-focused universities, I believe that good research can, and often does, promote great teaching.
The most tangible evidence of professors' research contributing to student learning can be found in the textbooks. Almost all of the knowledge, models, processes, and theories derive either directly or indirectly from research conducted by faculty at some university. While some of this knowledge comes from pure practitioners, much of it would never be conducted were it not for professors seeking tenure. Requiring research for tenure gives professors an incentive to conduct research about which no one outside the university would be interested but which may eventually change their field, be it science, business, education, or art. At least for me, there is also a symbiotic relationship that should make professors research more valuable in the classroom. Professors who are teaching have a different perspective from industry researchers, considering both how the results may impact industry and how this knowledge can be passed on to their students.
Even the best academic research may take ten years or more to find its way into textbooks, but it is applicable in the classroom in real time. Research exposes students to current practices, shows them how the theories and models in their textbooks have evolved, and demonstrates applications. Seeing the application and extension of textbook materials often brings that knowledge to life in ways that assignments, exams, and class discussions simply can't accomplish.
Another advantage of being an active researcher is engagement with current tools and technology. Students graduating from college today have available physical tools, such as tablet computers, and new software that was unheard of only a few years ago, much less a decade ago. In less than a decade popular software may evolve through several generations, changing the look, applications, and abilities. Professors who are active researchers must engage these new tools and learn this new software in order to keep up with younger researchers and get published in good journals. This means that they can bring that hands-on experience into the classroom and share it with their students.
It's important point out that it is not only theoretical, academic research that improves student learning. Professors who work with industry, either as consultants or in research partnerships, also contribute to improving student learning. Industry holds research to different standards than academic journals, primarily the standard of return on investment. Exposing students to this research process gives them a different perspective than simply presenting theories from textbooks, or even research from academic journals. Even better, involving classes or student projects in industry research exposes students to real world environments and expectations.
It's also not uncommon to find that theories or processes learned in the laboratory, the field, or the marketplace are directly applicable to the classroom. For example, research on consumer/brand relationships, which tells us how to measure and promote relationships between brands and consumers, also tells us how to build great professor/student relationships and motivate student learning. Even something like observing graduate students in an engineering lab, how and what they learn from the experiment, translates into better student learning at the undergraduate level.
Perhaps the most important contribution of professors doing research is that it creates (or at least enforces) lifelong learners, learning that involves making mistakes while pursuing the joy of discovery. These professors can understand and empathize with their students, who are sharing a similar learning process. Students who learn from lifelong learners may even be more likely to discover their own innate thirst for knowledge. So, when students and parents ask why teaching professors are required to do research, I tell them it's because great learners make the best teachers.