Preparing for College

Who Are The Best College Professors?

Question for all you high school seniors who are heading to college: What do you think of when you imagine sitting in class at your first-choice institution of higher learning? Do you picture yourself taking volumes of notes while your distinguished, perhaps even multi-Ph.D’d  professor intones endless pearls of wisdom from his elevated platform? Perhaps her credentials on her “CV” (that’s a fancy term for a resume or–for you college applicants– “brag sheet”) could propel her into a lofty Federal government position, maybe even a Cabinet secretary.

Professors have a certain aura and manner. Maybe that’s because they are “tenured.” That means that short of a direct nuclear strike, they will remain ensconced in their ivory towers forever. Does all that sound familiar? It makes sense then that these prestigious keepers of the higher education flame are the ones you should hope to encounter in order to get your money’s worth out of those hard-earned, exorbitant tuition dollars, right? Well, not so fast there, guys.

A major new study has found that new students at Northwestern University learn more when their instructors are adjuncts rather than when they are Professor Kingsfield types. You know, the kind with gray beards, three-piece suits, and a pipe. Why is this? Well, let’s take a look.


 

First, let’s try to understand the scope and purpose of the study. A quick look at the abstract gives us some crucial insights.

This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern … We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students.

That alone should be enough to strike fear into the hearts of the not-yet-tenured, tenure-track profs out there. If a college is looking for a way to evaluate their tenure-track candidates, this study may provide the data needed to produce some form of standardized measurement tool that is more precise than the global effect of student evaluations and/or RateMyProfessors.com.

Inside Higher Education writer, Scott Jaschik, has a few opinions about this, too:

The study … found that the gains are greatest for the students with the weakest academic preparation. And the study found that the gains extended across a wide range of disciplines. The authors of the study suggest that by looking at measures of student learning, and not just course or program completion, their work may provide a significant advance in understanding the impact of non-tenure-track instructors.

Freakonomics‘ Stephen Dubner adds:

There are a lot of ways one can think about this issue: – A tenure-track or tenured professor is presumably better on many dimensions than a non-tenure professor, so they should probably also be better teachers, in which case this result is surprising; – On the other hand, those with or pursuing tenure might consider teaching an intro class beneath them, and/or may be diverting their resources and time to more “important” work (original research, etc.). – On the third hand, maybe classroom instruction isn’t a highly-sought-after trait among tenured professors.– Can there be a fourth hand? If so: maybe only the worst tenured professors get roped into/deign to teach intro classes …

… Those wishing to minimize these findings, or perhaps find an ulterior motive, will note that co-author Morton Schapiro is not only an economist at Northwestern but also (just saying) its president.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett notes:

… The paper, “Are Ten­ure-Track Professors Bet­ter Teachers?,” was re­leased on Mon­day by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and it sheds new light on the hot­ly debat­ed top­ic of whether the in­creased use of ad­junct instructors is help­ing or hin­der­ing stu­dents’ learn­ing.The re­search­ers found “strong and con­sis­tent ev­i­dence that Northwestern fac­ul­ty out­side of the ten­ure sys­tem out­per­form ten­ure track/ten­ured pro­fes­sors in intro­duc­tory undergraduate class­rooms,” wrote Da­vid N. Figlio, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research; Mor­ton O. Scha­piro, the uni­ver­si­ty’s pres­i­dent; and Kev­in B. So­ter, an as­so­ciate con­sult­ant at an organization called the Great­est Good, which uses economic methods and data analysis to help businesses. They also found that stu­dents who were rel­a­tive­ly less qual­i­fied ac­a­demi­cal­ly fared par­tic­u­lar­ly well when they were taught by fac­ul­ty members out­side the tenure sys­tem, es­pe­cial­ly in courses where high grades were gen­er­al­ly tough­er to earn. …

Having done a quick review of the current journalistic “literature” on the report, I was curious to see the reaction from the tenured-faculty trenches. My search was rewarded when I found these comments on The Faculty Lounge site:

– see … comments on a post a few weeks ago, where many argued that newly-minted Ph.D.s in “intersections” are the “stars” among the faculty because they teach so well, the students love them so much, and in every way they further the goals of the faculty (which in many ways are related to judgments based on immutable characteristics of identity).

– So many problems with the study and how it was reported. For example, see: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2013/09/tenured-faculty-tie-shoes-crowd-cheers-wildly/

– From the Chronicle piece:

“piece work performed by casual laborers” …

… Nope, no problems there with that critique. No evidence of any preconceived and knee-jerk reaction that rejects any evidence that might tend to show that teaching outcomes may be measured by student performance … and that persons with experience outside academia may know something about obtaining those better outcomes. No, no, a thousand times, NO! …

… Those who possess favored identities are usually thought of as teh most “gifted teachers” on the law faculty. Student performance is rarely measured. The attempt of the NW study, albeit flawed, was a step in the right direction.

Want to know how good a teacher a prof is? For a start, put down the students’ evals, and instead obtain a copy of that prof’s final and the students’ essays in response.

– From ano:

“Nope, no problems there with that critique. No evidence of any preconceived and knee-jerk reaction that rejects any evidence that might tend to show that teaching outcomes may be measured by student performance … and that persons with experience outside academia may know something about obtaining those better outcomes. No, no, a thousand times, NO!”

You know that the cited study at Northwestern did not look at “persons with experience outside academia”?

As for the rest about focusing more on student performance and outcomes, yes, yes, yes. Agreed.

“Nope, no problems there with that critique. No evidence of any preconceived and knee-jerk reaction that rejects any evidence that might tend to show that teaching outcomes may be measured by student performance … and that persons with experience outside academia may know something about obtaining those better outcomes. No, no, a thousand times, NO!”

You know that the cited study at Northwestern did not look at “persons with experience outside academia”?

As for the rest about focusing more on student performance and outcomes, yes, yes, yes. Agreed.

Not that we had any doubts that those whose egos and other personal aspects are possibly affected by the study would have an opposing view, right?

One more viewpoint:

In The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman, titles his article: Are Tenured Professors Really Worse Teachers? A nice in-your-face twist, saying, in part:

The answer is complicated. But research shows that by replacing them with low-paid adjuncts, colleges could be hurting students …

… What precisely did the Northwestern study show? In short, it found that the university’s non-tenured faculty were better both at inspiring students to study a subject and at preparing them to do it. Freshmen were more likely to take an advanced course in a field, and generally earned higher grades in it, if a professor who was not tenured or on the tenure track taught their introductory class. The differences weren’t enormous, but they were noticeable and consistent across different academic departments. On average, students were 7 percentage points more likely to take an advanced course in a discipline after starting off with a non-tenured prof, and earned around 0.06 to .12 grade points better in their second class (on a four point scale).

But here’s the key bit, the absolutely essential context. The study did not show that adjuncts in particular make better teachers than tenured faculty. In fact, contrary to some of the headlines it generated, the study wasn’t really about adjuncts at all …

I’ll leave you with that cliffhanger so that you can conduct your own investigation about the relative competencies of tenured professors vs. adjuncts. Let me end this article, though. with a wonderful student comment from that storied site, RateMyProfessors.com, about a professor who shall remain nameless:

“He reminds me of a disgruntled shopping mall Santa.”

So there you have it, high school seniors (and maybe even parents). Don’t let the title “Professor” or multiple Ph.Ds mislead you. Sometimes, you can find a Best Buy adjunct.

**********

Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.