College students who are of the same race or ethnicity as their teaching assistants earn higher grades at statistically significant levels, and the findings are consistent across racial and ethnic groups, according to a study released this week.
The study, "TAs Like Me: Racial Interactions Between Graduate Teaching Assistants and Undergraduates," was released by the National Bureau of Economic Research and examined grading patterns and student and teaching assistant demographics at a large, diverse university in California, which was not identified.
"From our model … we predict a statistically significant 7.7 percent of a standard deviation increase in course grade when students are matched to TAs who are all of a similar race as themselves," the study said.
The study's authors added that students were also more likely to participate in optional discussion groups, as well as attend office hours, when teaching assistants shared their race or ethnicity.
"Results show a positive and significant increase in course grades when students are assigned TAs of a similar race/ethnicity," reported the study's authors. "These effects are largest in classes where TAs are given advance copies of exams and when exams had no multiple-choice questions."
The reason for that, the study suggests, is because students are spending more time with TAs to whom they relate.
"We interpret this result as evidence of 'teaching to the exam,' where TAs divulge information that is pertinent to the class' exams if given the opportunity," said the study's authors. "Students who are more likely to interact with the TAs by attending the TAs' discussion sections and office hours are the beneficiaries of teaching to the test … suggesting that TA-student match quality and role model effects are the primary drivers of the results."
The authors said that is also an explanation for more success when exams had no multiple-choice questions. "First, critical thinking is typically a key component to success on essay-based questions, and critical thinking skills may be fostered in settings where students discuss and ask questions about the course material, such as in TA discussion sessions and office hours."
But TAs also might be subconsciously responding to students of similar race through grading, the authors suggest.
"Classes with no multiple-choice exams are classes where TAs have to exercise more subjective judgments when grading, and students of specific races may be more likely to answer non-multiple-choice questions in a manner which TAs of similar race favor."
The study was conducted by Lester Lusher and Scott Carrell of the University of California, Davis and Doug Campbell of the New Economic School in Moscow, Russia.
The authors also suggested that increasing same-race TAs could help raise college completion rates and close racial gaps in college completion.
"Understanding how TA race influences student outcomes is particularly important given recent trends in the U.S., where the fraction of nonwhite undergraduate and graduate students has nearly tripled over the past 40 years," they said in the study. "Prominent racial gaps, in turn, lead to persistent income inequality across racial groups."
The study notes that, while 82 percent of undergraduates in 1976 were white, in 2013 less than 60 percent of all undergraduates were white and more than 40 percent were minorities.