Study Finds Adjunct Professors Deliver Higher Quality Instruction

By Dan Shewan
Posted September 17, 2013 10:00 AM

Study Finds Adjunct Professors Deliver Higher Quality Instruction.
Study Finds Adjunct Professors Deliver Higher Quality Instruction.

According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, students achieved better learning outcomes in classes taught by adjunct professors than those taught by tenured faculty members, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Strong Evidence

Researchers examined the academic performance of eight cohorts of undergraduate freshmen students, totaling 15,662 individuals, who enrolled at Northwestern between 2001 and 2008. In virtually all circumstances, students' learning outcomes were significantly higher when they were taught by adjuncts. In addition, students were more likely to take a second course in a certain discipline if their introductory class was taught by a non-tenure track professor.

"We tried every possible thing we could to see if this result was fragile," said David Figlio, director of Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research and one of the study's lead authors, as quoted by The Chronicle. "In every single specification we tried, this result came up."

The study also revealed that students taught by adjuncts were more likely to achieve higher grades in subjects that are traditionally more difficult. In addition, students who were less qualified academically fared particularly well in classes lead by non-tenured faculty members.

A Focus on Students

According to Inside Higher Ed, similar studies have been conducted in the past to determine the validity of the two-track system used by many universities. However, these papers have traditionally focused on the benefits of tenure for academics, rather than whether a faculty member's employment status had any discernible impact on student achievement. While many adjunct professors may agree with the results of the study, it does not call for an end to the current two-tier system, despite the potential benefits to students' learning outcomes.

"Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial," read an excerpt from the paper, as quoted by Inside Higher Ed

Despite the study's results, the researchers admitted that Northwestern may not necessarily be truly representative of all universities. Northwestern is highly competitive in terms of admissions, and also has more resources to hire additional faculty, whether tenured or not, than some schools. However, the study's authors note that the results of their research could signify that students in universities across the country may benefit from instruction delivered by non-tenured professors, regardless of a college's economic resources or college admissions process.

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