Are Great Teachers Poor Scholars?

 David N. Figlio and Morton Schapiro share the results of a study in which they examined what, if any, link exists between the two.

February 24, 2017

Read a college guidebook or go on a college tour, and you constantly see pictures of and hear stories about superstar research faculty teaching freshmen at our most illustrious colleges and universities. Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel laureates, National Academy members, all in the undergraduate classroom. Whether that represents reality is one question.  But perhaps more important is whether it should.

Colleges and universities have a variety of output goals. At some institutions, scholarly output is vital, but so is successful teaching at the undergraduate, professional school and graduate levels. So you’d hope that college and university leaders (and ideally state legislators) would know a bit about the production of both top-notch research and top-notch teaching.  In particular, it would be helpful to know whether faculty members who are superstars in the undergraduate classroom pay a price in terms of scholarly achievement.

Unfortunately, the answer to that crucial question has been elusive, mainly due to the difficulty in assembling teaching and research metrics. If we in higher education can’t come up with meaningful measures of each, we have no hope of evaluating the relationship between the two.

In a new study published by the Brookings Institution, the two of us analyze the data of nearly 16,000 Northwestern freshmen and the tenured faculty members who teach them to ask the question: are great teachers poor scholars?  We use two different measures of teaching quality and two different measures of research quality to determine the relationship between teaching and research excellence.

Our biggest challenge on the research side is that scholarly performance is so different across disciplines. How might one recognize stellar scholarship across chemistry and theater, engineering and music, economics and English, mathematics and anthropology? 

We take two approaches. One is holistic: whether a committee of distinguished professors from a wide range of disciplines selects a professor for a university-wide honor. The second is quantitative, reflecting how influential that professor’s work has been relative to others in that person’s field.

It’s harder to measure teaching quality. While teaching evaluations from students are ubiquitous, they often reflect a professor’s grading patterns rather than genuine instructional quality, and they also exhibit gender, racial, and ethnic biases. We therefore instead measure teaching outcomes based on data on future performance and student follow-on course-taking. 

One measure of teaching quality indicates a professor’s contribution to a student’s deep learning, while the other measures the degree to which the professor inspires students. In the first, we examine whether the grade in a second class in the subject is unexpectedly high or low based on what we predict given a student’s standardized test scores, other grades and the like. In the second, we examine the success a faculty member has in inducing students to major in the teacher’s discipline.

One might wonder if those two measures of teaching excellence are correlated. They are not. Faculty members who are most successful in inspiring students to become majors in their subject are not any more distinguished in facilitating “deep learning” than their less charismatic counterparts. And those who are exceptional at conveying course material are no more likely than others at inspiring students to take more courses in the subject area. 

So what did we find about the relationship between research and teaching? Regardless of which measure of teaching and research quality you use, there is no apparent link between the two. In other words, top teachers are no more or less likely to be especially productive scholars than their less-accomplished teaching peers. Our estimates are “precise zeros,” indicating that it is unlikely that mismeasurement for teaching or research quality explains the lack of a relationship. 

That is certainly encouraging for those who fear that great teachers specialize in pedagogy at the expense of research. On the other hand, it is disappointing to observe that weak undergraduate teachers do not make up for their limitations in the classroom with disproportionate research excellence. To phrase it simply, great teachers are not necessarily poor scholars, and great scholars are not necessarily poor teachers.

What does this analysis imply regarding the growing trend of having introductory undergraduate courses taught by non-tenure-line faculty rather than “superstar” researchers? Administrators and policy makers worried about whether research will suffer due to efforts in the classroom, or vice versa, should have their fears at least partially allayed. 

This result seems especially relevant in evaluating the recent move at the University of California to effectively grant tenure to some of their full-time teaching faculty. Our analysis suggests that if one of the motivations for moving undergraduate teaching from faculty members with responsibility for both teaching and research to faculty members whose sole responsibility is teaching is to protect the time of the former group for scholarship, this assumption needs to be questioned. 

Moreover, our previous work shows that the gap in teaching performance between tenure-line and contingent faculty depends entirely on differential teaching at the low end of the value-added distribution. Very few teaching faculty members demonstrate poor teaching as opposed to the tenure-line faculty, where the bottom fifth or so display extremely weak teaching. Presumably, the contracts of contingent faculty are not renewed if they are similarly ineffective in the classroom. While we certainly see the strong benefit of offering greater job security for teaching-track faculty, giving them de facto tenure would eliminate that important lever for department chairs, deans and provosts. 

What if legislators focus on our finding that while top teachers don’t sacrifice research output, it is also true that top researchers don’t teach exceptionally well? Why have those high-priced scholars in the undergraduate classroom in the first place? Surely it would be more cost-efficient to replace them with lower-paid faculty not on the tenure line. That is what has been happening throughout American higher education for the past several decades. 

We would caution, however, that illustrious research faculty members usually provide a draw for students and faculty members alike. Even if their teaching isn’t remarkable, their presence is. When such faculty members teach freshmen, it sends the important signal to the community that the institution takes undergraduate education seriously -- that research and the production of Ph.D. graduates are not all that matter. 

We must not forget that research universities -- and liberal arts colleges with significant research expectations for their faculty -- are only a modest part of American higher education. Most professors teach heavy loads with little or no research expectations. 

But still, research matters at places that take it seriously. The reason why most of the top-rated higher education institutions in the world are located in the United States is not what goes on in their classrooms; it is the research power of their faculties. The challenge for colleges and universities is to find the right balance of both great teachers and great scholars in order to excel in our dual mission of educating students and creating new knowledge.

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David N. Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.  Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.

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