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When students teach students, the benefits compound

Everyone involved benefits from an educational system that uses grad students as instructors. (Photo: Elena Zhukova)
Everyone involved benefits from an educational system that uses grad students as instructors. (Photo: Elena Zhukova/Stanford GSB)

When students teach students, the benefits compound

A recent Stanford and Harvard study measures the value of grad-student instructors in the context of academic “production.”

At a time when cost-sensitive universities and even national labor experts are examining the role that graduate-student instructors play in higher education, Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor Eric Bettinger has released a study that may help decision makers better measure their true value.

The bottom line, according to Bettinger, is that everyone involved benefits from an educational system that uses grad students as instructors: the undergraduates, the student teachers, and the institutions. “The benefits are at least as great as the costs,” he says.

Bettinger and his study coauthors, Bridget Terry Long and Eric S. Taylor (Stanford MA '14, Phd '15), both of Harvard Graduate School of Education, used administrative data provided by the Ohio Board of Regents to study undergraduates and grad-student instructors at 12 public four-year colleges and universities in that state during the fall of 1998 and the fall of 1999.

Their study, titled “When Inputs Are Outputs: The Case of Graduate Student Instructors,” draws two primary conclusions:

  1. Grad-student instructors, who often aren’t much older than the undergrads they teach, help focus passionate young minds and have an outsized influence on the eventual career choice of many undergrads; and
  2. Grad-student instructors are more likely to go on to become next-generation college educators, continuing as instructors for decades to come.

Bettinger says grad-student instructors are an under-appreciated resource at many American universities. (His study was released just months before a National Labor Relations Board decision to grant Columbia University students who work as teaching and research assistants the right to unionize.) And he contends that grad-student instructors have become more important in recent years because, to keep costs down, schools increasingly rely on them and adjunct professors to teach undergraduate courses.

The research underscores the strong impact that grad-student instructors can have on an undergrad’s choice of career: The study found that undergraduates who took their first course in a given subject from a graduate student were nearly twice as likely to later major in that subject compared to students who were taught the same course by a full-time faculty member.

“Graduate students bring energy and enthusiasm,” Bettinger says. “They make time to help students. Given the proximity in age, graduate students are well-positioned to be role models. When you bring those factors together, a graduate student becomes a sort of mentor.”

On the “output” side of the equation, the study demonstrates that grad-student instructors who teach “are more likely to graduate in a timely manner and more likely to subsequently be employed by a college or university in their early careers.” Bettinger stresses the positive aspect of those findings: Undergrads get passionate teachers, talented grad-student instructors can parlay that passion into a career, and schools get enthusiastic teachers for relatively low wages.

He also sees clear cost-benefit parallels in corporate settings, noting that companies often undervalue employees who are just starting their careers, especially in a tight job market. Overqualified young workers often take a job because they’re looking to network, develop their skills, and find opportunities that will help them unlock their potential. But they’re “impossible to retain over time, and the organization knows it’ll only have that person for two or three years,” Bettinger says. “But it’s worth it to have a future business leader in their midst.”

Fast-track young workers can learn from more experienced colleagues, while at the same time mentoring newer employees who likely will see them as role models. “Research shows that near-peers often generate more excitement” in those who look up to them, as opposed to older colleagues and co-workers, he says.

In much the same way, companies that commit to professional development for their employees often reap unexpected benefits. For example, Bettinger says, employees who are sent to work-related conferences “often recall the pure interaction they get from people who help them build skills and make them better professionals more than the subject matter of the conference. But while they’re interacting with peers and mentors, they’re also improving the overall quality of the company.”


This story originally appeared on Insights by Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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