What Explains This?

Adjuncts outperform tenured professors in teaching evaluations.

From Dan Berrett:

Students learned more when their first in­struc­tor in a dis­ci­pline was not on the ten­ure track, as com­pared with those whose in­tro­duc­tory pro­fes­sor was tenured, ac­cord­ing to a new pa­per from Northwestern University.

The paper, “Are Ten­ure-Track Professors Bet­ter Teachers?,” was re­leased on Mon­day by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and it sheds new light on the hot­ly debat­ed top­ic of whether the in­creased use of ad­junct instructors is help­ing or hin­der­ing stu­dents’ learn­ing.

The re­search­ers found “strong and con­sis­tent ev­i­dence that Northwestern fac­ul­ty out­side of the ten­ure sys­tem out­per­form ten­ure track/ten­ured pro­fes­sors in intro­duc­tory undergraduate class­rooms,” wrote Da­vid N. Figlio, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research; Mor­ton O. Scha­piro, the uni­ver­si­ty’s pres­i­dent; and Kev­in B. So­ter, an as­so­ciate con­sult­ant at an organization called the Great­est Good, which uses economic methods and data analysis to help businesses.

They also found that stu­dents who were rel­a­tive­ly less qual­i­fied ac­a­demi­cal­ly fared par­tic­u­lar­ly well when they were taught by fac­ul­ty members out­side the tenure sys­tem, es­pe­cial­ly in courses where high grades were gen­er­al­ly tough­er to earn.

“We tried ev­ery pos­si­ble thing we could to see if this re­sult was frag­ile,” Mr. Figlio said in an in­ter­view. “In ev­ery sin­gle speci­fi­ca­tion we tried, this re­sult came up.”

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  • Paul Day

    Non-tenured educators tend to be oriented more toward teaching; tenured faculty are oriented more, and under more pressure, toward research & publishing & committee work . . .

  • RJS4DQ

    First, Although the headline from the Chronicle does use the word “adjunct” this is inaccurate. The comparison is between tenure track and non-tenure track. Most of those off the tenure track at Northwestern are long time lecturers with stable employment and an excellent track record of teaching.

    Second, although the study looked at Northwestern, I expect that the same finding would come here. Many of our best teachers are on the lecturer track. They are dedicated and creative in the classroom. Most do not want to be on the tenure track. (They don’t want the research pressure, they want to focus on teaching). Lecturers who have been around for awhile are on 5 year renewable contracts and we have no desire to replace them. There are awards and honors directed explicitly toward lecturers.

    Lecturers are especially good in the introductory classes, for a variety of reasons.

  • Camp Whisperer

    Unfortunately, this research isn’t surprising at all…and most schools would probably find similar results. I imagine there would be a pretty drastic difference in teacher performance between non-tenured professors and those who have ALREADY received tenure.

  • Steve Johnson

    I just started teaching my first class as an adjunct. I’m excited about the material and excited about the students.

    Right after I signed the contract, the department head put me in touch with the tenured prof who has taught this class for 43 years. Even though he literally wrote the book on the subject, he’s tired of it. He seems tired of teaching. It seemed to me the only important thing for this guy was maintaining his classes until retirement.

    I’m sure this isn’t true of all the tenured profs, but if you factor in a number of people in his shoes on the tenured side then factor in the fact that many adjuncts are, like me, doing this as a hobby more than as a career, I think it explains the difference. Student don’t have to work hard to know when someone is excited.

  • RJS4DQ

    That one doesn’t really hold up.

  • RJS4DQ


    Excitement level is a huge factor. I expect you’ll do well.

    On the other issues – it is important to read Berrett’s full article and, if possible, the study itself. The major conclusion is that perhaps a mix of teaching-intensive lecturers and research-intensive faculty is an educationally positive situation. I agree.

  • nate shoemaker

    at some point, tenured professors become unknowing of their own high competence. and if you no longer know how you got to what you know you can’t help others get there.

  • Patrick O

    Thinking in terms of adjuncts, there’s also an incentive of student evaluations helping boost employment possibilities.