David Figlio, Morton Schapiro Find Learning Edge for Lecturers

David Figlio, Morton Schapiro Find Learning Edge for Lecturers

David Figlio

A new study by School of Education and Social Policy professor David Figlio and Northwestern president Morton Schapiro finds that non-tenure-track faculty boost student learning gains. The study compares the effects of lecturers with faculty who are tenured or on a tenure track on student interest and learning in a subject. 

“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,” Figlio and Schapiro write in a working paper co-authored with Kevin Soter, an economist with Greater Good.

The researchers use the unique strategy of following students who take subsequent classes in multiple subjects after taking their introductory classes as freshmen. The study encompasses eight cohorts of Northwestern University freshmen, a total of 15,662 students.

As an indicator of interest in the subject, the study examines whether students are more likely to take subsequent courses in a subject if the initial course was taught by a non-tenure line lecturer or a tenure-line professor. The authors investigate whether students learn more in a subject taught by a lecturer by seeing how well students perform in subsequent classes when their first exposure to the subject was from a lecturer versus a tenure-track professor.

“Our findings suggest that non-tenure track faculty at Northwestern not only induce students to take more classes in a given subject than do tenure-line professors, but also lead the students to do better in subsequent coursework than do their tenure track/tenured colleagues,” the authors say.

The researchers caution that their findings about introductory courses at a highly selective research university may not generalize to other colleges or more advanced courses. For example, Northwestern has the resources to hire top-notch lecturers. Virtually all Northwestern lecturers have long-term relationships with the University, and the vast majority are full-time instructors with their own career ladders at Northwestern.

Hiring non-tenured instructors has increased in higher education, especially because of tight budgets. Between 1975 and 2009 the proportion of tenured faculty decreased from to 57 percent to 30 percent, according to the American Association of University Professors. This study is the first to consider the effects of professors in the tenure system with those outside it.

“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. Perhaps 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 authors conclude.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 10/1/13