Are tenure track professors better teachers?

At least at Northwestern University, the answer seems to be no.  Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter report:

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 contingent faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern and employ an identification strategy in which we control for both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which contingent faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty. We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from contingent faculty in their first-term courses. This result is driven by the fact that the bottom quarter of tenure track/tenured faculty (as indicted by our measure of teaching effectiveness) has lower “value added” than their contingent counterparts. Differences between contingent and tenure track/tenured faculty are present across a wide variety of subject areas and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s averages and less-qualified students.

Emphasis is added by me.  I wonder how much of the problem is that the bottom quarter of the tenure track instructors are more likely not to have English as a first language?

The pointer is from Ben Southwood.


Tenured professors who argue against tenure never seem to voluntarily give up their own tenure. Why is that?

For the same reason the politician you'll be voting for in the next presidential election will argue for higher taxes on "rich" people, but won't voluntarily pay taxes at those proposed rates.

Maybe they'd agree to be bought out if they received a good enough offer?

I do know Computer Science professors who have left tenured jobs to be full time at companies without tenure. Same with mathematicians and others, as Microsoft Research doesn't have tenure. Most universities these days will let you remain tenured while making lots of external income so long as you kick some back to the university for overhead, so many stay.

Well, for one thing, it is extremely hard to do. You cannot just go to the Dean and say: "Hey, I am happy to keep working here but I don't want my tenure." I'm not saying it can't be done, but various committees would be involved, certainly a number of lawyers and some VPs. And certainly the Senate or Board of Governors.

That is not hypocritical and neither is Soros by stock in coal companies.

Conversely, the study could be summarized as: non-tenure track faculty are only somewhat better teachers than tenure-track faculty at Northwestern, even though the NTT faculty have strong incentives to be better teachers since their continued employment is almost exclusively contingent on teaching excellence while the TT faculty members' tenure decisions (or even future employment prospects if they fail to meet the tenure bar) will not be based on their undergraduate teaching performance to any meaningful degree.

The finding is absolutely normal and if anything, we would expect lecturers (NTT, contingent faculty) to be *much* better given that teaching is their only mission and how they secure and preserve contracts.

Often time, folks that get the teaching gigs don't have near the same level of qualification (let alone the same salary) as the research staff.

if it was a comparison of folks with similar qualifications and similar (if not equal) benefits, that would be reasonable. But most universities don't hire top-teir graduates for their non-tenured teaching gigs. (Though I do know of some examples that do, and more might in the future!)

Why should lecturers knock themselves out--and invite invidious comparisons to tenured faculty--when they are typically not paid very well? Somewhat better than tenured faculty seems just about where lecturers would want to be.

I don't know if NTT faculty are more incentivized, but I would expect a strong selection effect. Bottom quartile NTT faculty might not be invited back. TT faculty must be (although I have heard of TT faculty being such poor teachers that departments can't find suitable courses for them to teach).

People whose promotion into a guild is solely based on the volume of articles they publish oddly not good at teaching when compared to people whose entire -- and minuscule -- paycheck comes from teaching. So odd.

are those first quartile tenured faculty generating good research (but are indifferent at teaching) or are they just duds? and, if they are in fact generating good research, why waste their time on teaching first-term courses?

"I wonder how much of the problem is that the bottom quarter of the tenure track instructors are more likely not to have English as a first language?"

Learning to teach is hard enough in your native language, and I've known plenty of 1st and 2nd year teachers who haven't yet learned how to think on their feet. Doing it in a foreign language is much more difficult (I've tried several times in Italian - yikes!). Doing it and doing it well? Unlikely, at first.

One confound somewhat peculiar to Northwestern might be that it is a top school for journalism. And most of the top journalism programs rely heavily on deeply experienced professionals or former professionals who are often not academics and typically not on a tenure track. At Missouri, where I was on a teaching fellowship in journalism for a couple of years, the non-tenure-track "professional practice" faculty were easily among the most popular.

I think a bigger issue is that the people recruited to be tenure track faculty for tier I research universities are usually recruited for their research abilities rather than their teaching skills. Yes, they may be much more knowledgeable about a subject than a lecturer, but when you're talking about most introductory level courses, that knowledge really doesn't bring that much value-add to the classroom. I think the value of those tenure tracked faculty as educators doesn't really emerge until you get to higher level undergrad and graduate courses that are deeper and more specialized, taking advantage of the faculty member's expertise.

