Assess Your Adjuncts to Improve Student Learning

happens if we
continue to outsource
and treat adjuncts
as second-class

Michael JolleyMichael Jolley

Adjunct faculty have exploded in recent years as a proportion of college teachers. Their numbers doubled between 2006 and 2009. They account for 70% of teaching staff at public two-year colleges and 80% at for-profit universities. They are estimated to make up at least two thirds of college teachers overall.

These are part-time or contingent faculty contracted by the course, with no job security and few institutional ties. Some (mostly men) are physicians, attorneys or other professionals teaching a course or two on the side. But the majority (mostly women) are struggling to survive on lowpaid term-by-term contracts until they can land a full-time teaching job.

In May The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a medieval history PhD single mom on food stamps teaching two humanities courses. The number of PhDs on public assistance more than tripled in 2007-2010, from 9,776 in 2007 to 33,655 just three years later. The soaring use of adjuncts has been described as higher education’s part in the feminization of poverty.

Colleges have budgetary incentives to shift toward parttime adjuncts. They are cheap, don’t take up office space and can be dropped without cause, increasing flexibility. Some schools are reducing teaching schedules to avoid having to provide adjuncts who work 30 hours a week (and so would be considered full-time faculty) with health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“This group of temporary professional educators continues to be undervalued and under-appreciated,” said Michael Jolley, a graduate research assistant and PhD student in educational leadership and higher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Lively debate will continue about whether the growing dependence on adjuncts can or should be reversed and whether unionization can relieve adjuncts’ second-class status.

One set of questions has received little attention: How does the increasing use of adjuncts affect student learning? Is the teaching quality better, worse or about the same compared to full-time faculty? How are adjunct faculty evaluated and what support do they get to improve their teaching skills?

Jolley is collaborating with fellow UNL graduate student Emily Leszinske and advisor Dr. Miles Bryant to research processes for assessing adjunct faculty with a goal of improving the quality of instruction. He spoke at the University of Nebraska’s conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln in October 2012.

Teaching quality

“There are full-time faculty and adjuncts, and never the twain shall meet,” he said. Unlike tenure track faculty, with their established route and regular evaluations, adjuncts get little training, support or feedback. What is the effect on student learning?

Most adjuncts have sound educational credentials and many bring a wealth of practical experience. Generally committed to teaching and students, they use about the same mix of teaching methods as full-time faculty.

According to Dr. David Evans in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Adjunct Faculty and ‘Quality’,” May 15, 2009), full-time faculty and adjuncts are of comparable quality in teaching general undergraduate courses. “Some adjuncts are genuinely brilliant teachers, bringing their students rich and valuable experiences that can be part of an outstanding education; others are just plain lousy. The same can be said of full timers,” he wrote.

Differences that affect student learning grow out of adjunct working conditions, rather than their qualifications and talent. Face-to-face contact outside the classroom is limited, turnover is high and professional development is low or nonexistent.


Student retention and learning outcomes go up with connections between students and teachers. These connections weaken when faculty jobs are structured to discourage faculty presence on campus.

Most adjunct instructors do not have office hours or even offices on campus. Nor can they afford to spend much time on campus outside of class, since they are being paid for only a course or two. Most adjuncts work at several sites, which makes it virtually impossible to spend out-of-class time on any one campus.

Adjunct terms of service discourage institutional loyalty. With no assurance of work from one semester to the next, they are often bumped from a teaching assignment to meet the needs of someone on the tenure track. Their assigned duties relate only to their courses and not to the wider college. They rarely have a voice in department meetings or policies. Dr. Miles Bryant compared adjuncts to ronin, the unattached samurai of old Japan who roamed the countryside without a master, looking for free-lance work. Since students don’t travel with adjuncts, the structure of their professional lives severely limits contact outside the classroom.

Faculty development

While the minority who are active in a non-academic profession may thrive in their work and teaching, the majority who teach as their main occupation tend to drop out or dry up. Higher education depends increasingly on a teaching force that it fails to develop.


Turnover is high among contingent faculty. As a result, highly experienced contractual teachers are rare.

J. A. Jacobs wrote in Sociological Forum in 2004 that half the adjuncts nationwide worked more than 50 hours a week and were paid 26% less than comparable assistant professors on the tenure track. Most leave when they burn out or find a better job.

Colleges give them little incentive to stay on. Unlike Michael Jolley ‘Overwhelmingly, we found that higher education institutions have little to no policies and procedures for ensuring high quality teaching performance other than a reliance on student evaluations’ most full-time faculty or employees in other lines of work, adjuncts rarely get pay increases reflecting years of service. Few receive health or other benefits regardless of how long they have taught at one place. And when a permanent job opens, they are often overlooked for it.

