Student engagement is more important now than ever, and that means staffing your courses with the right instructors. In their new paper, Staffing the Higher Education Classroom, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, two Northwestern University scholars found a few ways to measure teacher effectiveness that go beyond the standard survey. Above all, their findings highlight the need for more inclusive teaching and what it means for the future of education.
The 2021 paper, co-authored by David Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor and Dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and Morton Schapiro, professor of economics and president, explores four questions:
- Are charismatic teachers better teachers?
- Is there a trade-off between faculty research and teaching excellence?
- Does the rise of non-tenure-eligible faculty relative to tenure-eligible faculty impact student learning?
- In what ways do instructor gender, race, and ethnicity matter?
In trying to measure teacher effectiveness, Figlio and Schapiro quickly found that commonplace evaluation forms are biased by gender, race, and nationality: “White American men are often given higher ratings than others, and without objective measures of student learning, it is impossible to evaluate whether those ratings are actually ‘earned,’” they write. Through their own work surveying students at Northwestern University, they identified two facets of teacher effectiveness that made all the difference: 1) Compelling and charismatic teachers presumably inspire students into further disciplinary study, whether or not those students were predisposed to doing so; and 2) Successful undergraduate instructors not only inspire their students to take additional courses in their discipline, but they also prepare those students to get good grades in those additional classes.
“In our analysis of 170 tenured faculty at Northwestern, we have found that teachers who inspire many new majors appear to be no better or worse at teaching the material than their less captivating counterparts,” Figlio and Schapiro write. “Instructors who are exceptional at conveying course material–as proxied by our second method based on subsequent grades in the subject–are no more likely than others to encourage students to take more courses in the subject area.”
The researchers also found that the best teachers are no more or less likely to be productive scholars, and that non-tenure-eligible faculty engage students more effectively than tenure-eligible faculty. Finally, they found that demographic matches in university and K-12 settings were strong predictors of student success:
“For example, if a Black male student has at least one Black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grade, that student is significantly less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to attend a four-year college. Those effects are particularly pronounced if the student comes from an economically disadvantaged background.” The same effect was found for women having female instructors in STEM, and for ethnic minorities in general.
Hiring more racially, ethnically, and gender-diverse faculty plainly improves student retention and learning outcomes, though Figlio and Schapiro acknowledge schools have a long way to go before this goal is realised, for example as women and minorities are still underrepresented in tenured and senior faculty positions. More empirical analyses like theirs will help reveal more objective measures of teacher effectiveness in the near future, so that schools can target the right goals in improving student engagement.