I quest a bit about the study, since it seems to hint that maybe we're better off hiring more contract lecturers and teaching faculty which are lower paid and easier to fire than tenured faculty. There is a lot of talk about universities exploiting the lecturer system, designed to bring in industry experts with pay designed more to supplement an existing income, to create an underclass of teaching faculty paid very low wages.

+1 for SJ.
Tenured faculty are such because they are researchers, not because they can teach (though many are fine teachers). It's something undergrads never really understand, unless/until they pursue advanced degrees.
In particular the study in question focuses on first-term students at an elite institution. Tenured faculty usually shun teaching low-level students.
I'd guess the correlation between teaching skill and academic renown is close to zero.

Among tenured staff in top universities, devoting effort to successful teaching is often looked upon as somewhere between an endearing eccentricity, and a ludicrously time-consuming hobby.

I wonder if the pressures of "publish or perish" for tenure-track Assistant Professors plays any role in teaching quality? I'd be curious to see if there are more Assistant Professors in the "bottom quartile based on teaching ability" among the tenure track faculty.

This isn't based on personal experience, by the way - all my past instructors who were tenure-track but not yet tenured were great and enthusiastic, but I could see how strained for time they were, and thus I understood how it could've affected their ability to put energy into teaching (even though they all performed admirably)


That, plus Tyler's clever insight into ESL, seem like the two most plausible explanations to me.

I guess the 3rd obvious explanation would be, controlling for other variables, are proficiency at teaching and research actually inversely proportional (as opposed to just uncorrelated).

Why on Earth would anyone expect tenure-track professors to be good at teaching? The department hires them to be effective researchers and then pays for them (at least in some disciplines) by making them teach undergrads for a few hours a week.

How many professors have been denied tenure for being poor teachers when they had a good research program?

Why in the world should undergraduates be paying for researchers who are lousy or non-teachers?

they've been socialized to do so? Well, and at the prestigious universities they are paying for the network effect and all the other things. Of course it raises the question of why they'd pay for it at GMU or that tier of non-prestigious university.

If you believe the signaling model of education explains everything (or the insurance model, via Peter Thiel), then undergraduates are paying precisely to bask in the scholarly glow of the research faculty.

Of course, I suspect the signaling model does not explain *everything*. Rather, a big part of the teaching problem is the lack of accurate and widely-accepted measurements of student performance.

Few people truly care how well students learn (and, correspondingly, how well instructors teach).

This problem may get better with time. As Tyler wrote a while back about the NBA, measurement really is changing the world.

The good researchers generally pay for themselves by bringing in research grants. In many universities, the professors salary is basically paid out of his/her research grants. The university also gets a percentage of any licensing fees or royalties from patents that are awarded to the lab they run.

Thank you for asking the question my post was begging!

Naturally, they shouldn't. It's a stupid system. Instead, dedicated teaching staff (with PhDs) should be hired, and their salaries funded in part by the research grants of the professors whose teaching burdens are being lightened.

Why require a PhD? Does having written an incredibly long paper on some obscure point in postmodern literary theory that literally no one outside one's dissertation committee will ever read really make one a better teacher of, say, Freshman composition as opposed to say someone with an MA in creative writing and 3-5 experience as an editor?

I guess I was thinking more for teaching graduate students and possibly advanced undergarduates. You certainly don't need a PhD to teach the intro courses. For evidence of this fact, witness that most of these courses are taught by graduate students already, many of which don't even have masters degrees at that point!

What kind of research do they produce that they are unable to explain their tools well?

"Research" and "explaining tools" are not intrinsically related skill sets. When you're asked to do both but only rewarded for one, and you have a limited amount of time, you focus on the one that will pay the bills.

Does the presence of top notch researchers attract better non-tenured instructors who want the prestige of that University's brand?

I wonder how the results would compare to tenure-track professors at a university more geared towards teaching undergraduates. Northwestern is a research university, so I doubt they're hiring tenure-track faculty based on that amazing teaching philosophy they wrote in the job application.

