University students sitting around a table Photo courtesy of University of the Fraser Valley

A recent study by researchers at Stanford and Harvard University has found that first-year courses taught by graduate students result in significant benefits for both undergraduates and the graduate instructors.

To determine the value of graduate-student led courses, a longitudinal study of public universities in Ohio tracked the educational pathway decisions of undergraduates and the professional development of graduate students. The study finds that undergraduates whose first course is taught by a graduate student are almost twice as likely to major in that subject, as opposed to those taught by a professor. Furthermore, students are even more likely to major in the subject if it is a professional program like business, engineering, or education.

Graduate students who lead undergraduate courses are also found to be more academically and professionally successful than their research intensive peers. Those with teaching experience are significantly more likely to complete their degrees on time and also have higher chances of securing academic positions at colleges and universities earlier in their careers.

There are a number of potential reasons as to why graduate students are more effective than faculty in encouraging students to pursue their academic disciplines. One reason is that some professors may not regard first-year courses as important as their research obligations, and consequently dedicate less time and resources into their teaching commitments. Graduate students often do not have these additional obligations and are able to dedicate significantly more resources to their students.

The impact of graduate instruction on undergraduate student performance and degree selection requires further study. However, the findings from this study may indicate that limiting the number graduate instructors is counterintuitive for both undergraduate and graduate student development.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.