THE main role of academics at universities is to teach and do research. There are differing points of views that argue the two activities could either complement or contradict each other.
In fact, there have been allegations where academics who are too focused on research fail to bring the same level of enthusiasm to the lecture halls in their role of imparting knowledge to their students, thus affecting the quality, or bringing about a negative impact on teaching.
Associate Professor Dr Wan Zuhainis Saad, the director of the academic excellence division at the Ministry of Education’s department of higher education, noted that for academics it is very easy to quantify research work in terms of the amount of grants or number of publications, and in many promotion exercises, research outputs were given big scores.
“For young staff, the career path is very clear for promotion through research but not so in teaching. Subsequently, teaching staff will focus more on their research work and just fulfil the minimum requirements of teaching,” she pointed out.
“Research can be impactful in a positive way for teaching if researchers are able to connect their findings to the relevant courses or give opportunities to undergraduate students to participate in the research work in their labs,” Wan Zuhainis added.
But she remarked that it would be different or the other way around if researchers were doing research merely for the sake of it, with no connection to the curricula or undergraduate teaching.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH
Professor Dr Ishak Yussof, the pro-vice chancellor (Strategy & Corporate Development) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), said research projects bring new information and knowledge that should be shared with students.
“The traditional roles of a university are teaching and research with the aim of developing society and contributing positively to the national economic development. Thus, the function of universities apart from offering education necessary for personal development, is to provide professional training for high level jobs required by the country’s economy. It is crucial to ensure that the university’s research is being used in the teaching and learning processes,” he revealed.
Professor Mahendhiran Nair, the deputy president (Research and Development) at Monash University Malaysia, said, “Research connects us to new knowledge in the field; identifies limitations of current knowledge; informs us on what needs to be studied, re-examined and researched further; and what measures to take to overcome the limitations of current knowledge. Research is essential to update one’s knowledge base and to enable a horizon of new possibilities,” he said.
“Only research-inspired scholars or academics will be able to expose their students to new ideas, discoveries and knowledge through first-hand experience. All others are borrowed experiences and ideas.
“Furthermore, research-intensive universities across the globe are also at the forefront of innovative and creative course curriculum design and teaching pedagogy. Through their research, they will not only continuously improve their courses, but keep these courses updated in a world that is constantly changing at a rapid pace,” he divulged.
“Research is not just about extending and generating new knowledge, but it is also about solving problems and evaluating current policies and practices,” said Professor Dr Mohamad Kamal Harun, deputy vice-chancellor (Academic and International) at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM).
“Any part of research — identification of the problem, the theories, the methodology or the findings — can be teaching topics and classroom discussion points. Academics are tasked to nurture critical thinkers and innovators, thus students too must be exposed and able to dissect current problems and provide possible solutions,” he said.
RESEARCH IN THE CLASSROOM
According to Professor Dr Noorsaadah Abd Rahman, deputy vice-chancellor (Research & Innovation) at Universiti Malaya, given the right pedagogy and lesson plans, research and teaching can complement one another.
“For example, lecturers who are doing research on a particular topic would be able to formulate assignments and group work that are more hands-on and practical, hence allowing for a deeper sense of thought towards the topic rather than imparting superficial or second-hand knowledge from textbooks or references provided by third parties — such as the authors,” she pointed out.
At Universiti Malaya, in addition to research in their respective fields, Noorsaadah said lecturers are also encouraged and given support to conduct research on their own teaching practice, through a relatively small grant known as Learning Improvement & Teaching Enhancement Research (UM LITER).
“Lecturers who undertake Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SoTL), Action Research and Educational Research, are able to use the findings from their research to update their curriculum design, improve teaching delivery and most importantly, enhance student learning,” she said.
“For a research university like UKM, it is normal to bring research to the classrooms, not only for science or technical-based subjects but also among the social sciences classes.
“For science-based subjects, it is compulsory for the students to get involved with laboratory works which are frequently closely related to research projects especially among postgraduate students. For technical subjects like engineering or IT (Information Technology), students are frequently being asked to come up with projects to produce prototypes which are also research-based,” said Ishak.
Research elements are also embedded in the teaching and learning of social science subjects.
“Students conducting surveys or undertaking special investigations on specific issues will present their findings in the classroom under close supervision by their lecturers, which is a norm among social science students.
“To strengthen and further encourage such practices, UKM has decided to award 50 per cent of the tuition fees in the form of research grants to lecturers who supervise research students. In doing so, we believe that students will benefit in terms of pioneering frontier knowledge through research activities,” he revealed.
To bring research to the classroom, Mahendhiran said traditional and didactic teaching approaches must give way to more creative and experiential learning approaches, supported by building strong fundamental knowledge to discover the truth using the best scientific methods, innovations and knowledge.
“Sound fundamental knowledge supported by experiential learning with a dash of passion and inspiration will go a long way in helping students contextualise and apply what they learn in life. It will be an excellent recipe to enrich their learning experience and quality of life,” he said.
But does this mean that academics should put more focus on research at universities?
