Some years ago, Witt Salley, EdD, director of online education at Clemson University, was working for a community college in Missouri. The college had a growing online presence, and it was handling this demand by allowing faculty who were willing to teach online to do so as an overload. This policy made online instruction very attractive to the faculty and allowed the institution to meet its growing demand.

Unfortunately, some of the students were beginning to suffer. “Assignments were going ungraded and discussion boards were ignored,” says Melanie Shaw, PhD, online faculty success coordinator at Clemson and Witt’s partner on a research study about employment status, teaching load, and student performance. She notes that the college’s attempts to address the problem brought mixed results.

The college hired adjunct faculty to teach online to lighten the load on full-time faculty, but the full-time faculty responded negatively, citing concerns about the quality of instruction from the adjuncts. “They needed to reconcile multiple voices,” Shaw says. So Witt undertook the study to examine how faculty workload and status impacted student success. The results shed some light on this important issue.

Study results
The research study looked at three issues, according to the abstract of Shaw and Witt’s presentation on the topic at the Online Learning Consortium International Conference 2015:

  1. Online instructors in the local setting are overextended and are consequently unable to implement best practices. Because overextended online instructors cannot offer the presence and feedback needed to promote success, online student performance as measured by final course grades suffers.
  2. The current institutional system encourages overload teaching assignments.
  3. Increased teaching loads can have negative ramifications for online instructor attentiveness, student performance, and academic rigor.

The first research question looked at students’ final course grades in online courses taught by full-time faculty versus adjuncts. It found that student performance was unrelated to faculty employment status. This held true both for percentage of students completing the courses and percentage of students earning an A, B, or C grade.

The second research question looked at student performance by number of online credit hours taught by full-time instructors. In this case, the number of online credit hours taught by the full-time faculty correlated negatively with student performance as measured both by course completion and percentage of A, B, and C grades.

The third research question looked at student performance, as measured by course completion and final course grades, and how it correlates with number of hours taught by adjunct instructors. In this case, the workload was negatively related to course completion but did not impact the percentage of students receiving an A, B, or C grade.

Finally, the last research question looked at how the number of overload hours taught by full-time instructors impacted student performance. The results showed that the number of online overload hours taught was not correlated with either course completion or final grades.

These results have some interesting implications for understanding the impact of faculty workload on student success. Shaw notes that “full-time faculty not teaching an overload had a lower withdrawal rate” in their classes than that seen in classes taught by faculty teaching an overload. “However, adjuncts teaching overloads fared better than full-time [faculty],” says Shaw

There are reasons to believe that adjunct instructors are in a better position to handle teaching an overload schedule than are full-time faculty members. Adjunct instructors may be better able to tailor their schedules to focus on teaching during a particular term, perhaps reducing the number of nonteaching projects that they take on during a particularly busy quarter or semester. Adjunct instructors also do not have the same pressures to research, publish, and serve on committees as do full-time faculty members. Finally, the very act of teaching online may help an instructor handle an overload, as student questions and interaction can be scheduled into the faculty member’s day in blocks rather than occurring randomly during in-person encounters. “Adjuncts had a lower non-completion [rate] than full-time [faculty]” when teaching an overload schedule, Shaw says. This implies that adjuncts “have a better capacity than full-time [faculty to handle] overload.”

The study also put to rest some of the concerns that had been voiced about grade inflation. Some people had expressed concern that adjuncts might be tempted to give better grades than do full-time faculty members, so that students would give positive reviews and the adjunct would be invited back to continue to teach. However, Shaw reports that both employment types showed similar grade distributions. Full-time and adjunct online faculty members did show similar problems in that an increase in teaching overload increased the amount of “suffering” as measured by non-completion rates.

These findings point to some of the implications for practice in colleges and universities. “We have to create policies [centered] around faculty workload,” Shaw says. She adds, “administrators need to ensure we dedicate sufficient time to teaching.” This may include establishing policies that discourage teaching overloads, rather than continuing with policies that may have been put in place when teaching online was less attractive to instructors and overloads were less of a problem. “[We need to] look at overloads and make sure they’re not so enticing faculty can bite off more than they can chew,” Shaw explains. Ultimately, this may pay dividends in the form of not only lower non-completion rates but also greater student satisfaction. “Students come back to their ‘user experience’; we need to protect that,” Shaw says.

The original study leaves “a lot of opportunity for future research,” Shaw notes. Such investigations may include work to determine whether the conclusions found in this study are transferrable across institution types and geographical areas.

Future work could also focus on understanding more about adjunct instructor workload. Since many adjunct instructors today build an “entrepreneurial” schedule filled with teaching at multiple institutions and possibly pursuing freelance work, understanding their entire workload could be helpful in preventing overextension. The research could help colleges and universities enact policies that help students succeed while supporting faculty members in their workload.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is managing editor of Academic Leader, chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference, and owner of Hilltop Communications.


Reprinted from Distance Education Report, 20.5 (2016): 1, 2. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.