Evaluating Part-Time Faculty

Traditionally, most institutions have not made significant investments in either training or rigorous evaluation for contingent faculty. However, given the rising percentages of part-time instructors, it is increasingly crucial that deans and department chairs give thought to implementing evaluation methods that will encourage continued improvement of the quality of instruction in their adjunct-taught courses.

We asked Richard Lyons, senior consultant with Faculty Development Associates and editor of the book Best Practices for Supporting Adjunct Faculty (2007), for advice on how to provide effective evaluation for part-time instructors.

Find Effective Ways to Share Student Evaluation Feedback

"First, get usable feedback in as many adjuncts' hands as possible and as quickly as possible, preferably before the next term begins."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

Lyons stresses the importance of feedback from student evaluations speedily at the close of the term, as well as the importance of sharing them with all instructors, not just in cases in which a red flag was raised. Whether you are sharing these through a spreadsheet, through your course management system, or through some other tool, make sure that the sharing of evaluation data is systematic and that you offer guidance on how to interpret the evaluation data to new hires during orientation.

The best way to share student evaluation feedback with an instructor, however, is through a face-to-face conversation. If you have 150 adjunct instructors reporting to you, this may be a less viable option; in that case, Lyons suggests making the investment in meeting with each of your new part-time instructors at the end of their first term. "You may only have time for a twenty-minute conversation," Lyons notes, "but take that initial opportunity to offer early feedback to your new hires."

If Possible, Invest in Classroom Observations for New Instructors

While this is still a rarity, some institutions are investing in classroom observation followed by a face-to-face debrief during a part-time instructor's first term. Lyons stresses, however, that such efforts need to be systematic in order to prove effective, and they must be based on a defined rubric rather than on purely subjective observation.

"You don't want the rubric to be terribly detailed or to give the impression that you are stifling the instructor's creativity. But you need specified criteria that you can speak to during the evaluative debrief."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates

For example, you can identify certain key criteria. The instructor needs to gather the attention of all the students during the first moments of the class. Perhaps the instructor needs to offer a clear outline and signposts over the course of the session. These are specific items that can be documented, measured, and improved, and that can form the basis for a debrief discussion.

Use Classroom Assessment Techniques to Improve Teaching Quality

Lyons also suggests empowering your part-time instructors to improve the quality of their teaching by finding creative ways to adapt the Classroom Assessment Techniques (CAT) developed by Angelo and Cross (1993), prompting adjunct instructors to gather feedback on their teaching throughout the term. For example, in one technique, instructors are encouraged to conduct an informal, anonymous assessment at the end of an especially important or difficult unit of the class. By handing out index cards during the last 15 minutes of a class session and asking students to reply to two-three open-ended questions, instructors can gather early feedback, while there is still opportunity to take corrective action during the term.

Lyons recommends encouraging part-time instructors to conduct this exercise at four strategic points during the term:

  • At the end of the first class meeting
  • Upon returning the first major graded item
  • At midterm
  • A few weeks before the final exam

Lyons offers these examples of questions that could be asked of students during each of the assessments:

At the end of the first class meeting:

  • What have you enjoyed most about the class so far? (Start with the positive.)
  • Who is the one person you've met in the class whom you find especially interesting? (Or ask another question related to an icebreaker exercise.)
  • What is one thing you are confused about? (This is the classical "muddy point" question; after reviewing the course syllabus, objectives, and major assignments, it is critical for the instructor to find out what he or she might have left unclear.)

Upon return of the first major graded item:

  • What was the biggest surprise of the exam/paper/project?
  • If you had to prepare for it over again, what would you do differently?
  • Is there anything you are confused about? (the "muddy point" question again)

At midterm:

  • What have you enjoyed most this term?
  • What is one thing you would change for the second half of the term, if you could?
  • The muddy point question

Leading up to the final exam:

  • What are you most concerned about on the final exam/paper/project?
  • The muddy point question
  • An additional question formulated by the instructor based on his/her knowledge of the students' progress and persistent challenges

You can introduce this exercise to your part-time instructors during new instructor orientation. In fact, Lyons recommends conducting a CAT at the orientation, passing out index cards and asking the new instructors, "What did I fail to mention that you really need to know?" In this way, they can see the assessment tool in action.

"Help your adjunct instructors see how to generate meaningful feedback on their own. This is quick, and it's free, and it's personal. And if an instructor can develop these assessment habits early in his or her career, that instructor can improve quickly and really start to thrive."
Richard Lyons, Faculty Development Associates