Purpose: Although the global nursing faculty shortage has led to increasing reliance upon sessional staff, limited research has explored the impact of these sessional staff on the quality of teaching in higher education. We aim to examine differences in (a) student satisfaction with sessional and tenured staff and (b) assessment scores awarded by sessional and tenured staff in students’ written assignments.
Design: A comparative study method was used. Participants were recruited from students enrolled in the three nursing practice subjects across the 3 years of the baccalaureate program in an Australian university during the second semester of 2008.
Methods: This study collected student data via an online version of the Perceptions of Teaching and Course Satisfaction scale and compared the grades awarded by sessional and tenured academics for a written assessment in a single assignment in each of the nursing practice subjects. Of the 2,045 students enrolled in the nursing practice subjects across the 3 years of the bachelor of nursing (BN) program, 566 (28%) completed the online teaching and course satisfaction survey, and 1,972 assignment grades (96%) were available for analysis.
Findings: Compared with tenured academics, sessional teachers received higher rating on students’ perception on teaching satisfaction by students in Year 1 (p= .021) and Year 2 (p= .002), but not by students in Year 3 (p= .348). Following the same trend, sessional teachers awarded higher assignment grades to students in Year 1 (p < .001) and Year 2 (p < .001) than tenured academics, with no significant disparity in grades awarded to students in Year 3.
Conclusions: The higher grades awarded by sessional teachers to 1st- and 2nd-year students could be one explanation for why these teachers received higher student ratings than tenured teachers. Not discounting the possibility of grade inflation by sessional staff, it could be that tenured teachers have a higher expectation for the quality of students’ work, and hence were more stringent in their assessment grading. Sessional teachers did not receive a higher rating from 3rd-year students, and this could be attributed to a change in student perception as they progress through the course, valuing a broader and more professional aspect of nursing knowledge, which is more likely to be the strength of tenured staff.
Clinical Relevance: These findings highlight a need for the development and implementation of strategies to facilitate the inclusion of sessional staff teaching in a BN program, in order to prepare graduate nurses that are well-equipped for clinical practice.