When I left Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the mid-1990s to become an assistant professor of engineering and physics at Brown University, I naturally carried my research on display technology into my classroom. The complex, abstract mathematical concepts of capacitors, dielectrics, and electric and magnetic fields came alive for students when our discussions connected to contemporary research and the digital devices in their pockets and backpacks. As I conducted my own research, I filled my laboratory with bright, eager undergraduates who applied their textbook knowledge to learn more by hands-on discovery and experiment. These students frequently became creators of new knowledge, often coauthoring peer-reviewed articles with me. As a result, my research accelerated, and the integrated learning approach became a signature of my teaching pedagogy. A few years later, I recognized I was practicing the teacher-scholar model.
I have since practiced the model and observed its growth in the academy and its impact on students at the three institutions I have served. The approach—which focuses on engaged mentorship and collaborative learning between faculty and students—challenges students to learn by doing, grow with practical experience, and build a deep conceptual understanding of their field. When faculty approach instruction as scholars, they inform and improve curricula and teaching with evidence-based practices that elevate student learning.
The term “teacher-scholar” appeared in Ernest L. Boyer’s 1990 Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. While definitions of the model vary, all place students at the center of the learning experience. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock says, “Teacher-Scholars are faculty who actively engage with research in their respective fields of study, and through that, provide unique benefits to their students.” California Polytechnic State University says, “The teacher-scholar model . . . enables faculty to continuously develop new knowledge, integrate scholarship into the learning process, and innovate industry-relevant curriculum.” Elon University says, “The teacher-scholar model embraces the both-and tension (that is, not either teacher or scholar, but both teacher and scholar), recognizing the valuable outcomes that emanate from that tension.”
At Miami University, where I am now president, the model emphasizes an iterative, dynamic, and continuous cross-fertilization among scholarship of discovery, scholarship of teaching, scholarly teaching practices, and student development and engagement. It integrates teaching and scholarship that establishes collaborative learning and mentoring relationships between top scholars and undergraduate students, both in classrooms and in laboratories. It engages students in critical reflection and research on enduring scholarly questions and approaches to grand global challenges.
From their first semester, students in a teacher-scholar environment experience top-tier research. Scholars bring real-time disciplinary research into the classroom, and students see firsthand how scholars approach questions. They hear current conversations linked to the learning materials among scholars worldwide. This elevates their perspective beyond the textbook, fosters transdisciplinary thinking, and equips them for independent research or creation.
For example, at Miami, a history class on the city of Pompeii and its destruction is taught by a world-renowned classics scholar whose current research on where survivors fled is integrated into the classroom experience. An engineering design course traces the path of drug discovery and development from bench to bedside and is taught by a team of professors doing such research. In an art history course on the art market, instructors put real artwork—from a gallery in Akron, Ohio—in students’ hands. The assignment: “Research this artwork and then sell it to our campus museum,” which students actually do.
The teacher-scholar model also leads undergraduates into a research question or creative experience. At my campus, forty history students produced a book on the history of Miami University using objects from the institution’s collections. STEM students have shared authorship on publications in drug discovery, paper fiber science, protein folding, gerontology, and more, as well as patent filings for a drug invention. Accounting students have been tasked with taking scholarly research and extracting its implications for practice, culminating in a practitioner-oriented journal publication. Entrepreneurship students have constructed business plans that became startup companies. Students from many majors in theater and dance classes have choreographed original pieces, from conceptualization to performance, in collaboration with faculty and external partners. These types of deep learning and creative experiences have become integral to the Global Miami Plan, our liberal arts core, and often make up the “Knowledge in Action” component.
When faculty effectively guide students to learn through inquiry and discovery, students gain communication, storytelling, writing, ethical reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and other skills and mindsets that complement a liberal education. They can now present at a conference, publish a peer-reviewed journal article, write a book, patent an invention, start a company, compose a song, or choreograph a dance. Presentations and productions by these undergraduates often attain graduate-level inquiry, creativity, and experience. The thrill of creation and discovery illuminates career goals, energizes passion, and builds confidence. These students don’t just consume others’ knowledge; they become creators of new knowledge and architects of creative expressions.
The teacher-scholar model also enhances faculty scholarship and creativity. The classroom becomes a living laboratory for articulating, questioning, and refining ideas, distributing scholarship activities to many curious, creative student collaborators, who propose interesting points, follow-up questions, and fresh perspectives.
Teacher-scholar faculty experience their teaching and scholarship as united rather than as parallel tracks between which they must switch. They can assign undergraduates high-risk preliminary projects to see whether the projects are promising. More students working on research questions means more conversation, input, synthesis, and discovery opportunities. Students can often see the real-world impact of their work, and mentoring relationships with instructors can grow into peer-like collegiality and vibrant learning environments.
Faculty can also use the teacher-scholar model to make discoveries about teaching and learning and apply their findings to their work with students, collaborating with colleagues to develop new concepts and put them into practice. For example, a musicology professor’s students conduct primary-source research on musical works, learning to think like historians as they draw conclusions about the works. The professor evaluates the students’ learning and uses the results to develop improvements in music history pedagogy. In a chemistry class, students learn the structure and function of molecules by interpreting artistic visualizations of compounds and acting out the motion of particles in “chemistry theater.” The chemistry professor conducts research about students’ thinking in chemistry—in turn, the research findings inspire new ways to teach and assess students.
Institutions that adopt the teacher-scholar model at scale tend to assign equal value to teaching and scholarship in their policies, practices, and promotion expectations. They can elevate their brand with this distinctive approach and the synergy it generates with a liberal education—learning and doing, theory and practice, intellect and action. Top scholars who seek to engage undergraduates will be drawn to that environment; so will top students.
Most important, though, the teacher-scholar model prepares the rising generation to become effective leaders of a thriving society. From day one, students who take part in the integrated learning approach have reflected on enduring questions and modern challenges, engaging the “real world” they are entering. They have served on teams with diverse people, expertise, and ideas. They have already made an impact and are ready to make more of one.
Photograph: Art history assistant professor Michael Hatch (left) puts real artwork in the hands of his students and asks them to sell it to Miami University’s Richard and Carole Cocks Art Museum. (Scott Kissell/Miami University)