Friday, January 27, 2017


I laud my alma mater, Northwestern University, because it is the vanguard of the fight against Illini communism -- a danger of which far too few people seem to be aware. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its flaws. Sometimes really big ones.

However, this item does not represent a flaw as much as it makes you wonder why a particular study was done. Economics prof and university president Morton Schapiro and econ prof David Figlio gathered data from first-year students between 2001 and 2008, looking for indicators that showed which instructors were the best teachers. They then compared the results with those that showed which professors ranked highest in resarch.

Here's the stunner: No correlation. Now, while it's kind of nice to have at least one empirical study on hand showing that skills at research do not necessarily imply skills at teaching, and vice-versa, it's also sort of a non-surprise. It's almost like the fields of teaching and research are different from each other and success in one of them may require skills which the other one doesn't, or even skills that might hold one back in pursuit of standing in the other!

Now, they didn't survey students going back to my days on campus -- which is good because a number of those events are directly connected with large brain cell die-offs. I bet, though, we would have reported much the same data as our successors did some 20 years later. I could not have told you for the life of me which of my professors was a top researcher, even when they were instructors in my field and major. But I could tell you which ones were lousy teachers. And even though the judgment of an undergraduate about a teacher's quality may lean a little heavily towards ease of passing the class, simplicity of assignments, wittiness of lectures and "coolness" or something similar, we'd probably have still been in the ballpark.

The study doesn't say that great teachers can't be great researchers, or the flipside either. It just says the two don't have any correlation. You'd kind of hope that the fact that one of the profs conducting the study was the university president would have an impact on who gets hired to teach at that school. I guess undergrads at NU will see, and we'll all discover whether President Schapiro is a good learner, or just a good researcher.


fillyjonk said...

I KNOW I am a better teacher than I am a researcher. One of the reasons I gravitated towards being a TA in grad school rather than seeking out research grants was I wanted to teach. And being a TA was kind of a good baptism by fire, I learned some of the people-wrangling aspects I am less-good at, like how to deal with a belligerent student who insists the rules shouldn't apply to them. (Though I admit, some days I wish I were still a TA and could send that belligerent student in to the lead professor to get HIM to straighten the student out)

Friar said...

I have to say I wondered how professors were supposed to be able to learn how to teach when most programs don't have much instruction in pedagogy beyond TA programs.

But smaller schools and liberal arts colleges are the places where I imagine we find the better teachers; Enormous U's are the places that draw the researchers.

fillyjonk said...

Yeah. In fact, there is a motivation at the big R1 type schools for profs to teach as little (and as haphazardly) as possible: tenure and promotion is very, very heavily weighted towards winning grants and having publications in prestigious journals. It can be fairly cutthroat, which I dislike.

I dunno. I LIKE teaching. I think I'm pretty good at it. I've gotten better as the years have gone on. Which is why I wound up at a teaching-oriented school.

My graduate school also had a "Center for the Advancement of Teaching" that did a number of training/pedagogy type programs, and I took many of them to try to gain skills.