Maintaining Online Program Rigor: A Look at Full-time Versus Adjunct Faculty Grading Practices

Concurrent Session 5

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Variance in grading amongst online full-time and adjunct faculty can occur. Monitoring and sharing faculty grading practices can benefit the program and students, and help develop adjunct faculty grading practices. Strategies for monitoring grading practices will be shared. Discussion eliciting other best practices supporting faculty development will be invited.


Diane Hunker, PhD, MBA, RN is the Nursing Programs Director at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, She also serves as the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program Coordinator and teaches primarily online, graduate students. Her research interests include online, nursing, graduate and international nursing education.
Meigan Robb, PhD, RN is the assistant director of nursing programs and MSN program coordinator at Chatham University located in Pittsburgh, PA. She has experience with teaching a variety of courses across baccalaureate, master, and doctoral levels. As a nurse educator her scholarly agenda focuses on curriculum design and evaluation, classroom management techniques, educational strategies, and professional role development. To date she has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and is an experienced speaker who routinely presents at local, state, and national peer-reviewed workshops and conferences.

Extended Abstract

The number of online nursing programs is increasing and adjunct faculty are needed to meet the needs of growing enrollment trends.  Because of the nature of online course delivery, adjuncts are typically remote from the university. While resources and instruction are provided to online adjunct faculty, teaching strategies, understanding of program, course, and assignments, and grading practices can drift over time without direct, regular contact and communication.  This drift can lead to variance in grading practices that may negatively impact program rigor, student success and persistence.

Session Overview:

This career forum roundtable session is appropriate for department level leadership, online full-time faculty, and online adjunct faculty.  In this session attendees will engage in reflective dialogue regarding the issue of differences in grading practices.  To provide a foundation for discussion, the presenters will provide a brief overview of a Grading Practices Project that was implemented at a small, private university in western Pennsylvania.  Through engaging in a scholarly exchange, attendees will take away from this session best practices for use in their own institution to mentor online adjunct faculty which will ultimately enhance program rigor, student success and persistence.




The issue of differences in grading practices between online full-time and adjunct faculty were noted at a small, private university in western Pennsylvania.  The issue was first revealed in the accredited Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.  Review of student transcripts while dealing with academic issues, as well as students sharing comparisons between professors, provided anecdotal evidence that warranted further investigation. 

The 27-credit DNP curriculum consists of eight courses designed to be taken sequentially and culminates in a 250-hour evidence – based practice project. There are usually anywhere from 3-4 sections of each course running at the same time, taught by both full-time and adjunct faculty. The students are online, adult learners from all over Unites States and Canada. The adjunct faculty, all RNs and doctoral-prepared, are also located in different geographic regions. All of the adjuncts have other employment and teaching for this university is a second job. At this institution the goal for the online full-time to adjunct faculty ratio is 1:1.

Impact of Identified Issue

There are multiple concerns with varied grading practices amongst full-time and adjunct faculty. One concern is a potential for lack of consistent rigor throughout the program. Another concern is weakly developed courses, or lack of adjunct faculty understanding of course learning activities and assignment rubrics. Another concern deals with student academic success and retention. When a student is graded with minimal rigor in one course and then enrolls in the next course, where content builds upon the previous course, there is the potential that students will not have the same level of success if the grading is significantly more rigorous. The student could leave the foundational course with an inappropriate level of confidence in their abilities, and may experience dissatisfaction with the next course and ultimately the program. This in turn could lead to retention issues, which may hurt the program’s reputation and can have a direct impact on accreditation and public view of the program.  These concerns lead to department leadership implementing a Grading Practices Project.

Grading Practices Project

The purpose of the Grading Practices Project was three-fold. First, we wanted to validate concerns based on anecdotal evidence that adjunct faculty may be grading “easier” than full-time faculty. By validating this was occurring, we were then able to develop a plan to address the inconsistency in grading practices. The second purpose of the Grading Practices Project was to visually present to adjunct faculty where they graded as compared to the rest of the faculty teaching the same course. This would serve as a faculty development tool and help adjunct faculty better identify through self-reflection if and where they needed to improve their grading practices.  Lastly, we wanted to ensure appropriate strategies were utilized to support, encourage, and enhance student success and persistence.


The Grading Practices Project consisted of an electronic survey link, using Qualtrics™, emailed to all faculty (full-time and adjunct) teaching a DNP course at the end of each semester. The survey asked faculty to simply note the total number of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs recorded as a final grade in their course.  The collected de-identified data was graphically displayed in a stacked bar graph.  Each bar in the graph represented a different faculty member, both full-time and adjunct were included. Using different colors, each bar reflected the total number of each letter grade recorded. The bars were labeled by a number. Only the program director, assistant program director, and program assistant knew which faculty the numbered bar represented. The graphs were shared with all faculty teaching each course. The faculty were told which bar they were, but not who the other bars were. 


When department leadership viewed the graphs, it became immediately apparent the grading practices were skewed between the full-time and adjunct faculty.  An action plan was then devised to address the variance in grading practices.  First, efforts were made to ensure all assignment guidelines and rubrics were clear and accurate, and course objectives were clearly linked to learning activities and assignments. Then, the Online Discussion Forum rubric was re-evaluated by an Ad Hoc committee and enhanced for added clarity, accuracy and rigor. Course liaisons, described as full-time faculty who serve as a course advisor to adjunct faculty and responsible for specific course set up and updating, were informed of the de-identified findings and asked to make sure all course activities and assignments were relevant and current.  Course liaisons were also encouraged to provide a thorough on-boarding for each adjunct prior to the course starting, and to maintain open lines of communication throughout the delivery of the course content.  The action plan resulted in adjunct faculty being offered additional support and mentoring for all courses to aid in the development of their individual grading practices.

Response from adjunct faculty after sharing their grading practices as compared to full-time faculty were positive. Being remote across the US, they said they often wondered if they were rigorous enough and really were curious to know how they compared to other faculty. Many shared that they were worried about their course evaluations and did not want to grade too rigorously in fear of getting a poor evaluation.  Being that all of the adjunct faculty were employed in other jobs, they self-identified that more time may be needed to accurately evaluate the student work.

Session Takeaway

Maintaining online program rigor is a necessary component of promoting student success and persistence.  However, variances in grading practices between online full-time and adjunct faculty may lead to student dissatisfaction and retention concerns.  Decreasing the variance in grading practices between online full-time and adjunct faculty may ultimately result in student satisfaction, academic success and retention across the curriculum.  To achieve this outcome department leadership should consider having an action plan in place to aid in the development of grading practices of online adjunct faculty.

Session Goals:

By the end of this session, attendees will be able to:

1.  Discuss the relationship between variances in grading practices and student success and persistence.

2.  Describe how monitoring grading practices can be helpful in promoting program rigor.

3.  Describe best practice strategies for mentoring online adjunct faculty.