Does It Matter Who Teaches?

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Higher education has its fair share of myths, biases and stereotypes. Last week, for example, I provided some evidence to address the bias against the value of online degrees and the myths about on-ground (face to face) instruction.

There are also many myths, biases and stereotypes related to classroom instruction. For example, most people inside and outside of higher education tend to believe that the quality of instruction is better with full-time (tenure track) faculty rather than adjunct or part-time faculty. But the results of a recent research study conducted at Northwestern University challenges this preconception.

Last week, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper entitled, “Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers?”  The study was based on data drawn from over 15,000 students who attended Northwestern University from 2001-2008. It focused primarily on instructional quality in introductory courses, the courses every student is required to take.

According to the authors of the study, there was “strong and consistent evidence that Northwestern faculty outside of the tenure system outperform tenure track/tenured professors in introductory undergraduate classrooms.”  These qualitative differences were consistently found across disciplines and subject areas. The differences were even more pronounced for students of “average” ability and those “less qualified.”

The data also revealed other interesting trends. Students who took an introductory course taught by an untenured instructor were more likely to take a second course in that same discipline than those instructed initially by a tenure-track/tenured faculty member. Students taught by untenured faculty tended to earn higher grades as well.

Critics of the study point to the facts that it was conducted at a single institution and one that attracts students who are not necessarily reflective of the entire college-bound student population. However, while the authors accept these limitations, they state, “Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial.”

From my perspective, this study’s greatest benefit is to help break down the myth or stereotype about adjunct faculty. I doubt that any college or university will use this study to dismantle its full-time, tenure-track faculty. But many institutions utilize many part-time faculty and this study corroborates what some of us already know.

Good teachers are good teachers. Whether full-time or part-time … tenure-track/tenured or adjunct, colleges and universities have great instructors and those who are less inspiring. The common element is not the type of contract or employment status. Rather it’s the knowledge and understanding of the material, the creativity and dedication to effective pedagogy, and the abiding commitment to serving the educational and learning needs of the students.

College students are fortunate to have so many wonderful instructors who enter the noble profession of teaching for all of the right reasons. Some pursue their teaching careers full-time … others part-time … but they all share a love for teaching and a dedication to student learning.  

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Thursday, 24 April 2014