Designing Professional Development Programs for Adjuncts

It’s one of the most cost-effective investments that community colleges can make to ensure effective instruction and increased student achievement, writes Anna Conway.

January 3, 2023
glasses and cup of tea beside a note pad with words like growth and skills pointing to the word training in red
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Today, contingent faculty are enormously prevalent in higher education institutions, especially in community colleges. In 2018, data from the American Association of University Professors showed that more than 70 percent of college and university faculty were contingent: either adjuncts, full-time faculty not on the tenure track or graduate students. And a report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that two-year institutions have the highest percentage of such faculty, with fewer than 20 percent of faculty positions on the tenure track.

Given their large percentage of adjuncts, designing and providing professional development specifically for those faculty members is one of the most cost-effective investments that community colleges can make to assure effective instruction and increased student achievement. Simply put, when a college allocates resources and offers institutional support to adjunct faculty, the college is investing in the continued success of its students.

How can an institution best offer professional development for adjunct and other part-time faculty members?

When researching this topic initially, I could find very little literature offering actionable steps for implementing effective professional development for community college adjuncts. For the past seven years, I served as director of teaching and learning at Des Moines Area Community College, the largest community college in Iowa, and I was able to design professional development trainings for our part-time faculty. Based on the empirical data I’ve gathered and my personal experience, I’d like to share some key points to consider when designing adjunct professional growth programs at your own institution.

Research your adjunct faculty. Each community college needs to design programs that reflect the distinct professional needs of their specific faculty members. One of the best ways to determine those needs is to survey your adjunct faculty. For example, last year, our adjunct faculty said they wanted to learn more about teaching strategies to improve student engagement in online and virtual courses. In the previous year, they told us that increasing their usage of teaching tools offered by the current LMS was one of their greatest needs. Unsurprisingly, the data we’ve gathered have also suggested that our faculty need more knowledge about student support services, such as training about mental health and academic support services.

Incorporate adjunct voices in the program design. If you are looking to create and deliver meaningful professional development events, allow the course design to be driven by adjunct choices and voices. Once you’ve polled your adjunct faculty, they will give you ideas about what research-based topics and practices they’d like to see offered in your programs. Based on adjunct suggestions, I’ve been able to plan our meeting agendas, modules’ content, breakout room discussions, interactive activities, guest speakers, short videos and other initiatives each semester.

You may find that the adjunct survey data you gather reveal the need for you to offer programs not just about various teaching and learning topics but also other subjects like college resources and policies. For example, at our college, when talking about assessment types and best practices, we may also examine the tools within our LMS that help systemize our assessment efforts and update faculty on important dates and policies for assessment reporting.

Another tip is to make sure that you involve adjunct faculty in the actual programs and events you create. Ask participants to share their tips and experiences in a form of short presentations (live or video) or on interactive discussion boards.

Design professional development virtually and online. When designing professional development courses or programs, you should keep in mind the flexibility that various learning modalities offer. Always include the “schedule question” when you conduct the poll or any preprogram research at your college.

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Because of the complexity of adjunct schedules, it can be almost impossible to find a time to offer these sessions synchronously or in person. You should design your programs in a way that gives your faculty groups an opportunity to take control of their learning at a time that works best for them. Some colleges use self-paced online lessons that users can complete in short increments on their smartphones.

That said, this option, while viable for some institutions, offers limited opportunities for the group to interact and build community. At our college, I have been able to combine virtual and online modalities in order to create effective and enjoyable professional options for our adjuncts. Offering professional growth programs in both modalities also helps create and sustain a collaborative environment where instructors are encouraged to network, stay connected and share best practices.

Design with connection, consistency and innovation. Just as with students, a systematic and consistent approach to course design and course assessment will help your faculty participants reach the program’s instructional goals. It helps to establish a theme, based on the adjunct survey results, and then to plan how to tie that theme to the learning goals of each session or module.

It is also important that the content of your modules is logically organized and that you design all modules consistently and connect course components with the theme so they build on each other. For example, if the theme is “examining student engagement in online and virtual environments,” each of the modules should include materials and research about how the student, the teacher and the content interact to affect student engagement.

Each of your training modules should also include space for faculty members to provide their own examples—short videos, audio files, discussion posts—and respond to others’ examples of how relationships with students, the relevance of the course material and their pedagogical expertise intersect in their teaching practice. In my experience, innovation shows through designing each module with a distinctive element and providing space for faculty experiences and reflections.

At Des Moines Area Community College, for example, we may invite a guest speaker to share their insights about game-based learning in one of the modules and, in the following module, ask the participants to develop a worksheet of how they can incorporate elements of game-based learning in their own teaching. In the final module, we may then ask participants to record their reflections for a faculty podcast that serves as the culmination of the professional development course and is shared with the entire college community.

Obtain funding for adjunct stipends. Finding financial support for professional development is almost always a challenge. You will need to establish a funding source to provide stipends for adjunct faculty who elect to participate in the programs. Most community colleges have load limits to determine how many classes each adjunct is eligible to teach—for example, a nine-credit load limit per semester is typical. It is important to monitor and understand adjunct loads, as adjuncts are not eligible for compensation when the clock hours go beyond the established limits. Stipends for faculty participation in a professional development course are a great way to reimburse your adjunct members, as stipends are not associated with teaching loads.

In conclusion, as the popularity of online and hybrid classes continues to grow in community colleges, our teaching also continues to evolve. Understanding the professional needs of adjunct faculty and tailoring programming to those needs is the first step in planning effective and varied adjunct professional development.

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Anna Conway is a professor and faculty developer at Des Moines Area Community College. She has served as director of teaching and learning at the college for seven years and is one of the content developers for the Inclusive STEM Teaching Project. Her current research interests include: student engagement and success in community colleges, inclusive teaching and equity-minded course design, teaching and learning programming, and adjunct faculty professional development.

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