Paul L. Caron

Monday, June 14, 2010

Younger Profs Teach Better in Introductory Courses, Older Profs Teach Better in Advanced Courses

Scott E. Carrell (University of California-Davis, Department of Economics) & James E. West (U.S. Air Force Academy) have published Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors, 118 J. Pol. Econ. 407 (June 2010):

We find that less experienced and less qualified professors produce students who perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course being taught, whereas more experienced and highly qualified professors produce students who perform better in the follow‐on related curriculum. ... [W]e can only speculate as to the mechanism by which these effects may operate. ...

One potential explanation for our results is that the less experienced professors may adhere more strictly to the regimented curriculum being tested, whereas the more experienced professors broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material. This deeper understanding results in better achievement in the follow‐on courses.

Another potential mechanism is that students may learn (good or bad) study habits depending on the manner in which their introductory course is taught. For example, introductory professors who “teach to the test” may induce students to exert less study effort in follow‐on related courses. This may occur because of a false signal of one’s own ability or an erroneous expectation of how follow‐on courses will be taught by other professors.

A final, more cynical, explanation could also relate to student effort. Students of low‐value‐added professors in the introductory course may increase effort in follow‐on courses to help “erase” their lower than expected grade in the introductory course.

Regardless of how these effects may operate, our results show that student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning. Using our various measures of teacher quality to rank‐order teachers leads to profoundly different results. Since many U.S. colleges and universities use student evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality for academic promotion and tenure decisions, this finding draws into question the value and accuracy of this practice.

(Hat Tip: Greg Mankiw.)

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It seems the headline is misreading the study. The old and young professors are teaching the same course, but the students of younger teachers do better in the course being taught--for example it may be that younger teachers teach to the test, said the study, while the older teachers may convey a better fundamental understanding of the material, which proves useful in the follow-up course.

Posted by: JRP | Jun 16, 2010 12:14:48 PM

Older profs have a large "Why don't you already know this?" factor when teaching introductory subjects.

Posted by: Jenny | Jun 16, 2010 11:16:01 AM

"In a related note, liberal teachers generally suck as teachers compared to conservative teachers." - Conservative Teacher

Evidence, nonexistent. Thanks for playing.

Posted by: Chris | Jun 16, 2010 10:50:41 AM

I teach at a for-profit four year college training students for a variety of technical, business and engineering degrees. The critical metric for evaluating teaching performance is the number of students who receive credit for passing a particular course.

Posted by: Webster | Jun 16, 2010 9:55:54 AM

I have been teaching at a state University for 8 years now but I am not a young professor as I came out of 28 years in the IS industry. The key I have found was the older teachers bring their research interests and experience to the course ( or industry experience in my and several friends cases). Usually a new faculty member has no experience outside of just having finished their course work and dissertation. Their view is limited by that lack of experience. Also, having mentored several newly minted PhD's through there first teaching assignments, all they are expert at, and truly interested in, is their dissertation topic, which is definitely not part of the intro course they are teaching.

Posted by: Rich | Jun 16, 2010 8:48:19 AM

Did they address the ennui that comes with teaching [in my case] Intro Am Govt for [quite literally] the 50th time? It is seriously hard to get as 'hyped' for early courses, where the content changes very gradually, than for the more advanced ones where there is usually at least newish material.

Far a newby, the first few times teaching an intro course may be elevating. At some point it tends to turn into, "Oh, God! Not again!"

And I seriously try to keep fresh. Even so . . .

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Jun 16, 2010 8:41:00 AM

Learning is making mental connections. The callow youth though very quick and bright, simply has fewer concepts rattling around his noggin. Whereas the moss-backed geezer, has more concepts and has had to efficiently organize them to fend off senile dementia.

The student of the former will get "just the facts, ma'am" whereas the student of the latter will be exposed to more of those organizing paradigms rattling about his gray-haired skull.

Some boffin came up with a hierarchy of learning that put "integration" as the highest form of learning, and someone who's been teaching for some time will invariably have integrated more extraneous material into his head. It seeps into his course material. The students sponge it up and look smarter as a result.

Posted by: Steve Poling | Jun 16, 2010 7:51:51 AM

Younger Profs Teach Better in Introductory Courses, Older Profs Teach Better in Advanced Courses

I am surprised that anyone finds this a surprising result. I am not a prof, but I am an old experienced guy in my field. As a practical matter, I find explaining the more advanced portions of my job much easier than trying to remember and explain the basics, some of which I don't use today -not that the information should not be taught as an intro- and learned 30 years ago.

Posted by: GoNavy | Jun 16, 2010 7:48:26 AM

It is refreshing to see teaching evaluated by performance rather than popularity.

Posted by: mike livingston | Jun 15, 2010 3:03:07 AM

In a related note, liberal teachers generally suck as teachers compared to conservative teachers.

Posted by: A Conservative Teacher | Jun 14, 2010 7:14:04 PM