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Adjuncts, lecturers and professors, oh my!: Who's best at teaching?

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 11:15 a.m. MDT

The term “adjunct” is more slippery. It can refer to anyone who teaches outside of the tenure track but is often used as a designation for part-time instructors without ongoing contracts or benefits — like Bauman. As with their tenure-track peers, some have that flair that marks a gifted teacher, and some don’t. Research results on how their students perform is divided.

The paper, which Figlio co-wrote for the National Bureau of Economic Research, studied first-year students at Northwestern over eight years. Its intent was to determine whether nontenure-track faculty contribute more or less to lasting student learning than tenured and tenure-track faculty do.

The study found that students taught by nontenure-track teachers are more likely to take second courses in the same subject area and to get higher grades in those courses than first-year students taught by tenure-track and tenured professors. The results held across all subject areas, and the biggest gains came for students with lower academic qualifications in comparison to peers.

The caveats

Figlio is quick to point out that his study is not about using part-time adjuncts “like widgets” to solve staffing and budgeting issues or supplant tenured professors’ role in higher education.

“That’s a very important question that people ought to study, but it’s not what we are equipped to study with our data from Northwestern,” Figlio said.

Northwestern is a top-ranked private research university that can be highly selective regarding who can attend and who can teach, he said. Eighty percent of the nontenure-track teachers in Figlio’s study were full-time lecturers in long-standing contracts with benefits. The remainder were experts hired part-time to teach specialized subjects such as Turkish, or high-profile journalists who taught in Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

The study only considered students at Northwestern. Figlio said his paper is a first step, but more research is needed to see if its results hold up at a wider range of institutions. The study’s takeaway was that at Northwestern, full-time lecturers are achieving more success with first-year students than their tenured peers.

“These people are hired, retained and rewarded based on their teaching skill, so it’s not a big surprise that they do better in the classroom than those hired, retained and rewarded on the basis of research,” he said. But those results have been misconstrued in the media, he added.

“It would be irresponsible to generalize the results of this study to institutions that are serving a vastly different clientele,” he said. “Even though we find that results are strongest for relatively weaker students at Northwestern, those students are still among the most academically qualified in the country.”

Other studies

Indiana University research professor Thomas Nelson Laird said the longitudinal study at Northwestern used sophisticated methods and models to arrive at its results and was well designed. Laird's research for the National Survey of Student Engagement found that good teaching practices — and not-so-good ones — are common among all types of college-level instructors. The quality of education, he said, depends on the teacher.

When teaching practices leading to student engagement — psychological investment — are studied, results are mixed but lean negative for nontenure-track teachers, whether full or part time, Laird said. For tenure-track teachers, results are also mixed but lean positive in getting students invested in what they are learning.

Laird’s conclusions echo findings of previous research, such as a 2005 study from Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, which found that when a four-year academic institution increases its use of either full-time, nontenure-track faculty or part-time faculty, its undergraduate students’ first-year persistence rates and graduation rates decrease.

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