Published in AMS Quarterly, vol. 6 (January 2004), p. 12
Original manuscript; copyright retained by author

Classes for the Sake of Research
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor of Marketing
Auburn University, AL

Research "gets in the way" of teaching, or so many people like to say. Among the often-heard criticisms of modern research universities, research publications supplant teaching quality in promotion decisions, grants of tenure and pay raises. As the so-called teaching schools add or increase research expectations for their faculty, the claims of the research-caused lowering of teaching quality expands. But the unspoken problem is not that teaching becomes less important in job evaluations, but rather, that the classes themselves increasingly exist as tools for faculty research interests.

Instead of using the designated time for education activities, minutes, hours or even days of class can be consumed by students' "voluntary" participation in faculty research projects.

Sometimes the research itself is part of the course learning experience. Sometimes a marketing questionnaire has some logical tie to the lecture materials. It is fully acceptable (and expected) that faculty would want teaching assignments that enable them to use their favorite research activities as a focus for lectures, but unfortunately, this, too, sometimes takes a back seat for the faculty who want to be assigned classes that provide the optimal numbers and types of students desired as research subjects. And for students in that class, they learn how to be guinea pigs for the research whims of the teacher.

Some faculty ask to teach large section classes whenever they need a group of subjects to complete research questionnaires during the upcoming term. A teacher making arrangements to leave town for a conference had a colleague volunteer to cover the lecture period and, as an incentive to take on the job, he asked to run an advertising response experiment with those attending class that day. When I taught my first a large-section introductory course in over a decade, I was amazed at how many requests came in from faculty and graduate students all over campus to use "just a few minutes at the start of class" to have students fill out surveys or respond to sample advertising messages, and many of these contacts had the tone of demands. (All such requests were refused.)

A number of government regulations protect the rights of human research subjects; campus review committees are required to make certain the people studied are not abused. Some universities, colleges, or academic departments have rules on who can access classes for research purposes. Yet I heard from a faculty member who claimed that his department policy restricting faculty use of class time for research purposes harmed his school when it was trying to recruit new faculty. To him, access to captive students for research is an important faculty perk, like health insurance, computer facilities and financial support for Summer activities.

And even with the rules to protect students as human subjects, you have to wonder just how "non-coercive" students' participation would be when grade credit is involved. In extreme cases, students in danger of failing a course eagerly sign on for supposedly extra credit research "experiences" of participating in faculty experiments to turn the F grade into a C.

The impact of these activities extend beyond the classes where the practices can be found. The students learn that class time has little meaning for exams and that "showing up" is all they need to do for passing grades.

In a recent example, a student's attendance declined during the term, and on a few days she came in the room and promptly went to sleep, but after the final exam she came to the instructor asserting she "must" pass. A failing grade would mean a loss of her athletic scholarship, which would then mean a forced departure from school. "Don't you have an research experiment I can do or a questionnaire I can fill out," she asked, saying that she passed a few other classes that way and that some of her friends had used such a route to pass this course with a different teacher. On a campus where the practice is widespread, student evaluations can be filled with angry comments when the teacher of one section does not provide access to an experiment for extra credit.

The resulting overuse of available and often-inappropriate student samples also means a decline in the overall quality of the work submitted to research journals. Undergraduate college students are not valid surrogates for the population at large; many times they are not even valid indicators of people in their age group. College students are "young," but they are older than the primary targets for many youth-oriented public service advertising campaigns. The traditional college students are adults, but they are children compared to the population at large.

Compounding research errors of sample selection, inappropriate research methods often are chosen to fit the available sample. We increasingly have "convenience methods" to go with the convenience samples. For example, even when the theory is phrased in terms of long-term effects among members of the population, student samples direct the study to test hypotheses based on single-exposure laboratory experiments. Obviously, the sample was available, so the method was chosen to fit what could be done with it, turning all basic guidelines for research decision-making on its head.

Some journals have a policy against acceptance of any study with student samples, but that might be too extreme. Some reviewers, however, see the students as a red flag to question whether the method or sample are truly appropriate for the material studied.

But beyond the quality of resulting research, there is the more immediate question about the quality of classes taught by the faculty member who views those who attend the lectures as lab rats.