Professor Dr Kamila Ghazali, the deputy vice-chancellor (Academic & International) at Universiti Malaya, said the institution puts equal emphasis on both teaching and research.
“We do not lose sight of one over the other as both are very important for the university and country. In terms of annual appraisals as well as the promotion exercise, research is assessed based on the output and acquisition of grants, while teaching is assessed based on student evaluations of courses taught and supervision of postgraduate students.
“Many universities including Universiti Malaya are now offering lecturers the option of building their academic careers either via Research Pathway or Teaching Pathway, where theoretically, innovative curriculum design, excellent teaching, along with impactful research in Teaching & Learning (T&L) will be assessed,” she shared.
At UiTM, four pathways are adopted in determining an academic’s career — Inspiring Educators, Accomplished Researchers, Experienced Practitioners and Institutional Leadership describe the attributes needed to be an accomplished academician.
“While they cannot be mutually exclusive, in most cases, academics tend to display some strengths over another. Researchers, for example, tend to fare better in research activities compared to institutional leadership and as such, their promotional exercises shall consider all indicators and outputs like research grants, publications, patents etc,” said Mohamad Kamal.
“However, academics who spend more time in the classroom and curriculum construction such as those in the teaching and learning track are also expected to do research in order to enhance innovation in teaching and learning.
“This also includes action research. The findings of this type of research is equally publishable and can make an impact in the teaching of the subject matter. There are many learning problems that are yet to be solved, and there are also advanced technologies bringing new challenges that require exploration and research as to how students can learn the best,” he said.
Muhammad Afiq Hariz Khatem, who is studying for a Bachelor in Business Administration Entrepreneurship at UiTM, believes that academicians who are heavily involved in research make good teachers.
But they have to be able to also focus on their students through an innovative way of communication and learning to make sure that students are well taken care of even if the lecturers have time constraints.
“For me, the best is if the academician has field work experience in the courses that they are currently teaching. The sharing of past research and being involved in research as a student would increase independence of thought, resulting in a more intrinsic motivation to learn, and a more active role in learning,” said Muhammad Afiq.
On being involved in a lecturer’s research, he said the university should set some rules on the extent of student involvement to avoid them being used unscrupulously.
“The student should have a minimal role that is based on the consensus of the students and the university, and they should also receive certain credits in terms of financial aid or other benefits in some way as they are fully committed in the research,” he said.
Ummie Carmiela Norsam, a Bachelor of Mass Communications (Honours) Public Relations student at UiTM, also shares similar concerns about time management where academic-researchers are concerned.
“Based on my experience, some of my lecturers who are doing research and teaching simultaneously, don’t really know how to use their time properly. They will come late to class or they would not show up at all. They rarely do class replacements, instead they give extra assignments which I doubt will be of benefit to students,” she said.
On being involved with the academics’ research, she said it would be a win-win situation for both parties.
“It will benefit the lecturers as they will be able to garner different perspectives from their students, and the students will most likely gain knowledge by helping their lecturers.
“However, when the lecturers main motive is only to get ideas from the students then it becomes unfair, unless the lecturer credits them in his or her research. Thus, it’s more preferable for a lecturer to focus on one thing at a time,” she opined.
Samuel Loh Yung Jian, who is pursuing a Bachelor of International and Strategic Studies at Universiti Malaya, commented that academicians at institutions of higher learning need to have exposure to research. Not only does this improve their soft skills, he said it also helps to provide knowledge and insights from a more empirical perspective.
“If my lecturers have a holistic portfolio, that enhances their ability to deliver knowledge and educate. Nonetheless, there are those who are too academic and incapable of delivering what’s needed to their targeted audience, and heavy involvement in research does increase such a risk,” he remarked.
Loh also said that being involved in a lecturer’s research is a matter of personal preference.
“Personally, I like the challenge that comes with involvement. Not only does it help me to learn new things outside of the lecture hall, it also improves my soft skills in many areas. However, depending on the course, I too prefer having lecturers that are focused on teaching — at the very least, lecturers who can make time for their students for consultations. Lecturers from my department balance that well, and I am able to meet them outside the classroom for consultations, despite their busy schedules,” he said.
Fardila Mohd Zaihidee, who is pursuing a PhD in Electrical Engineering at Universiti Malaya after obtaining a Master of Engineering (Mechatronics), is of the opinion that researchers do make good, if not better, teachers.
“Every academician can teach theories to students, but only those who are involved in research can relate the theories to current scenarios and future developments in their field. Furthermore, with an in-depth understanding from their experience in research, they can provide relevant examples and analogies to further support the theories being taught,” she said.
For Fardila, hands-on activities enable her to understand theories better, which helps to generate interest in her area of study.
“As the field evolves, research activities allow me to connect the theories I have learnt to recent enhancements in that field. Involvement in research creates a more effective learning environment, where theories are applied in real-world situations.
“From my experience, I can retain and comprehend theoretical knowledge better when hands-on activities are incorporated. On the other hand, in my opinion, teaching without involvement in research tends to make students learn only through the memorisation process,” she said.