New study finds non-tenured college instructors who give better grades get more teaching hours

A new study shows that non-tenured college instructors who give students higher grades are more likely to receive more work hours and have their contracts extended.

As colleges and universities increasingly rely on non-tenured instructors to teach courses, a new study sheds light on how grading practices can affect job security for these instructors.

The study, conducted by researchers Veronica Sovero of UC Riverside and Amanda L. Griffith of Wake Forest University, was published on February 7, 2024, in the journal Education Economics.

It aimed to understand the relationship between the grades instructors give and the future employment prospects of those instructors.

How the Study Was Done

The study analyzed data from a large public university in California between 2005 and 2020.

It measured 10,405 lecturer-years, representing a diverse group of instructors in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity (a “lecturer-year” stands for one lecturer’s employment data for a single academic year).

The instructors held different types of contracts, including 3-year contracts (40.2%), 1-year contracts (37.4%), and no contract (22.4%).

The average instructor taught approximately two classes per semester.

The researchers examined how grading practices impacted work assignments, contract fulfillment, and the likelihood of teaching the same courses again.

They controlled for factors such as department, course characteristics, and instructor demographics to isolate the effect of grading on employment outcomes.

What the Study Found

The study found that non-tenured instructors who gave higher grades were more likely to receive more work hours, have their contracts fully met, and be assigned to teach the same courses again.

These effects were particularly pronounced for instructors with less job security, such as those on 1-year contracts or without any contract.

Specifically, a one-point increase in the average grade given by an instructor was associated with a 1.72% increase in the likelihood of receiving a larger teaching load in the following academic year.

Instructors who awarded higher grades were also 4.2% more likely to have their contract entitlements met, meaning they were more likely to receive the full amount of work they were promised in their contracts.

Gender and minority disparities

The study also found gender and racial differences in work hours, even with union contracts in place. Female and underrepresented minority instructors received significantly lower teaching loads compared to their male and white counterparts, despite controlling for factors like department and course characteristics.

Specifically, the researchers discovered that female instructors received, on average, a teaching load that was 0.95% lower than their male counterparts. Similarly, URM instructors had a teaching load that was 1.40% lower than non-URM instructors.

These disparities persisted even in the presence of union contracts designed to ensure fair and equitable treatment of all instructors. The findings suggest that there may be underlying biases or systemic issues contributing to the unequal distribution of work among non-tenured faculty based on gender and race.

Why This Study Matters

These findings suggest that non-tenured instructors may feel pressure to give higher grades to maintain or improve their job security.

This could have serious implications for student learning and contribute to grade inflation. If instructors are incentivized to give higher grades regardless of student performance, it may lead to a misalignment between grades and actual learning outcomes.

The study highlights the need for better ways to evaluate teaching effectiveness that don’t solely rely on student grades.

Institutions should consider more comprehensive measures of teaching quality, such as peer evaluations, student feedback on learning outcomes, and professional development activities.

While previous studies have examined the prevalence of non-tenured positions and disparities in pay and benefits, this study provides novel insights into how grading practices can directly impact job security for these instructors.

Looking Forward

“Our results provide evidence,” the authors write, “that lecturers that award higher average grades receive larger teaching loads, are more likely to have their entitled workload met, and are more likely to be re-assigned the same course in a future term.”

Study Details