Digest No. 07 - January 2020

Adjunct Faculty Members Teaching at Four-Year Institutions

Bolitzer, L. A. 2019. “What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Adjunct Faculty as Teachers at Four-Year Institutions.” The Review of Higher Education 43 (1): 113–142.


The purpose of this paper was to provide an analytic review of research examining adjunct faculty members at bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions. This conceptual piece briefs readers on what is known about adjuncts and how institutions can best support these critical players in the higher education system. Accordingly, the major questions driving this effort underscore the importance of teaching in undergraduate education and also serve as the organizational framework for this review. The author notes, “Over the past 20 years individual researchers, or research teams, have begun to ask questions such as ‘What motivates adjunct faculty? Are they effective teachers? And how might institutions better support their efforts?’ Yet little research has brought these works together to present a larger view of adjunct faculty as teachers at bachelors-granting institutions, where they are increasingly concentrated” (p. 144). The author concludes with a series of thoughtful recommendations for educators interested in adjunct faculty. (For a separate analysis, see CIC’s report, Changes in Faculty Composition at Independent Colleges.)


The author frames the study in terms of its utility in understanding teaching, especially from the purview of adjunct faculty. Using a variety of scholarly frames and empirical pieces, she discusses teaching as an amalgam of four components: the engagement of students in subject matter content in ways that maximize learning, the pedagogical range of activities that accompany this engagement (from syllabus creation to grading), the articulation of learning outcomes congruent with the nature of the pedagogical exercise, and the openness of the teacher to learning from the teaching experience itself.

With these principles as a guide, the author describes her process of conducting the literature review. Through a systematic process, she identified 126 empirical studies and 16 books regarding adjunct instructors at bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions. She then mapped these works onto the four components discussed above and emerged with the following pieces that informed this study: 36 empirical articles, four analytic discussions, and six dissertations. Importantly, she excluded works that discussed the “treatment of adjunct faculty by institutions” (p. 116), including practices related to recruitment, hiring, and compensation; pieces that addressed adjunct experiences at community colleges or graduate institutions; and efforts designed to understand adjunct faculty hired beyond a semester-by-semester basis (for example, clinical faculty appointments). With these caveats in mind, the author organized her review into five parts: qualifications to teach, motivations to teach, institutional support for teaching, job satisfaction, and teaching effectiveness.

What qualifications do adjunct faculty at bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions need to teach? After reviewing the literature, the author suggests that these faculty are less likely to hold doctorates than full-time faculty. She concludes that often these credentials—or the lack thereof—do not result in more effective teaching.

What motivates adjunct faculty members at bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions? In short, the author concludes that they are motivated by many extrinsic factors such as the freedom, flexibility, and status that come from working in academia. Of critical note is that many adjuncts view this type of position as a point of entry into a potential full-time appointment within the university. Of course, these faculty members are motivated intrinsically as well, with many commenting about the deep satisfaction they receive from teaching.

How are institutions supporting their adjunct faculty members at bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions? In short, not well, as many faculty members struggle to find the office space needed to work effectively, including meeting with students for office hours and having space to meet with other faculty about teaching. By not providing these faculty members with the spaces needed to do their job well, institutions alienate many of them; the adjuncts consistently feel as though they are not respected, not real teachers, and not part of the academic community in which they work (p. 122). Although perceived needs vary based on the types of appointments adjunct faculty members hold (for instance, career-enders, freelancers, or aspiring academics), it is clear that institutions that care about teaching—and by extension student learning—should care about anyone hired to teach.

What leads to job satisfaction among adjunct faculty members at bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions? The answer to this question may seem intuitive: Teaching is their primary source of satisfaction, and lack of institutional support is the primary driver of their dissatisfaction. That said, the anxiety these faculty members feel over the temporary nature of their employment complicates the story, with many becoming less confident in their teaching abilities—despite excellent course evaluations—over time. This complication is especially the case for adjuncts who aspire to become full-time faculty members: Being hired on a year-to-year or semester-by-semester basis may make some of these excellent adjunct teachers feel as though they are not good enough for full-time teaching work.

How effective at teaching are adjunct faculty members employed by bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions? Results are mixed, as some studies report that they are more effective teachers than their full-time counterparts and others suggest they are “fairly similar to their full-time colleagues in terms of their instructional practices” (p. 130). In the context of student behaviors, the author did note research that suggests that students’ exposure to adjunct teaching may not have a profound differential effect on their learning, but may on their likelihood of persisting.


How institutions treat faculty members is symbolic of the importance institutions place on teaching which, by definition, includes anyone paid to instruct students in the classroom. Although the needs of adjunct faculty members vary based on their professional aspirations (whether experts or career-enders, etc.), institutions must provide the accommodations instructors need to teach effectively. At minimum, accommodations should include space for meeting with students, institutional email addresses, and access to library services on campus. Institutions should also develop pipeline strategies for excellent adjunct faculty members who may eventually desire full-time positions. Hiring good teachers is easier than training bad ones (Mayhew et al. 2016). If institutions find a good teacher, it would be of long-term strategic value to curate the professional development of this individual, in the ways this individual sees fit. Too often, institutions adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to the recruitment and development of adjuncts: It may be time to recognize the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that differentiate adjuncts and ensure that the excellent ones are having their needs properly met.

Administrators need to pay attention to their use of adjuncts over the course of a student’s journey. Students may not persist if overly exposed to adjunct instructors over the course of their four years in college. Even if they are excellent teachers, adjuncts may not carry important institutional messages in the same ways as full-time faculty, and as a result, students may not feel as integrated into the community if overexposed to adjunct instructors.

About the Authors

Liza Ann Bolitzer is a full-time, non-tenure-track assistant professor in the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs of Baruch College, City University of New York.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Aaron, M., and N. Pallas. 2019. Convergent Teaching: Tools to Spark Deeper Learning in College. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Beach, A. L., M. D. Sorcinelli, A. E. Austin, and J. K. Rivard. 2016. Faculty Development in the Age of Evidence: Current Practices, Future Imperatives. Herndon, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Morphew, C., K. Ward, and L. Wolf-Wendel. 2016. Changes in Faculty Composition at Independent Colleges. Washington, DC: The Council of Independent Colleges.

Neumann, A. 2009. Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University. No. 475. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.