Conditions Imposed on Part-Time Adjuncts Threaten Quality of Teaching, Researchers Say

November 30, 2010

Four-year colleges are undermining their own efforts to educate students by relying on part-time adjunct instructors who often lack the time or training to use effective teaching practices, a new study suggests.

The study, based on a national survey of college faculty members, found that part-time adjunct instructors differ significantly from other faculty members—including adjunct instructors who are employed full-time—in that they are more likely to use teaching techniques that are less time-consuming but also regarded as less effective.

The two Michigan State University researchers who conducted the study—Roger G. Baldwin, a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education, and Matthew R. Wawrzynski, an associate professor in that department—stressed in an interview this week that they fault the conditions part-time instructors work under, and not the instructors themselves, for their failure to use effective teaching methods more often.

"We are not just bashing part-time faculty," Mr. Baldwin said in an interview. "I realize they are providing a valuable service. We need those resources, especially at a time when funding is being cut."

But, Mr. Baldwin said, "we need to be more supportive of them," and, at a minimum, consider providing them with more professional-development opportunities to hone their teaching methods. Colleges employing large numbers of part-time adjuncts should consider converting such jobs into full-time adjunct positions, the two researchers argue.

"It appears from our data that full-time contingent faculty appointments are safer than part-time appointments if institutions wish to maintain the teaching practices and standards set by their more permanent faculty," they say in a paper summarizing their findings.

The study, the results of which are scheduled to be published next year in a special edition of American Behavioral Scientist devoted to adjunct faculty, breaks new ground by examining national data on adjunct faculty members' instructional practices at all types of public or private four-year institutions. Other studies of the instructional practices of adjunct faculty members generally have focused on smaller groups of colleges or single institutions.

Several experts on teaching or faculty-employment issues said they were not surprised by the new study's findings. But, they added, by not exploring the exact reasons that part-time adjuncts differ in their instructional methods, the study raised more questions than it answered.

"The study is kind of an interesting first step, but we need to dig a little deeper and unpack the findings, to find out what is really going on," said Kathleen E. Harring, associate dean of institutional assessment at Muhlenberg College. Among the issues she said she would like to see explored is the extent to which adjuncts are teaching different types of courses than other faculty members, and how much access part-time adjuncts have to training on effective teaching methods.

Keith Hoeller, a longtime advocate for adjunct-faculty rights and co-founder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association, criticized the study as part of a long line of research which he sees as drawing unfair, apples-to-oranges comparisons between adjunct faculty members and tenured or tenure-track faculty who work under much better conditions. Such research, he said, "ignores the fact that non-tenure-track and tenure-track faculty are treated differently by the colleges in nearly every respect."

Multiple Choices

Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Wawrzynski based their analysis on data from the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, one of a series of large-scale faculty surveys sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics. Because many two-year colleges do not have tenure systems that would allow for comparisons between different faculty types, the researchers limited their study to public and private four-year institutions. The population they studied consisted of nearly 9,800 faculty members whose principle activity was teaching.

Because the two researchers were interested in whether faculty members used certain instructional techniques at all, they lumped those who reported using a given technique some of the time together with those who reported using it more often. They classified the teaching practices that faculty members reported using as either "subject-centered"—in other words, focused on the transmission of knowledge—or "learning-centered," meaning that it is focused on how knowledge is critically processed, constructed, and applied.

To help account for differences in the instructional strategies associated with various fields, the researchers undertook a secondary analysis comparing faculty members within broadly defined academic areas. They also examined faculty members' use of technology, based on their responses to survey questions asking whether they e-mailed students or used a Web site for activities related to instruction.

The researchers found that, compared with full-time adjuncts or tenured or tenure-track faculty, part-time adjuncts "are less likely to use learning-centered strategies such as essay exams, term research papers, multiple drafts of written work, oral presentations, group projects, or student evaluations of each others' work," the paper says. With the exception of group projects—the educational value of which is a matter of some debate within higher education—such learning-centered practices are generally regarded by practitioners as some of the most effective means of teaching students.

