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Study Finds Tenure-Track Professors Not Always Better Teachers

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"... students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors..."

The point of tenure originated as a means to ensure academic freedom, in addition to making professorship attractive from an economic security standpoint. But such security over the years has lead some to question whether tenured positions -- from which a person could only be fired for adequate cause and after a hearing -- are the best system for the students.

college classroom A study found students performed better when taught by an untenured professor, but some this won't be the case at all universities. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that students learned more from non-tenured professors than those on a tenured track -- at least at one university.

Looking at eight different groups of first-year students at Northwestern University, researchers found "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," the abstract of the study stated.

To account for different variables, the researchers wrote that they used a "unique identification strategy" to control "both student-level fixed effects and next-class-taken fixed effects to measure the degree to which non-tenure line faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than do other faculty."

"We tried ev­ery pos­si­ble thing we could to see if this re­sult was frag­ile," the study's lead author David Figlio, Director of Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "In ev­ery sin­gle speci­fi­ca­tion we tried, this re­sult came up."

Of the results more specifically, they found students taught by an untenured professor were more likely to take a second course in the subject as well as get a better grade in the next course.

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

Still, the Chronicles pointed out that given the research was limited to Northwestern students, its conclusions are therefore not widely applicable. The education publication also reported another study at a different academic institution found the opposite result -- being taught by full-time professors ended up resulting in higher grades for students.

Figlio noted that untenured faculty at Northwestern might not be representative of those at other colleges and universities as well.

"This is not some­one we're hir­ing once to fill a gap and then get­ting rid of," he said, since a strong majority of adjunct professors have been with the university for at least six quarters.

Instead of using the conclusions to suggest tenure should be reconsidered, Figlio said it might reaffirm a practice of hiring tenure-track professors to focus on research and adjunct, non-permanent, professors to focus on classroom teaching.

"...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," the study stated.

Featured image via Shutterstock.com.

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