During my 36 years as a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, I’ve had the privilege of teaching thousands of students, exposing them to important ideas about human thought, behavior and motivation. I’ve also had the opportunity to conduct research that helps us better understand how people perceive speech.
It has been especially gratifying that I’ve had the chance to bring these two great endeavors — teaching and research — together. I’ve done this by working directly with undergraduates in my lab and guiding them as they discovered new knowledge for themselves.
Across The University of Texas at Austin, research and teaching are inextricably linked in ways that are crucial to both missions. By having so many of the nation’s top researchers in our classrooms, we give our students access to the latest bodies of knowledge and most relevant theories and ideas.
The payoff is even greater when students actually participate in the research. They learn how to ask the big questions, analyze findings and draw conclusions about what they see.
This issue of Life & Letters features the stories of three students whose research has challenged them and helped them to grow. They include an anthropology student who helped discover a species of extinct primates; a psychology student who is analyzing the words people use; and a history, government and humanities major who advocated for victims of human rights abuse in Rwanda and Bosnia.
In my own lab in the Seay Building at the corner of Speedway and Dean Keeton, I generally worked with about a half dozen undergraduates each semester, many of whom received course credit for their efforts. I had them read and discuss relevant research and taught them a range of skills. My students were never just a cog in the machine of academic research. They were valuable collaborators and co-authors. And they used the skills they honed in my lab to excel in graduate school or in such fields as law, medicine or business.
Their success came as no surprise. More than 80 percent of University of Texas at Austin undergraduates have conducted some sort of academic research, according to a 2010 survey. And those who do the most hands-on work generally have higher grade point averages and make more progress in developing academic skills and knowledge than their peers.
In particular, students who enter college with lower SAT scores or class rankings benefit greatly by conducting research, suggesting it’s most helpful for those students most at risk of academic jeopardy or failure.
That survey confirms what I’ve seen first hand since 1975: that bringing undergraduates into the laboratory or onto our field sites improves our research, helps our students and guarantees that The University of Texas at Austin remains a university of the first class.
Randy L. Diehl,
Dean, College of Liberal Arts