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University Endorses Learning Outcomes Assessment to Ensure Academic Program Accountability, Excellence
Four years ago, math Professor Terry McConnell was asked to participate in a series of meetings with faculty to help advance a campuswide culture of assessment and allay any concerns about a Universitywide move toward student learning assessment. McConnell didn’t hesitate to say yes. Faculty in his own department in the College of Arts and Sciences had always engaged in assessment on an informal basis, and he had seen its value firsthand.
“Broadly speaking, the concept of assessment is not at all new in my department,” McConnell says. “Almost every department faculty meeting I’ve ever attended since coming to SU in 1985 has featured a discussion of how to improve our curriculum in some way or other. It was the rare academic year when we did not adopt some new tweak to our curriculum in response to observed shortcomings in our students’ mastery of what we were trying to teach them.”
Ensuring that students learn what faculty want them to learn has become a mantra of sorts that undergirds one of the most compelling trends in today’s sharply competitive higher education marketplace: assessment of student learning outcomes. As workplaces evolve ever more rapidly, and societal calls for accountability and return on investment grow more insistent, colleges and universities nationwide are formulating and adopting protocols for formally measuring just how well students are learning what professors want them to learn—and how well the skills and knowledge they cultivate during their time here serve them after they leave.
As of 2015, the American Association of Colleges and Universities reports, 87 percent of its member institutions conduct assessments of learning outcomes across the curriculum—a 15 percent jump from 2009.
Syracuse University began its own push to formally institutionalize a campuswide culture of assessment—for all academic, co-curricular and functional units—three years ago. Since that time, each school and college has incorporated an assessment plan into its individualized strategic plan. While assessment activities have taken place to varying degrees across some departments, schools and colleges for years, the current push calls for expanded documentation and establishes Universitywide expectations, processes and supporting resources for ongoing assessment.
“Both faculty and staff have worked diligently on this effort over the last three years,” says Gerald Edmonds, assistant provost for academic affairs in the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment. “They have put in a lot of effort to develop outcomes, implementation plans and methods of documenting results. And we are now at a place where we are seeing the benefits of those conversations.”
McConnell sees clear advantages to formalizing the process. “This move normalizes and systematizes these activities and provides a common language, making it possible for disparate subject areas to share results and practices,” McConnell says. “Learning outcomes expressed in simple, nontechnical language, and data detailing how well we succeed in preparing our students to meet expectations are essential as we face an increasingly skeptical public.”
The Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment outlines a collaborative assessment process including faculty, academic deans and department chairs and directors, with input from students and staff. Faculty themselves develop student learning outcomes and rubrics, discuss results and take actions. “The idea is for faculty to systemically—and systematically—reflect on their programs of study from a holistic standpoint and examine how the pieces fit together,” Edmonds says. The assessment process is driven by two overarching questions:
- What are the skills, knowledge, attitudes and dispositions students are expected to acquire from the program?
- What evidence do we have that they have done so at the completion of the program?
When Rochelle Ford arrived at Syracuse University in 2014 as newly appointed chair of the Department of Public Relations at the Newhouse School, one of the first things she asked to see was data on what students were currently learning, how well they were learning it and how well it matched what industry employers wanted them to know. She also sought input from alumni and hiring managers on how well Newhouse students were prepared for internships and jobs in terms of skills, knowledge, attitudes and ability to acclimate to the workplace.
It was a means, she says, of assessing just how well the department was meeting its academic objectives and how well-equipped its graduates were for success in the workplace. “All this information gave our department data to build strategically and to celebrate what we do well,” says Ford. “We knew we could not rest on our laurels and reputation, and we used that data to make necessary curriculum changes.”
The following fall, the department applied for external recognition from PR Week, the top public relations trade magazine, highlighting its assessment activities and changes. It went on to win PR Week’s award for Outstanding Public Relations Education Program, earning recognition in 2016 and 2017 as the number one school in the country for students interested in studying public relations.
Joseph Comprix, who as chair of accounting at the Whitman School of Management has been coordinating assessment for his department, says the process has been highly collaborative and the benefits clear. “I think it’s really important to follow a process like this because we all get so busy teaching our courses that sometimes we lose track of the big picture,” Comprix says. “Assessment makes sure that we are working together, and it also allows us as a group to make changes to the curriculum as the skill set that students need to succeed post-graduation evolves. If assessment becomes a part of the culture, what that really means is that we continually adapt and improve our teaching with each cycle of assessment. In other words, the process allows us to just keep getting better.”
The move toward institutionwide assessment took on particular urgency in 2014, after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education—the University’s federally recognized accrediting body—revised its reaccreditation standards to include a more rigorous emphasis on student outcomes assessment. Several universities encountered difficulty in meeting the new standards, and Syracuse University’s own reaccreditation process was just getting underway. The University’s Reaccreditation Steering Committee, which Ford co-chairs, is due to submit its reaccreditation self-study report to Middle States later this month. A campus visit by a reaccreditation team—the final step in the multiyear reaccrediting process—is scheduled for March, and a decision from Middle States on the bid for reaccreditation is expected in June.
“I want to emphasize that there already was, in some schools and colleges or departments, a strong tradition of specialized accreditation” prior to the institutionwide push, Edmonds says. “But others didn’t have any formal tradition because there was no external accrediting group to answer to. It’s not that we weren’t doing it; we just weren’t documenting it to the degree now required by both internal stakeholders and external agencies. We also began to look at best practices of our peers, and we realized this is what we need to do to bring us to where we should be.” While Middle States’ expectations admittedly added urgency to the effort, he adds, “This is not ‘Middle States’ assessment’; this is Syracuse University’s assessment.”
Kathy Hinchman, associate dean and professor in the School of Education, says that assessment, done well, enhances the quality and coherence of academic programs across multiple courses. “Systematic review of student learning outcomes invites faculty to understand better not only the impact of their own teaching, but also the impact of their teaching in combination with what students learn from other classes,” Hinchman says. “It provides a reality check to ensure that our programs of study are yielding desired outcomes—or that they are revised so that they are more likely to do so.”
As the University’s point person for assessment, Edmonds has spent much of the last year meeting with academic deans and other campus stakeholders to explain the three-phased assessment process, answer questions and, when necessary, offer reassurance about the nature and intent of the effort. Some faculty, for instance, have expressed concern about how assessment protocols might impede academic freedom. “Occasionally there’s this misperception that this office is dictating assessment and outcome processes,” Edmonds says. “We aren’t. We are a service to support faculty and academic freedom—not a ‘regime’ imposing this on faculty.”
McConnell acknowledges the concern. “Academic freedom is very precious and, these days, is increasingly fragile,” he says. “So we should always be concerned and vigilant about possible threats to it. Learning outcomes that are sufficiently broad, and drafted with ample input from all constituencies are essential to addressing concerns about academic freedom. I should also stress that academic freedom does not mean freedom to ignore the effectiveness of one’s work or shy from attempts to improve it.”
Edmonds says the message is slowly spreading. “Some faculty who were initially resistant have actually become very helpful to the process,” he says, once they understand the process is driven by departmental faculty themselves.
Ford, who led the student learning assessment effort for the Newhouse School’s Department of Public Relations, can attest to that. She recalls the reaction of a colleague to a presentation her department gave on the results of their assessment effort. “He was a senior professor and director of another program in the school, and after our presentation, he said, ‘Now I get it! Assessment really does show us across the board what our students are learning in a way I didn’t know before. There is real value in helping us to get better and be pre-eminent.’
“That,” says Ford, “was one of my best moments as chair of the department.”
For more information on institutional assessment at Syracuse University, go to the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment website here.