Adjunct Faculty: A Department Chair’s Guide to Orienting New Instructors

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Department chairs are busy people, and hiring and onboarding adjunct faculty is just one of many tasks on their plate (sometimes right before the start of a new semester). To make it easier, here is a checklist of essential information that chairs should share with new adjunct faculty when hiring them, including course syllabi, textbooks, learning outcomes, encouraged pedagogical approaches, grading philosophy, and where adjunct faculty can go on campus for other resources.


by Teresa Focarile, Boise State University

As a department chair you have a lot of responsibilities, and hiring and onboarding adjunct faculty is just one of them. Introducing these new instructors to their courses, as well as to department and university culture and resources, can be a big task, particularly if your institution does not have a robust new adjunct faculty orientation program. Adding to the challenge is the fact that adjunct faculty don’t all have the same level of experience in the classroom, or the same history with your institution, so it’s not always possible to have a one-size-fits-all process for getting them ready to teach.

That said, there are a few key points that are important to cover in an orientation session that will be helpful for all incoming adjunct faculty. What follows is a list of those steps, with different levels of depth at which they could be accomplished. If you can already check off the base level for all of these steps, great! You could then choose to take on the Level 2 or Level 3 options under each step to create more in-depth preparation for your adjunct faculty - which could lead to more meaningful learning for your students.

Step 1: Provide important information about the course

Sharing sample syllabi might already be a part of your process when hiring new adjunct faculty, and if so, that’s a great start. (However, I have spoken with many new adjunct faculty members who have not received a sample syllabus for the course they are teaching - so please make sure this is a part of the onboarding process.)

What will really make this aspect of the adjunct orientation useful is to move beyond the basics of syllabus, textbook, and meeting time, to discuss the choices and rationale behind the course, how it has previously been taught, and how it fits into your curriculum.

Level 1: Review the learning outcomes for the course.
New adjunct faculty need to understand your goals for student learning in the course, and how those goals relate to your overall program and institutional learning outcomes. I have talked to many adjuncts who are not clear about where their course fits into a curriculum, and therefore have no sense of what knowledge students should come in with or what knowledge they need to come out with. Spending some time reviewing the learning outcomes for the course, and how the course fits into the overall curriculum/degree program for your department, will not only help better prepare your adjunct faculty to teach, it will help ensure that your students develop their skills and knowledge throughout your curriculum as intended.

Level 2: Discuss the course design behind the syllabus.
While knowing the course learning outcomes is helpful, if the adjunct faculty member isn’t able to make connections between the learning outcomes and the way the course is designed, they may not understand how students should show mastery of course content. You or another faculty member should take the time to talk through the syllabus with the new instructor to make sure they have a solid understanding of how the course has been taught in the past and how those choices led to students achieving the course learning outcomes. You can also discuss aspects of the course as previously taught that can be changed/adapted by the adjunct faculty member, and those that are required by the department.

Level 3: Provide example lesson plans.
Some classes with multiple sections may have a master course from which faculty teach. This approach often provides any faculty member teaching a course with a common set of activities and assessments for the class. Using a master course model can be particularly useful when bringing on new adjunct faculty who have strong disciplinary knowledge but limited teaching experience.

Step 2: Provide resources for effective teaching

While some adjunct faculty may have engaged in professional development around evidence based instructional practices (EBIPs), many others may have little experience with current teaching approaches. New adjunct faculty (and your current ones) will welcome guidance on strategies to engage students in learning. There are a variety of ways to help them build their teaching toolbox, including:

Level 1. Encourage them to attend workshops at your institution’s center for teaching and learning.
These units often offer a variety of teaching related workshops, as well as consultation and class observation services. If your campus does not have this unit, provide new adjunct faculty with a book of active learning techniques they can easily implement; a great example is Cross and Angelo's Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers.

Level 2: Provide them with a list of EBIPs used by your faculty.
If there are faculty in your department who are using EBIPs, ask them to share those approaches with you. Use those examples to create a resource for incoming faculty (both adjunct and tenure track). You can also invite new adjunct faculty to observe a class taught by a professor who is experienced with active learning.

Level 3: Observe their teaching and offer feedback and resources.
Either you or another faculty member could observe the new adjunct in their first semester of teaching, and offer feedback on the teaching strategies used. You can also invite adjunct faculty to attend departmental meetings in which teaching practice is discussed.

