• September 23, 2014

Ad­juncts Are Bet­ter Teachers Than Tenured Professors, Study Finds

Students learned more when their first in­struc­tor in a dis­ci­pline was not on the ten­ure track, as com­pared with those whose in­tro­duc­tory pro­fes­sor was tenured, ac­cord­ing to a new pa­per from Northwestern University.

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.

"We tried ev­ery pos­si­ble thing we could to see if this re­sult was frag­ile," Mr. Figlio said in an in­ter­view. "In ev­ery sin­gle speci­fi­ca­tion we tried, this re­sult came up."

Mr. Figlio and his fel­low re­search­ers based their findings on a study of the ac­a­dem­ic per­form­ance of the eight co­horts of freshmen, totaling 15,662 students, who en­tered Northwestern from the fall of 2001 to the fall of 2008.

They an­a­lyzed stu­dents who in their first term took, say, an in­tro­duc­tory eco­nom­ics course taught by an un­ten­ured in­struc­tor and an in­tro­duc­tory po­lit­i­cal-sci­ence course led by a pro­fes­sor who was ten­ured or on the ten­ure track. Then the re­search­ers stud­ied what courses the stu­dents took dur­ing their second term: Did they take eco­nom­ics or po­lit­i­cal sci­ence? And how well did they do?

The stu­dents were more like­ly to take a second course in a dis­ci­pline if the first had been taught by an un­ten­ured fac­ul­ty mem­ber, and they were more likely to earn a bet­ter grade in the next course com­pared with students whose first course in the dis­ci­pline had been taught by a ten­ured or ten­ure-track pro­fes­sor.

"A nontenure-track fac­ul­ty mem­ber in­creases the like­li­hood that a stu­dent will take an­oth­er class in the sub­ject by 7.3 per­cent­age points," the authors wrote, "and in­creases the grade earned in that sub­se­quent class by slight­ly more than one-tenth of a grade point."

Northwestern uses a four-point scale for grade-point av­er­ages, which Mr. Figlio said is a bet­ter proxy for learn­ing than stu­dent-sat­is­fac­tion sur­veys or standardized tests. "It's not per­fect," he said, "but frank­ly it's the only thing I can think of."

'Rar­efied' Students

The fact that the study was con­duct­ed only on stu­dents at Northwestern makes it both use­ful and lim­it­ed for its broad­er ap­pli­ca­bil­ity.

Northwestern's stu­dents come from "a rar­efied por­tion of the prep­a­ra­tion dis­tri­bu­tion," the authors wrote, and are "far from re­flec­tive of the gen­er­al stu­dent population."

In fact, stu­dents who were de­scribed in the study as less-qual­i­fied ac­a­demi­cal­ly, ac­cord­ing to the five-cat­e­go­ry sys­tem used by Northwestern's ad­mis­sions office, still posted an av­er­age SAT score of 1316.

Indeed, a similar study of students conducted at a less-selective institution yielded less-striking results than Northwestern's. Matthew M. Chingos, of the Brookings Institution, analyzed 281 sections of algebra taught by 76 unique instructors at Glendale Community College, in California. Students whose sections had been taught by full-time instructors were about four percentage points more likely to earn a C or better on a common final examination than were those whose teachers had been part-timers, instructors whose working conditions more closely mirror those of untenured faculty members elsewhere.

But an un­ten­ured fac­ul­ty mem­ber at Northwestern may not look much like the stereotype of a part-time instructor cob­bling to­geth­er teach­ing gigs on mul­ti­ple cam­pus­es. Northwestern's were gen­er­al­ly well com­pen­sat­ed and en­joyed longstand­ing re­la­tion­ships with the uni­ver­si­ty, said Mr. Figlio.

He add­ed that 99.4 per­cent of the un­ten­ured fac­ul­ty mem­bers in the study had taught at Northwestern for at least six quar­ters.

"This is not some­one we're hir­ing once to fill a gap and then get­ting rid of," he said.

Northwestern's part-time fac­ul­ty members earn from $4,200 to $7,334 per course, ac­cord­ing to eight re­spon­dents to The Chronicle's Ad­junct Project, a Web site that crowdsources sal­a­ry data for con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty members.

Administrators of colleges where ad­juncts do not enjoy sim­i­lar­ treat­ment "should not say this proves we should re­duce the ten­ure sys­tem," said Mr. Figlio.

In­stead, he and his fel­low authors wrote, the re­sults of­fer ev­i­dence that des­ig­nat­ing full-time fac­ul­ty members to fo­cus chief­ly on teach­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly at research-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties like Northwestern, may not be the cause for alarm that many see. It may even improve students' learning.

"Per­haps," they wrote, "the grow­ing prac­tice of hir­ing a com­bi­na­tion of re­search-in­ten­sive ten­ure-track fac­ul­ty mem­bers and teach­ing-in­ten­sive lec­tur­ers may be an ef­fi­cient and edu­ca­tion­al­ly pos­i­tive so­lu­tion to a re­search uni­ver­si­ty's mul­titask­ing prob­lem."

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