Are Tenured Professors Better Classroom Teachers?

The argument over tenure for university professors is a long and boisterous one. 

Levitt, for one, is in favor of abolition. If you are on that side of the argument as well, you may be pleased to read a new working paper by David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter (all associated with Northwestern, in one capacity or another) called “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” (gated, sorry). Short answer (in their study, at least): no.

The abstract:

This study makes use of detailed student-level data from eight cohorts of first-year students at Northwestern University to investigate the relative effects of tenure track/tenured versus non-tenure line faculty on student learning. We focus on classes taken during a student’s first term at Northwestern, and employ a unique identification strategy in which we control for 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 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.

There are a lot of ways one can think about this issue:

  • A tenure-track or tenured professor is presumably better on many dimensions than a non-tenure professor, so they should probably also be better teachers, in which case this result is surprising;
  • On the other hand, those with or pursuing tenure might consider teaching an intro class beneath them, and/or may be diverting their resources and time to more “important” work (original research, etc.).
  • On the third hand, maybe classroom instruction isn’t a highly-sought-after trait among tenured professors.
  • Can there be a fourth hand? If so: maybe only the worst tenured professors get roped into/deign to teach intro classes.

In their conclusion, the authors are careful to note some of the many variables at play here:

How generalizable are these results? Because a key part of our identification strategy is to limit our analysis to first-term freshman undergraduates, the evidence that non-tenure track faculty produce better outcomes may not apply to more advanced courses. Further, Northwestern University is one of the most selective and highly-ranked research universities in the world, and its ability to attract first-class non-tenure track faculty may be different from that of most institutions. Its tenure track/tenured faculty members may also have different classroom skills from those at other schools. Finally, Northwestern students come from a rarefied portion of the preparation distribution and are far from reflective of the general student population in the U.S.

That said, our findings that the benefits of taking courses with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions.

Those wishing to minimize these findings, or perhaps find an ulterior motive, will note that co-author Morton Schapiro is not only an economist at Northwestern but also (just saying) its president.


Plenty of professors at research institutions consider teaching a class a chore and it shows in their performance in the classroom.


And (in my experience, anyway) even those who enjoy teaching and are good at it (not always the same thing) generally prefer to teach upper-division and graduate courses, rather than introductory ones.


From experience and reading, it seems like they're not so much better instructors but that they spend more time catering to students and tend to try harder to be likable. After all, tenure track professors don't really need great marks from students on surveys. Adjunct and other un-tenured professors certainly need to be highly reviewed by their students, their shaky livelihood depends on it. A lot of full professors may just not want to teach an introductory class because they perceive the students as less generally talented. Non-tenured professors tend to be more likely to want to perceive as much talent as possible when it comes to the students. Generally, when you try harder with as many students as possible, that would be a good thing for general learning. However, many introductory classes are kind of shallow, but since they are survey classes anyways, that is not usually a problem. Usually also, non-tenured professors try to make the materials very accessible instead of only praising a portion of the class as many tenured professors do. This could also be really influential for improving student's performance in future classes.


Enter your name...

Trying to "be likable" results in good evaluations from students (especially poorly designed evaluations, like "would you recommend this instructor's class to a friend?" rather than "did this instructor use class time wisely?")

However, being likable doesn't result in "lasting student learning".

I think you're on the right track with your comment about being more skilled and interested in making the material very accessible. That's half the definition of a good teacher.

Robert Weber

I only want to know one thing: why is the requirement to teach university a PhD but no pedagogy courses? After one semester of high school education methods in a teaching university (during my short pursuit of music ed degree) I learned more about teaching than all of my later engineering professors put together. I think trial and error is the worst way to have our highest level professors learn how to teach.


In the paper, the only distinction made is between tenure track and non-tenure track instructors at Northwestern. Northwestern has a large number of permanent lecturers: professional teachers with good Ph.Ds who are on long term contracts, are evaluated on teaching performance and professional development (which may include research) and are eligible for promotion. They are paid competitively and expected to contribute to the intellectual life of the department. In they largely resemble tenure-track faculty at teaching schools.

Enter your name...

You get what you reward: tenure rewards research, so you get research.

There are a few schools that are looking into establishing specific tenured positions for good teaching, rather than tenure for research, in a conscious effort to counteract this.

Tim A.

I have been involved with higher ed for over twenty years in some form or fashion and there are a lot of issues I have with this study. However, one of them is not the result. I have been both and adjunct and research professor and it would be hard for me to disagree with these results if I felt they were true. However, this study tends to confirm my experience and dovetails well with your third proposition, i.e. classroom skills are not highly sought after in Research Universities. I did my graduate work at Northwestern where I had more than one instructor say to me, "I would spend more time working on my teaching if it counted significantly toward tenure and promotion." First year economics students can see the issue immediately: it's about incentives stupid. Teaching takes time to learn. I have been teaching for almost 15 years and in every situation I have been at there has been some significance placed on teaching. Right now I teach at a Research University in the South in a Humanities oriented college, but with a 3/3 load with no teaching assistants to take the load off for grading. At the same time I am asked to publish considerable amounts of scholarship (in my case to get tenure it was about 1.5 peer-reviewed articles a year and/or a single-authored manuscript. I just deposited my file, so I know all too well). Also, my institution pays about $10,000 under the national media per year for a research professor. To put that in perspective, a comparable teacher at a an R1 at a place like Emory or Virginia would be asked to teach a 2/2 load, has TAs, is expected to publish at about the same rate I publish (if not a bit more on the peer-reviewed side) and makes up that extra $10k. They teach less, have more help and are paid more. So, you know, incentives.