Step 3: Help them think about assessment

Depending on their own higher educational experiences, new adjunct faculty might have ideas about assessment that differ from the approach you take in your department. It’s important to make sure these instructors are clear about your grading expectations and that they understand the purpose of assessment in your program.

Level 1: Review basic grading policies for the department.
What does “A” work look like in this class/department/institution? How about “C” work? Research has shown that on average, adjunct faculty often grade more leniently than tenure-track faculty, so it is important that new instructors understand your expectations for grading. You can also include in this discussion any department-specific policies for grades (+/- system, curving, etc.).This would also be a time to talk with the new faculty member about how to get academic advisors involved early in the semester if students are not succeeding in the course.

(For examples of the research on adjuncts and grading, see:

Brenda S. Sonner (2000). A is for “Adjunct”: Examining Grade Inflation in Higher Education. Journal of Education for Business, 76:1, 5-8, DOI: 10.1080/08832320009599042.

Boualem Kezim, Susan E. Pariseau & Frances Quinn (2005). Is Grade Inflation Related to Faculty Status? Journal of Education for Business, 80:6, 358-364, DOI: 10.3200/JOEB.80.6.358-364.

Kirk, Florence R.; Spector, Charles A. (2009). Academy of Entrepreneurship Journal, 15.2, 73-81.

Chen, S., & Cheng, D. X. (1999). Remedial Education and Grading: A Case Study Approach to Two Critical Issues in American Higher Education. A Research Report Submitted to the Research Foundation of the City University of New York.)

Level 2: Share sample rubrics for assignments.
If the previous instructor for the course used rubrics, review those with the new adjunct faculty member to make sure they understand all of the elements of the grading scale. Or, if no rubrics for the course currently exist, share some examples from other courses in the discipline (either used in your program or available online).

Level 3: Discuss how the class level assessments are used in the overall program assessment process.
While some adjunct faculty are hired to teach introductory level courses for non-majors, many others are hired to teach courses later in the curriculum - courses that may also be a part of your department’s overall program assessment process. If this is the case, the conversation about the course learning outcomes and how they are assessed becomes even more important, as the data from these classes will be used to assess how well your program is meeting its overall student learning objectives. It may also be the case that these courses have signature/shared assessments which the adjunct faculty member will need to thoroughly understand and be ready to implement in a manner consistent with the practices of other faculty.

Step 4: Share where to go for more resources

Depending on their history with your institution, new adjunct faculty may know a lot or a little about campus resources. You will want them to know both what resources are available to help support their basic needs as instructors and what services are available to their students.

Level 1: Introduce them to department-level resources.
Make sure that adjunct faculty know where to go to make copies for their classes, as well as how to get classroom and office supplies. Show them the adjunct faculty office or lounge (if you have one), and/or where they can access a computer and meet with students while on campus.

Level 2: Provide a list of on-campus resources for students and faculty.
New adjunct faculty should be given information about student support services on campus, including your institution’s writing center, tutoring services, student health center, educational access office, etc. You can also let them know about resources for their own research, including library services, the faculty research support office, and/or opportunities for internal research grants.

Level 3: Train them as advisors.
A recent study found fewer students move beyond the introductory course in a topic when that course is taught by an adjunct faculty member. The researchers concluded that one factor in the lower go-on rates could be adjunct faculty members’ lack of knowledge about the advising process. To help bridge that gap, reach out to your advising office for basic training materials to share with new adjunct faculty, so that they are prepared to talk with students who express an interest in taking more classes in your discipline.

All of these steps will help new adjunct faculty feel better prepared to teach, and will help you be confident that the outcomes of the course are being met. It may also help lower your workload in the future; research shows that adjunct faculty who feel supported by their departments are more likely to be retained, saving you the work of re-doing this hiring and onboarding process - at whatever level - next semester. (You can see examples of such studies herehere, and here.)

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Teresa Focarile is the Coordinator for Adjunct, Concurrent Enrollment and Online Faculty Development at Boise State University, as well as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Theater, Film and Creative Writing. She has taught at the college level for 13 years, the past seven for Boise State, and the previous six for the University of Connecticut. In her role at Boise State, she works to identify and execute strategies to serve adjunct, concurrent enrollment and online faculty teaching related needs, as well as advocate for support for those groups at the university level. For the past three years she has served as a co-chair for the Professional and Organizational Development Network (POD) Adjunct/Part-Time Faculty Special Interest Group, as well as presented on faculty development strategies at various national and international conferences. 

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Photo by Claudia on Unsplash.

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