How easily we accept the nomenclature: research university. If we're to have government-funded researchers, why call the institution a university? Call it a research institute and drop the pretense of teaching. Of course, then the "researchers" would lose all the assistants paying for the privilege.

Tenure-track professors at "research universities" (or whatever you want to call it) do teach people. Their primary teaching responsibility is teaching graduate students how to do research. This differs from a national laboratory or NASA research center (which are much closer to a research institute), where the primary goal is just to do research. There's not a conspiracy going on here or anything. I certainly would not advise my kids to go to a research university for their undergraduate degree if they wanted a terminal bachelor's degree, though.

I'm not intimately familiar with this world, but I'm not sure I agree that the primary responsibility of tenure-track professors is "teaching graduate students how to do research".

I think a professor's primary responsibility is still to do research, right?

I think in some fields, especially the sciences, managing graduate students is a practical necessity to producing research, but that's the means rather than the end.

The two goals are complimentary. If you want to produce a lot of results, you need to train graduate students to do research well. And many grant applications or renewals specifically ask you about mentoring/training of graduate students in addition to the actual proposed research or related publications.

As someone who is pretty involved in this world, I think Aaron W is basically right about most tenure track faculty, at least in science and engineering. The reality is that most of these people could have easily gotten a job doing research at a national lab or in industry (again, only talking about science and engineering here). If all you want to do is research and don't want to deal with grad students, academia really doesn't have that much of a draw -- there are lots of alternative institutions where you can do that. Of course, working at Google has its drawbacks and I'm sure there are still plenty of people who pick academia in spite of the students rather than because of them... it's just been my experience that that's the minority.

Right, because the grad students--at least the younger ones--are often the ones executing a large amount of the professor's research.

Jan, clearly, you've never worked with 1st and 2nd year graduate students. They may work hard, but they do not produce all that much research. (And I include myself in that when I was a first and second year PhD student.)

"as indicted by our measure of teaching effectiveness"

Don't journals have proofreaders? I think "indicated" was meant.

Another typo: "average" not "averages" in "Northwestern’s averages and less-qualified students."

If the journal does not catch these mistakes in the abstract, what else is it missing?

Two glaring typos in 5 sentences ... hilarious.

Tenure track faculty are (hopefully) selected at least in part for their ability to do research. Adjunct faculty are selected only for teaching ability.

Once you condition on getting a job at a university, you induce correlation between the two selection factors. This is kind of like those studies where if you condition on being at a given university, then high math SAT predicts low verbal SAT.

Yes. It's the same as the explanation for why pitchers are usually poor hitters, and why first basemen are almost always power hitters.

you wouldn't compare it to a slump after signing a big contract, instead?

Adjunct faculty seem to be selected for their ability to teach a lot of classes with a minimum of complaint, not to teach them well.

I wonder how much of the bottom quarter is due to a certain percentage of professors basically retiring from doing any serious work once they get tenure.

I am curious about this, too, but from the other side.

I've always wondered if tenured faculty are better than junior faculty, because they no longer feel the pressure to dedicate time to research at the expense of teaching.

Maybe it's a wash. Once a professor gets tenure, it might just all depend on his/her personal preferences for how to spend his/her time, at least at the margin.

At my school, we had one professor who was of French-Iranian background. I suspect that he regarded getting tenure as akin to getting a secure government job. He barely showed up to teach his classes and did no real research. He was suspected of running an outside business to make extra money.

Ultimately, most professors/instructors are terrible teachers and have little to no incentive to improve.

Nobody, I think, has mentioned that the finding is for *introductory* courses. TT faculty have a comparative advantage in teaching graduate and advanced undergrad courses, and for advising students. A lecturer does not have the research chops to do this. (Except maybe in some Humanities fields where the supply of PhDs vastly exceeds the demand, and most NTT lecturers have PhDs and publications.)

Worth noting here that one of the coauthers, Morty Schapiro, is the current president of Northwestern.

The counterpoint (as compared to the incentives of tenure track vs. lecturers) is that im pretty sure tenure tack faculty in a discipline have, one average a higher IQ (or whatever measure if general general intellectual horsepower one prefers) than do lecturers in that discipline. Given that, ceteris parabis, IQ corresponds (more strongly in some occupations than others) to performance in pretty much most most occupational fields, this finding implies that the differential effect in motivation must be strong enough to overcome the lectures (on average) somewhat more limited cognitive abilities (or that there is yet some third factor affecting teaching performance which is also disproportionately shared by lecturers as opposed to tenure track faculty.

