Thursday, August 16, 2007

as Johnny goes off to college, incentives to teach freshmen?

Led by Don Hossler, researchers at Indiana University are studying retention on college campuses-- looking at both student characteristics and institutional details. (I read about this in the Bloomington Herald-Times, but the link won't be useful unless you have a subscription.) The research methods look solid and the researchers are addressing an interesting and important topic.

One thing caught my eye: "69% of schools say incentives for full-time faculty to teach freshman are small or non-existent". This could mean a variety of things-- most likely that:

1.) full-time faculty are expected to teach freshman, so no incentives are necessary;

2.) full-time faculty rarely teach freshman and incentives are irrelevant; or

3.) full-time faculty could be induced by incentives to teach freshmen more often, but those incentives are rarely provided.

Taking these three in reverse order...

#3 alludes to the generally and relatively painful process of teaching freshmen. I love teaching virtually anyone, so I hate to say any teaching is painful, even relatively so! And I'm sure there are exceptions here,'s usually more enjoyable to teach those who are more capable and interested in the material one brings to the table. Those who take E100 (our first semester of principles of econ) present a wide array of interest level, ability to study, and willingness to study. Upper-level students are, on average, a notch or two higher in each of those categories.

In addition, lower-tier students require more hand-holding-- more grading opportunities (and thus, more grading) and a greater need to work on their writing and presentation skills (which are relatively rough). Moreover, their relative lack of interest/aptitude causes any grading to be more painful and time-intensive. All that said, incentives/benefits could be used to offset the costs.

#2 is the stereotype at large, residential state colleges. Their primary focus is research. Teaching is considered secondary, and often, rated far below research. Professors typically teach grad students (or perhaps upper-level undergrads). Freshman are taught by TA's-- "teaching assistants" who are grad students in the field. Incentives are irrelevant here. The professor (typically) and the university (always) want the prof to be teaching smaller classes, typically at the graduate level. Teaching freshman doesn't fit the top priorities of the institution.

One irony is that forcing research mavens into the classroom would likely cause harm to freshmen. Most of the hard-core researchers don't want to be there, don't relate as well to students, and lack the classroom tools to be as effective.

The larger irony here is that these colleges have a stronger reputation for "academics". But this must come disproportionately from the quality of incoming students (and positive peer effects)-- rather than the quality of instruction they receive at college per se. Given the size of most lower-level undergrad classes and the relative inexperience of the grad students who teach most of them, smaller state colleges and teaching-centered private colleges should provide a superior education (and greater consumer attention) for undergrads (particularly freshmen).

As for #1, this is the norm at these smaller state colleges and private colleges. Not that every professor would teach freshman. For example, in our School of Business, many of the faculty are in fields where there are no lower-tier courses to teach. But among those faculty in such fields, they will be teaching freshman!

At the end of the day, colleges should take care in arranging for high-quality teaching and concern for students as students, not just as numbers or a revenue source. As for students, success requires a degree of aptitude and especially, the desire to work hard. Too often, parents reflexively send their children to college, often paying for everything. Instead, come up with a payment plan that costs the student something-- so they have responsibility and therefore, ownership, in the investment. And if they're not ready for college, encourage them to work a few years before you send them our way.


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