Among the subject-centered strategies the national survey asked about, examinations requiring short answers were far less likely to be used by part-time adjuncts than other categories of faculty members. The paper says this finding "may suggest that short-answer exams may be too time consuming for part-time contingent faculty to evaluate and assess." In most academic areas, they also were less likely to use e-mail to communicate with students or Web sites for instruction.

Both part-time and full-time adjuncts were more likely than tenured or tenure-track faculty members to use multiple-choice examinations. In other respects, however, the instructional practices of full-time adjuncts bore much less resemblance to those of their part-time counterparts than those of faculty members hired on a more permanent basis.

Unanswered Questions

Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Wawrzynski acknowledge that their analysis has some serious limitations. Among them, the national faculty survey that they relied on did not cover the full range of instructional practices used by college faculty members, and it did not provide data that allowed them to see whether faculty members' behavior was influenced by the size of the classes they taught.

"If you are assigning your part-time faculty to do the lower-division, high-enrollment courses, you are going to get a different set of behaviors," said Susan Albertine, vice president for engagement, inclusion, and success for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which promotes learning-centered teaching practices.

Paul D. Umbach, an associate professor of adult and higher education at North Carolina State University who reached similar conclusions in his own research on faculty members, said the new study's findings also might be skewed by its failure to account for variables such as institutional selectivity and variation. "There are a whole host of things that could affect teaching that they don't talk about," he said.

Mr. Baldwin said much about the working conditions of part-time adjuncts helps explain the study's findings regarding their favored instructional methods. Many "are too busy" and "on a treadmill to some extent," juggling several teaching jobs or a full-time job and outside teaching work. They might have only a brief job orientation, or no orientation at all, when hired, and typically the colleges offer them little in the way of professional development to improve their teaching.

Therese Huston, the director of Seattle University's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, said newly hired part-time adjuncts are often expected to "hit the ground running" and given little time in advance to plan assignments. In many cases they are excluded from academic department meetings to discuss the latest thinking about what students should know and be able to do at different stages in their academic career.

Gwendolyn Bradley, who specializes in contingent-faculty issues as a senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors, suggested that part-time adjuncts might be less likely to use subjective measures of student learning because they "are more likely to be very precariously employed and vulnerable to any student complaint."

"As always," Ms. Bradley said, "I would emphasize that the problems are structural and not individual—there are many fine teachers among the ranks of part-time faculty, but without professional working conditions, including adequate resources and protections for academic freedom, they are hobbled in their abilities to do their jobs."

Mr. Hoeller said the study's findings regarding part-timers' use of e-mail do not surprise him partly because many colleges do not give their adjunct faculty members campus e-mail accounts.

Full-Time Contentment

Ms. Albertine of the Association of American Colleges and Universities said she was not surprised by the study's findings that full-time adjuncts more closely resemble tenured and tenure-track faculty members than part-timers in terms of their instructional practices.

"A full-time contingent faculty member has a good job, generally, and wants to keep it," she said. "They have a certain degree of job security, and they are more likely to be making a living salary or wage, and they are more invested in doing well because that is what will keep them there."

The paper by Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Wawrzynski argues that, considering the powerful economic forces putting colleges under pressure to use adjunct faculty members, "it would certainly be naïve and inappropriate" for the researchers to simply advocate that colleges return exclusively to having tenure-track faculty appointments. The paper suggests that converting part-time adjunct appointments to full-time ones represents a more realistic way to improve teaching.

But Mayra Besosa, a lecturer in Spanish at California State University at San Marcos and a co-chairwoman of an AAUP committee focused on adjunct faculty concerns, said converting part-time adjunct positions to full-time jobs "falls short" because it does not guarantee adjuncts job security, ensure them access to the professional-development opportunities offered to those on the tenure track, or give them a place at the table when academic departments make decisions regarding teaching.

Ms. Huston of Seattle University said she worries that some department heads will respond to the new study's findings "with a quick fix, such as mandating that all part-time faculty assign term papers in their courses."

"A hastily constructed term-paper assignment is not necessarily very learning-centered," Ms. Huston said. "In fact, a bad term-paper assignment can be much, much worse than a well-designed multiple-choice exam."