Study: Grad students might be better teachers than professors

Graduate students who teach more frequently are more likely to be employed by a college or university

When graduate students teach undergraduates, both groups of students tend to enjoy positive outcomes, according to a new study published in Economics of Education Review

Researchers from Harvard University and Stanford University analyzed administrative data from Ohio public universities on undergraduates and graduate students who started college or graduate school in 1998 or 1999. They tracked the early-career outcomes of both groups to determine how undergraduates fared with graduate student teachers and what graduate students gained from the teaching arrangement.  

The researchers identified the first course an undergraduate took in his or her major and whether it was taught by a graduate student or faculty member. Then, they analyzed outcomes for graduate students who stayed in the state by comparing data from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services with students' subsequent earnings and location of employment within six years of starting graduate work.

For undergraduates in academic programs, those whose first course in a subject was taught by a graduate student were almost twice as likely to major in that subject compared with their peers who took the same course from a full-time faculty member. Undergraduates in professional programs such as business, education, and engineering were also more likely to major in those fields when taught by a graduate student, with an estimated effect of 81 percentage points.

However, when the course was in an undergraduate's first college term, the effect disappeared. Furthermore, having a graduate student instructor did not have any significant effect on how many courses within a given discipline a student took.

Helps graduate students land jobs

Despite the commonly held belief that teaching while in graduate school distracts from studies, graduate students also had much to gain from the practice. 

Structuring student affairs graduate assistantships

Graduate students who taught more frequently than their peers were more likely to complete their degrees in a timely manner and be employed by a college or university. Graduate teaching experience was associated with future employment at both research and non-research-intensive institutions, particularly the latter.

The research also suggested that teaching an additional term in the humanities or math was linked to a 13% increase in the probability of completing a degree within six years.

Regardless of the department, a graduate student's probability of subsequently working in higher education in Ohio increased by 1.4 percentage points for each additional term taught.

Co-author Eric Taylor, an assistant professor of education at Harvard, also suggests that teaching may help graduate students think more deeply about their own work.

"On the speculative side, anybody who has done some teaching knows that it helps you to crystallize your understanding and connect to your own research questions," he says. "There's a feedback loop."

Should colleges consider more graduate student instruction?

According to the researchers, whether the findings are causal or based on factors of selection, graduate student instruction "generates positive results."  Even if the findings are causal, teaching still helps students graduate on time and opens up early-career employment prospects. And if the results are based on selection, "then departments are successfully identifying the graduate students who will have positive effects on students, or at least no differential effects compared to full-time faculty."

The study authors note that both sets of results "are important for researchers and policymakers to consider simultaneously. … The trade-offs between undergraduate and graduate education are not necessarily severe."

Taylor says the research does not necessarily mean that universities should immediately fill their courses with graduate student instructors, but faculty and administrators should at least consider the findings (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 3/8). 

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