Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Let's Talk about Teaching

With Fall quarter speeding at us like a runaway train, our talk will be short but like any difficult moment in a relationship, someone has to sit down and say "We need to talk..."  or vital parts of the relationship begin to die. Figlio, Shapiro, and Soter (2013) did some interesting exploration of the "need to talk" moment regarding the question "ARE TENURE TRACK PROFESSORS BETTER TEACHERS?"

The answer is no, they're not. They're worse. You need to read the study. It's impeccably done. They don't hypothesize on why, but I'll take a crack at that here. I have a not very complicated theory about focus: where we put our energy is where we see meaningful results.

Tenure-track colleagues are torn. Teaching, research, service. The interesting question is whether this vortex of tensions affects learning in measurable ways. Northwestern suggests it does, and in stronger ways for more struggling learners.

This confronts a theory of mine that students know what grade they will receive when they enter a course. I watch students choose a lower grade (not retaking multiple attempt quiz, not making requested changes to a draft paper, not turning in assignments, not doing optional assignments...the list is long). They choose their grade, based on a history I do not know. Sometimes this comforts me. Not my fault! Other times, I want to change their history.

The article suggests my hypothesis is only partly true: yes, the best prepared students aren’t affected by teacher. An A student will still get an A, perhaps the same with B students. I can choose what I teach them, but I can't make them learn. I can make it more engaging, I can choose my content, I can create meaningful assessment of learning but I will still watch self-selection of effort and grade happen.

Where it gets interesting is where Figlio, Shapiro and Soter (2013) suggest that teaching matters in much larger ways:  "While we find that the best prepared students at Northwestern appear to perform about the same regardless of whether their first class in the subject was taught by a non-tenure line or tenure track/tenured professor, the estimated positive effect of having a non-tenure line faculty member is present and strongly statistically significant for all other groups of students.” (p14)

The political and economic decisions being made in higher education regarding the balance of tenure-track and teaching-track, tenure and non-tenure, full-time and part-time? That's not my conversation. When it's evident that the decision affects student success, we should start talking. About teaching. Even if it's a hard conversation.
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