Among instructors in academia, professors are at the top of the pecking order. They often earn more than other, lower-ranked, instructors. When it comes to teaching, many students believe that professors are more knowledgeable than other academic staff. But do professors also teach better than their lower-ranked colleagues? Are they actually better at preparing students for the challenges of today’s labor market?
A new IZA discussion paper by Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca and Ulf Zölitz studies these questions and reveals that professors are no whit better than other instructors when it comes to tutorial teaching. The authors use data from a Dutch business school where students were randomly assigned to instructors. They find that students taught by professors instead of graduate students, for example, neither achieve better grades nor do they perform better in related consecutive courses. Also, after graduation, these students do not earn higher wages and are not more satisfied with their jobs.
Given the current debate about lowering the cost of post-secondary education, we wanted to know more and spoke with Ulf Zölitz, assistant professor at the University of Zurich and co-author of the study:
Why does it matter whether professors are good tutorial instructors?
Ulf Zölitz: In many universities, tutorials – also called exercise, lab or TA sessions – are taught by students and professors. This seems crazy – professors and students doing the same job? We looked at tutorials taught by students and professors and did not notice a huge difference. But it would be surprising if the vast difference in qualification and experience didn’t matter at all. We therefore wanted to find out about the costs and benefits of different instructor types.
What’s new about your study? Hasn’t this topic been researched before?
Surprisingly, no. Tutorial teaching has been mostly ignored by other researchers, who focus more on effectiveness in giving lectures. This is especially surprising since, by our calculations, over 60 percent of universities in OECD countries use tutorials at the undergraduate or graduate level, and over half of those universities use a mixture of low- and high-ranked instructors. Another contribution of our paper is that we study a broad range of student outcomes in university and the labor market. We do not only look at course performance, but also study students’ subsequent grades in related courses, student course evaluations, earnings and job satisfaction. We only find that professors get slightly better course evaluations. But other than the tiny impact on course evaluations, we find there’s no good reason to staff tutorials with professors.
This seems to suggest that professors are not ‘worth’ the higher salaries they receive for tutorial teaching. Is your paper bad news for your colleagues in the profession?
Not at all. We actually believe our finding is good news! Our results suggest that universities around the world have a huge potential to free up professors’ time by assigning more students to teach tutorials. Professors could then focus on what they do best and, for example, spend more time on research.
Lower teaching load, more time for research – a conclusion many of your colleagues will certainly endorse… Thanks for the interview!