Now, lecturers at my school have no research duties. They can engage it if they like, but their performance is based solely on teaching. Their salaries top out in the 50s with benefits and get three to five year renewable contracts. In effect, these are dutiful teachers. However, no department wants to comprised solely by these workers since they have no say on the long-term decisions of the university. They rarely sit on the most prized committees and are hardly, if ever, residing in those administration slots that steer the direction of the university. A department that is top-heavy with lecturers is powerless.

This is a very real problem, one that can only be solved if the demand for quality teaching is in demand. The marker for demand in our country is cash money on the table, which is something that non-tenured research professors do not bring in. As our schools have effectively been defunded by states so that the costs of tuition must cover more, the university turns to researchers to reap in grant after grant after grant. Because I am in the humanities fewer of these opportunities are open to me in my peers, so we often teach 3/3 when my peers in the sciences teach 2/2. They effectively buy out a couple classes so they can spend their time getting grants that the university pockets around 50 to 60 percent of. Of course, no private entity or governmental agency is going to award a grant to a non-tenured or non-tenure track professor After all, if I give you $500K to research something over five years I need to know if you will be there. And, as you can guess, this is why universities have begun to prioritize researchers: they can bring in out several hundred thousands more a year than a lecturer can and are valued accordingly.

So who loses? Well, teaching. Who wins? College sports. Whatever a researcher can pull in it is completely dwarfed by a winning football team. The best account of this dynamic is Murray Sperber's "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education." I am not an opponent of college athletics but this is worth a read, particularly part two of the book: "College Lite: Less Educationally Filling". Do yourself a favor, get a copy and check it out. Anyways, thanks for the post.


Enter your name...

One way to make universities be a place of learning and teaching would be to get rid of the concept of a "research university", and replace it with "a university" and "a research institution".

The uni would be judged by student achievement, with the possibility of very limited 'model research projects' as part of relevant classes, if those were useful instructional tools. The research group would be judged by research output, with no requirement to teach students. If you want to teach, then sign up with the teaching one. If you want to do research, then sign up with the research one, secure in the knowledge that there will be no first-year students around. (If you want to do both, then transfer back and forth, but your bad teaching isn't going to be overlooked because your research elsewhere is so interesting.)

To get cheap labor, you could hire students part-time in internship-type programs at the research institution, or you could take the UCSF model and permit only graduate students.


Joe in GA

About time. I am not opposed to tenure, I just have a problem with some of your contributors who apply their economic thought process half-hazardously, or if I were to be mean, more self-servicing. While Levitt is opposed and seems consistent in his application of economic principles, some of your other contributors who are pro-tenure and yet opposed to similar other economic worker's benefits that do not necessarily apply to them. Such as having/raising minimum wage. But hey what do they care what anybody thinks, they have tenure.


Believe it or not, as far as communications skills are concerned, the best instructors from the standpoint of ability to effectively impart information that I have encountered in my life were instructors at two of the Navy schools I attended while in the service, the Military School of Music, in Norfolk, VA and the Navy Career Counselor Course, in San Diego California. The Master Training Certificate, given by the Instructor Training School, is one of the most useful qualifications a service member can take into the civilian world. (I've been out now for 8 years, so this information isn't current)

Now, the next topic should be "Are people with Doctorates better instructors?" In the music world there is a saying "if you're smart enough to get a doctorate, you're smart enough not to". So much taught in universities is pure navel gazing and navel gazing is usually taught by the PhD's.


I wish that reporting on these kinds of findings would include the effect size (even if the authors haven't in the abstract). *How much* better are they? You can't even think about what the tradeoffs of changes to tenure might be without that.


Isn't the point of tenure to ensure academic freedom? In other words, tenured professors are tenured because it helps them be free-er teachers, not because it helps them be better ones.

Tenure track prof

Interesting, but nothing new. This finding has been established with empirical studies for decades... by many tenure track proffessors. See reviews and meta-analyses by Ken Feldman's 1987 piece in research in higher Ed, or Hattie and Mariah's study from 1996 in Review of Educational Research.


Now when they show that their graduate students teaching for the first time are better teachers then really you have something. What would that be though? And are these the 300 person freshmen lectures? There may also be the inverse square rule at work where the smarter a professor is in his field the more he drones on and on. Hence we see "talking heads" on TV that get paid to be lively not to have anything between their ears.

El Conquistador

Let's not kid ourselves. Tenure in a research university is not about teaching. It is all driven by research, grants, and networking. Ending tenure would probably improve research output and grant acquisition but it will have very little impact on teaching. If you are a tenure professor and also a great teacher, you are doing for personal reasons (students?) but not because of any other incentives.

Joel S

Of course non-tenure track profs at R1 universities are better teachers! As anyone who has spent time as a graduate student, researcher, or prof at a research-driven university knows tenure-track profs are hired first an foremost because of their deemed ability to 1) bring in grant money, 2) conduct original research, and 3) publish. While teaching courses is required of nearly all tenure track profs, it is most often an afterthought at these schools with little attention paid to training profs to be teachers and not just researchers and grant writers. (Though, especially abysmal tenured or tenure-track profs have been fired because of poor teaching.)