Professional development. Those who do stay risk becoming academically stale. They are not expected to publish, create course content or develop curriculum.

Adjuncts rarely qualify for institutional support to stay current in their field. If they want to attend a professional conference or take an advanced course, it is on their own dime. Professional development funds are usually restricted to full-time faculty.

Classroom support. Basic resources for class preparation and student interaction are often lacking. Two former adjuncts wrote that their entire orientation consisted of picking up a book, a room number and a class roster.

Adjuncts commonly carry out their teaching duties without campus-based computers, phones, copiers, mailboxes, textbooks, email or parking. Most have little interaction with full-time faculty in their department.

Needs of adjunct faculty are much the same as those of full-time faculty to support their teaching. However, they are the invisible majority, disregarded in institutional plans to support teachers’ needs. Students as well as teachers pay a price when teaching development goes unsupported.

Researching assessment practices

Feedback through regular evaluations is one tool by which full-time faculty can improve their work. But nothing is regular about feedback to adjuncts.

Jolley’s research on assessment of adjuncts is a qualitative study focused on the experiences of the adjuncts. He and his colleagues want to understand what is being or not being done, in hopes of developing a system of assessment that works well to the benefit of the adjuncts, their colleges and the students they teach.

They used a convenience sample drawn from Twitter, Facebook and the New Faculty Majority, a group formed in 2009 to improve higher education by advancing professional equity and academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty.

So far, they have interviewed 29 adjuncts over a broad geographical area, of which:

  • 86% were women
  • 85% had six or more years of experience
  • 59% taught at more than one school
  • 64% taught at community colleges
  • 55% taught at four-year public universities
  • 36% taught at private colleges or universities

Most taught English, humanities and arts, often outside their area of expertise. But they were contracted as a known quantity, who were already in the system. None happened to be in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Most taught classes that were full or above capacity, with as many as 40 students in a class that was supposed to have 25. Most relied on additional source of income; adjunct pay isn’t enough to live on. About a third of them were trying to become full-time faculty.

“Overwhelmingly, we found that higher education institutions—with some exceptions—have little to no policies and procedures for ensuring high quality teaching performance other than a reliance on student evaluations. Moreover, these evaluations rarely affect pay, benefits or rehiring,” Jolley told WIHE.

In adjuncts’ voices

Their experiences vary. Some said they felt supported as a part of the school where they taught, but a large number felt disconnected, unseen and unheard.

Interviewees said:

  • “We are that rare bird whom no one knows.”
  • “I always feel invisible. Like they don’t really care what we say or what we do.”

Institutional assessment procedures are allegedly widespread; entering “adjunct” and “evaluation” in a search engine turns up more than eight million hits. However, at most schools the process lacks transparency; many adjuncts said they have been evaluated but don’t know how.

They reported:

  • “I’ve never really been evaluated.”
  • “The only way we find out our evaluation is if they don’t ask us to teach the course next time.”

Student evaluations are typically the only basis for assessment, and the instructors may not see them. Online classes use forms designed for face-to-face instruction, for example by asking students whether they can see the instructor outside of class.

Interviewees said:

  • “I’ve taught over 200 classes here and students evaluations are the only way I’ve ever been evaluated.”
  • “The only ones who respond to surveys are those who love you or hate you.”

Assessment can only improve teaching and learning if it becomes the basis for feedback to the instructor. Typically, the first hint of a bad evaluation is non-renewal, but it could also reflect changes in budget or enrollment.

Looking forward

With Leszinske and Bryant, Jolley plans to continue collecting data and use the qualitative findings to create a survey instrument for quantitative follow-up. A pilot study is also in progress to explore administrators’ perspectives.

“What happens if we continue to outsource and treat adjuncts as second-class citizens?” Jolley asked. “If higher education institutions continue to marginalize this significant group of educators—the very people colleges rely on to perform the key service of higher education, namely teaching—the future of higher education becomes even murkier.”

This trend dims the prospects for doctoral students, since more and more of them are destined to become adjuncts—if they teach at all. Not least, it detracts from gender equity, as women predominate among adjuncts while men still dominate the tenured professoriate.

Several efforts have begun to raise awareness and improve the status and working conditions of adjuncts. These include unions, the New Faculty Majority group and the Adjunct Project, an online spreadsheet that has collected data from more than 1,500 adjuncts so far.

Adjuncts will see the biggest changes when colleges and universities acknowledge the value of this new faculty majority to their core mission of educating students.

To contact Michael Jolley:


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, January). Assess Your Adjuncts to Improve Student Learning. Women in Higher Education, 22(1), 18-19.

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