Is there a "Moneyball" mispricing of teaching talent which could allow schools favoring undergraduate teaching to outperform the research university which focuses on hiring research capable faculty? Or is the cultural and political system so stacked in favor of research that such a play could not succeed?

Outperform on what metric? What percentage of students actually choose a university based on how well they will be taught? University teaching simply doesn't seem to be valued by anyone: producer, consumer, or government.

im pretty sure tenure tack faculty in a discipline have, one average a higher IQ (or whatever measure if general general intellectual horsepower one prefers) than do lecturers in that discipline

I'd be very skeptical of that claim. The willingness to pursue a tenured professorship may have less to do with intelligence and more to do with temperment. People don't just stumble into it in the process of pursuing their research interests. You have to plan on being a university professor for quite a number of years, and be willing to adhere to a rather rigid process for getting there. You have to have a high tolerance for bureaucracy and a willingness to fullfill often arbitrary requirements - such as publishing merely for the sake of publishing. People who can learn the rules of an established system and conform to them would do well, but people like the kind of people who join tech startups, probably would hate it.
I never had a desire to be a professor - the social and political enviroment of academia just seemed far too constrained.

Tenure-track professors do NOT raise most of their pay by grants as one of the commenters has suggested. They are paid by the university whenever classes are in session (fall + spring). That leaves the summer months, which is what they budget for when they write proposals.

In engineering and sciences, some schools also have what are called "research faculty." These people have to raise all (or most) of their income through research. In fact, there are departments who hire both tenure-track and research faculty.

Some definitely do, but it depends greatly on the university and even on the department. In most research universities the traditional academic faculty are paid a nine month salary to teach X classes, where X might vary from 1 to 5 or 6 or maybe even more depending on the place. Often, faculty have the option to "buy out" of teaching some or all of these courses by covering their salary using research grants. This very often ends up with faculty (at least in science and engineering) covering most of their salary out of grants just to get down to only having to teach one course at a time.

Then of course you also have the soft-money folks who have to cover 100% of their salary from grants, and people who are somewhere in between.

Beyond who is technically paying for a researcher's salary, the reality is that any researchers with decent-sized programs are effectively paying for themselves anyway because universities usually charge 50-60% in overhead. So, for example, the university's take on a $1,000,000 grant is usually far in excess of $500,000. There are a lot more professors who get $1,000,000 grants than there are professors who make $500,000 salaries.

News Flash: People who have secure jobs and cannot be fired don't work as hard as people fighting for a paycheck.

i see an N for students ~15,000
how many professors are examined ?
i dont see it.

It is unclear to me how one can measure the response variable, learning. Course evaluations and grades are pretty poorly correlated at best.

Agreed. Especially given non-tenure track instructors potentially have greater incentives to mark their students leniently to keep them happy and get positive student evaluations.

So, looks like at premier research unis temp outsiders should be hired to teach principles courses, with deadwood senior profs teaching the upper level undergrad courses, and the new hotshots doing the grad courses. I think we already knew this, although there are the occasional exceptions such as Ken Elzinga at UVa, the really great senior tenured profs who are really great teachers, although I think it has been awhile since Ken has hit a top 5 journal with a pub.

go all the way, especially for state schools: first 2 years MOOC, live at home or find an apartment with friends. that gets you an associates. 2 more years on campus for a bachelors, then serious work with serious researchers at the grad level, if that's what you're into.

There are a lot of inferences to be made from the findings, but it's a bit revealing how Cowen's first instinct was towards foreigners.

So, you copy and pasted the abstract from an article you haven't even read, and this is a valid indictment of the tenure system for educators?

Then you use this post as an opportunity to launch a xenophobic attack on non-native speakers of English without any cause whatsoever. Your parents must be so proud.

His wife is Russian.

Economists try to think rationally and it is possible that the average American-born student is not 100% tolerant of foreign-born accents. This is not xenophobia.

I've never heard of a university sending its new academic staff to elocution lessons, yet it's obviously what many of them need.

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