Accreditation and Learning Outcomes: Time for Reform?

Last week some of us were lucky enough to spend time with Dr. Tia Brown McNair, Vice President of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at AAC&U.  Dr. McNair held two workshops on Wednesday, sponsored by the Office of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, and she led us in wide-ranging and necessary discussions examining what it means to define ourselves as equity-minded practitioners as faculty and administrators.  We were challenged to think about how we embed our students’ own cultural wealth in our teaching and learning, and how we make student learning outcomes clear and transparent over the course of the educational path.  We are responsible not only for inclusivity in access but also in success.  If you’d like to read more about AAC&U’s work in the area of equity, the free web publications Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence and Step Up and Lead for Equity are good places to start.

This invigorating conversation got me thinking about the role of examining and ensuring equity as part of—what else?—our Middle States self-study process, so it was timely that another AAC&U publication appeared in my inbox the next day.  The current issue of Liberal Education takes as its theme, “What Happens to Quality in an Age of Disruption?” and it focuses on the importance of articulating learning outcomes that are explicit, understandable, demonstrable, and assessable.  What does this mean for accreditation and for those higher ed leaders and politicians who express dissatisfaction and skepticism towards the process?  According to Debra Humphreys and Paul L. Gaston, learning outcomes that are explicit, understandable, demonstrable, and assessable

can provide essential prompts for curricula that are coherent and cumulative, encourage student persistence, and offer a platform for programmatic and institutional accountability. These carefully delineated and assessed outcomes must become the most important priority in any new reforms of policy and any new approaches to quality assurance.

These authors suggest that a focus on learning outcomes that “address assessable student demonstration of attainment; clearly reference the importance of integrative, cross-disciplinary study; and include both applied and ‘liberal” learning’ is the key to mission-driven assessment that makes sense.  They also argue (rightly, I think) that any discussion of accreditation reform needs to take the learning outcomes movement seriously.  I’d add, in light of Dr. McNair’s comments, that a clear path through college defined by meaningful learning outcomes is essential to making sure all students have not only access to higher education but success once they get there.

Humphreys and Gaston ask, as part of their examination of whether and how to reform accreditation:

Is regional accreditation less concerned with student learning outcomes and less explicit in its expectations of accredited institutions than it should be? Or does regional accreditation remain our most promising avenue to achieving genuine reform in higher education through a developing consensus on such outcomes?

It seems that the work Middle States has done to revise the standards, and implement those standards through the Collaborative Implementation Project, is on track to answer that second question with a “yes.”  The new standards are mission-driven, and focused on student learning, success, and transformation.  They call for a clear path through coherent programs with carefully delineated outcomes.  As we undertake to write our self-study over the next few months, it might be worth keeping this bigger picture in mind, and asking ourselves how well we are meeting our mission to create a clear educational path for all students and to help students achieve meaningful learning outcomes.

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