Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center devotes her latest column to the question of who teaches college students best.

As a way to help professors balance their two roles, “discussion sections” have become a common teaching model in academia.

In a discussion section, a professor shares teaching responsibilities with several “teaching assistants” (usually graduate students). The professor is still the main instructor and delivers his lecture to a large classroom of students. However, there is usually little time for student questions and discussion.

For that reason, the teaching assistants are assigned to lead small group discussions after the lecture to discuss the course material in-depth and, depending on the course, do practice exercises. A lot of the other “grunt work” that comes with teaching, such as grading and providing detailed feedback on assignments, is also often relegated to the teaching assistants. …

… Of course, student instructors are far less credentialed than professors which raises the question: Are students’ learning outcomes hurt by having a student instructor?

An academic paper entitled Students are Almost as Effective as Professors in University Teaching by Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca, and Ulf Zölitz sheds light on the question. In the paper, the researchers studied professors and student instructors who both taught tutorials at a Dutch business school. …

… What were your findings? Was there anything that surprised you?

We found a small negative effect of being taught by student instructors on students’ grades. But it’s not statistically significant, so that might be a chance finding. We did find a fairly small negative effect on students’ evaluations of the course quality. It seems that students evaluate courses better if they are taught by a professor. But the interesting thing is that poor course evaluations do not translate into any measurable student learning outcomes. It does not translate into any meaningful differences in students’ grades or students’ future grades.

Overall, student instructors are doing surprisingly well in these TA sessions or tutorials.