Are professors really worth it?

Tutorial teaching quality unrelated to academic rank

Interview | door Sicco de Knecht
13 september 2019 | Student instructors and full professors are equally good when it comes to teaching tutorials, a study by three economists finds. "The idea that students are as good as professors at teaching tutorials is not crazy. I think the crazy thing is that people are still using professors to do this work", says researcher Jan Feld (Victoria University of Wellington).

It might be the single most worrisome statistic in academia: the plummeting staff-to-student ratio. In many countries around the globe the number of students is going up, with the number of faculty staff members remaining stable or at least growing much slower. The solution: increasingly, student instructors are taking up the tasks of teaching tutorials that faculty simply don’t have the time for.

But is this really a bad thing? Jan Feld (Victoria University of Wellington), Nicolás Salamanca (Melbourne Institute) and Ulf Zölitz (University of Zürich) just had to know. They looked at data from a Dutch business school, where tutorials were taught by student instructors, PhD’s, postdocs and more senior staff. Comparing the student outcomes, they hit upon a surprising conclusion: there was no systematic relationship between academic rank and teaching effectiveness.

No added value of professors

Mildly put, this conclusion should make academics and policy makers alike sit up straight in their chairs. Many universities publicly pride themselves on having (full) professors teaching courses and tutorials, but what if that effort doesn’t add much to the student outcomes? Then, are professors truly worth it?

Since he lives 20,000 kilometres away in New Zealand, we aren’t are able to speak to Jan Feld in person, but a video link does the trick. Opening with the most urgent question we ask him: does the outcome of this study surprise you? “Not really,” Feld says, “the idea that students are as good as professors at teaching tutorials is not crazy. I think the crazy thing is that people are still using professors to do this work.”

"I think the crazy thing is that people are still using professors to do this work.”

Feld is very clear on the point that these results exclusively cover tutorials, and not lectures or practicals for example. “We only studied tutorials in this case. Although we can’t say anything definitively about lectures, in my experience lecturing and creating a course modules is a different thing entirely. This is something that should be left to senior staff.” On the level of tutorials he is clear however: “I truly don’t see the added value of professors there.”

An ideal sample

The sample for the study came from a Dutch business school. Naturally Feld cannot reveal which one because of privacy reasons, but when it comes to the educational approach of the tutorials, he can be a little bit more precise. “This programme applies problem oriented approach in these tutorials. Typically, students have to prepare by reading – scientific – literature and work on a case during the tutorial.”

Instructors were assigned to tutorial groups randomly Feld explains, which means that the student characteristics weren’t related to the instructor or vice versa. “The latter would have been the case if students would have been able to ‘choose’ their instructor or time slots for example. In this study the randomization was a guarantee and we were very pleased about that.”

At this business school, tutorial instructors have different academic ranks. “The lowest-ranked instructors are student instructors. These are typically third year bachelor’s or master’s students who are currently enrolled at the university. Other instructors include PhD’s, postdocs, lecturers, senior lecturers and professors of all ranks.“

Statistically but not practically significant

In short there were no significant differences between the grades of students who followed a tutorial with a full professor or a student instructor – or any other ‘academic rank’. Feld reiterates that there were significant and positive effects for postdocs and assistant professors, “but these effects were within one percent of the standard deviation.” Statistically significant, but in terms of the effect size less than two hundredth of a point (on the Dutch 1 – 10) grade scale.

“It means teachers matter and teacher quality matters. It simply isn’t related to academic rank.”

There are differences between teachers however. “This is the main reason why I think our results are valid. Teachers matter, and teachers have different quality.” The outcome that some student teachers clearly are more beneficial to the learning outcomes than other students – and the same thing goes for professors – is very positive to Feld. “It means teachers matter and teacher quality matters. It simply isn’t related to academic rank.”

An additional but nonetheless very interesting finding was that ‘good teachers’ do have a very positive impact on learning outcomes overall. Even over the span of more than one course the effect of a great teacher will simmer. “If you had a great ‘Maths 1’ teacher, you are more likely to perform well at ‘Maths 2’ regardless of the teacher you have for the second course.”

Every study has limitations

The natural follow-up question is whether students are great teachers, or professors are poor ones. Feld cannot answer this on the basis of the results. “Also, this isn’t necessarily the most important question.” At this business school all teachers get a short training in teaching of around one or two days. “But the more senior they are the more likely it is that they’ve had additional training.”

Feld is equally interested in the limitations of the study. “For one, we can only test the effectiveness of student teachers in courses where they are actually employed.” He points out that there might be courses where the tutorials are so advanced that they are never taught by students in the first place.

Given the nature of the tutorials in this particular case, Feld doesn’t think the outcome of this study is unexpected. “There are many reasons to expect there would be a difference, but if you think about it more carefully and also about what tutorials are, it isn’t crazy that there wouldn’t be.”

A cost cutting opportunity?

Feld, being an economist, regards the issue as a matter of costs. The major question being: does the learning benefit justify the added costs? If not, then it might not be a sound investment. “So really, are professors worth it?” If there is no clear educational reason to have professors teach tutorials, couldn’t their time be much better spent on something else?

In a back-of-the-envelope calculation Feld and his colleagues answer the question of what this would mean. “In the most extreme scenario, in which all tutorials are taught by student instructors, wage costs for the average tutorial can be reduced by 47 percent for a bachelor’s program and by 55 percent for a master’s program.” Not bad if a program is in need of some ‘breathing space’.

"Teaching tutorials is really not the best use of professors' time"

“Based on our results I truly think that at least for the first year undergraduate courses it would be better to offload the majority of the teaching to students or cheaper staff.” In general Feld feels that universities should reconsider where they think the employment of professors is most valuable. “In many institutions in the US it is very uncommon for professors to teach for exactly this reason. It is really not the best use of their time.”

Ending on a critical note we ask whether this way of thinking isn’t feeding into the idea of a neoliberal university – isn’t this the perfect excuse for ‘massification’ of education? “Aren’t we there already? This is basically what’s happening already. At least now we know that for specific parts of our university programmes it poses no harm to the educational outcomes of students.”


Are professors worth it? The value-added and costs of tutorial instructors

Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca & Ulf Zölitz (2018) – Discussion paper series (link).

Students are almost as effective as professors in university teaching

Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca & Ulf Zölitz (2019) – Discussion paper series (link).

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