How to Pick a Professor

We’ve all known both sides of the classroom experience – the great teacher who made every class exciting and who opened our eyes to a subject matter we never thought would appeal, and the not-so-great teacher who was so dull and boring that we ended up not only hating the class but hating the subject matter, too. Teachers make a difference, and researchers are demonstrating that their impact, both positive and negative, can be greater than you might think.

In at least some of your introductory classes, you may find that the person at the front of the classroom is not a full-time faculty member. These individuals may be called instructors, adjunct professors, teaching assistants, or something else entirely, but they have one thing in common: they are lower in the professional pecking order than professors, and they often have less experience and skill as a result.

It’s not unusual for lower ranking employees in any profession to have to “pay their dues.” In college education, that often means handling intro-level classes.  As a group, these employees don’t get to pick their assignments but instead are expected to perform the work that is assigned to them.  Neither can they say “no” to assignments, which can often mean they are overstretched – given too much work but not enough support, guidance, or resources for them to be truly successful.

So, what are the broader consequences of this practice? This question is examined in an article by Becky Supiano, recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her article cites a study of six community colleges recently released from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The study found that when introductory classes were taught by adjunct or part-time faculty as opposed to full-time professors, students were less likely to take the next course in the sequence, indicating that they had ended up abandoning a possible course of study.  Another study that focused specifically on STEM courses had similar findings. It found that students are 1.5% more likely to move away from the STEM field if they have taken courses taught by professors who work predominantly “off the tenure track.” It also found that those students are less likely to graduate.

Who should care about this issue? Should university departments care? Yes, if they want to retain the greatest number of students for their department.  Should colleges and universities care?  Yes, because some number of students might actually be disenchanted enough to transfer to another institution.  Should students care? Yes, they should. The savvy student should consider who is teaching the classes they take and, whenever possible, sign up for those taught by the most experienced instructors and/or those who have the best reputation as teachers.

Signing up for intro classes involves course availability, schedules, and sundry other factors, but savvy students will also take note of who is assigned to teach the classes they propose taking.  Who stands at the front can make a difference, sometimes a difference with lasting consequences!