Middle States: Spring and Summer Progress

We have met another important deadline:  the final drafts of reports from the working groups are coming in.  Our next step is to begin drafting the complete self-study report, synthesizing all the work from the teams.  The tri-chairs will meet several times over the month of April to review the working group reports and formulate a plan for writing.  The self-study draft will be available for review by the campus community at the end of the summer.

Professors Krouse and Utell will give a brief update at the next General Faculty Meeting on April 25.  In the meantime, if you see a member of a Middle States working group, make sure to say thanks!

Finally, in case you missed it, a student member of the team, Ashley Rundell, was featured in a home page story on the important contributions students make to the work of the university.  Ashley shared her experiences working on Middle States here on the blog a few months ago.  We’re grateful to Ashley, and to all those who contributed so much time, energy, and expertise to this process.






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.

Why Are We Assessing?

We’re about halfway to our next Middle States deadline:  April 1, for final drafts of Working Group reports.  We’re also about halfway through the spring semester.  In the midst of managing the tasks of self-study and re-accreditation, not to mention our usual cycles of assessment, it can be good to stop and ask, why are we assessing?

This piece by Linda Suskie, former VP for Middle States and author of Assessing Student Learning:  A Common Sense Guide, was published several years ago, but its call to reflect strikes one as still bearing relevance.  (Dr. Brigitte Valesey, in her guest post, also notes Suskie’s work.)  Suskie suggests we ask some straightforward questions about student learning:  what have our students learned?  are we satisfied with what they have learned?  if not, what are we doing about it?

She addresses the usual claims underlying demands for assessment, arguing that we cannot ask the people we serve to take the value of a college education for granted, especially in the current political and economic climate.  But I found this section of the essay to resonate particularly, because it gets at the real value of higher education when it works the way we want it to:

The most important purpose of assessment should not be improvement or accountability but their common aim:  Everyone wants students to get the best possible education.  Everyone wants them to learn what’s most important.  A college’s mission statement and goals are essentially promises that the college is making to its students, their families, employers, and society.  Today’s world needs people with the attributes we promise.  We need skilled writers, thinkers, problem-solvers, and leaders.  We need people who are prepared to act ethically, to help those in need, and to participate meaningfully in an increasingly diverse and global society.  Imagine what the world would be like if every one of our graduates achieved the goals we promise them!

Of course, we don’t have to wait for Assessment Day or the final version of our self-study to ask these questions.  As we embark on the second half of the semester we can each ask:  what have our students learned so far, and are they well on the way to achieving the goals we’ve set?


Middle States and Peer Review

The Middle States Steering Committee has completed its peer review of working group drafts.  Now it’s on to the next deadline:  revisions of working group reports are due April 1.

Peer review has played an important role in the Middle States process up to now.  Each working group draft was assigned primary and secondary reviewers, co-chairs of other groups whose work showed significant linkages to the report under review.  Co-chairs provided comments on drafts, and a wide-ranging and constructive discussion was had over two days as feedback was shared.

Interested in the role writing and peer review is playing in this process?  Much of our direction in this area was taken from our former VP Bob Schneider, who recommended this article to us:  Eloise Knowlton, “Through the Rearview Looking Glass: Collaborative Writing and the Accreditation Self-Study,”  Assessment Update 25:5 (Sept-Oct 2013).  Click here for a PDF.

Professors Krouse and Utell will be sharing updates on our process at today’s faculty meeting.  Can’t make it?  Here are the slides:

And here’s some peer review in action:
Tim Cairy, Director of Student Success and Retention and Co-Chair, Working Group IV
Tim Cairy, Director of Student Success and Retention and Co-Chair, Working Group IV

Working Group Draft Reports Are In

All of the Middle States Working Groups have submitted their first drafts.  These drafts are undergoing peer review by members of the Steering Committee. Committee members have been asked to comment on drafts, as well as consider these guiding questions as they read:

  • Are all self-study design questions for the standard answered sufficiently? If not, which questions need to be addressed?
  • Is sufficient evidence provided to affirm compliance with all criteria of the standard? If not, where is more evidence needed?
  • Are there any conflicting statements in the draft report with your own Working Group report?
  • Is the draft report reflective of all pertinent areas of the institution (eg, undergraduate, graduate, schools of law, or faculty, staff, and administration)?
  • Is the rationale for recommendations in the draft report sufficiently detailed in the report?
  • Does the draft report provide sufficient discussion of how assessment results are used in relation to the standard?
  • Are there additional exemplar examples that you would recommend adding to the narrative to reinforce compliance with the standard criteria?

The Steering Committee will be meeting in the several weeks before midterm break to share feedback on these draft reports.  Revisions to the Working Group reports are due April 1.  Members of the campus community will have ample opportunity to share feedback starting in August, once the first draft of the entire self-study is completed over the summer.

In the meantime, Professors Krouse and Utell will be giving a quick update at the General Faculty Meeting on February 22 — feel free to ask questions then, before, after, anytime!

PS: The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is working on putting together our evaluation team.  Interested in how that process works?  Read more here.

A New Semester, and a Deadline

Happy new semester!  We hope the holidays were restful for all.

The winter break continued to be a productive time for those of us working on Middle States.  Meetings for the tri-chairs and the working groups have been calendared, and we are looking forward to our next major deadline:  first drafts of reports from the working groups.  These are due on February 1, and we’ve got a pretty busy schedule of meetings through February so that those teams can get revisions done by April 1.

Interested in the process?  Here’s a closer look (grabbed from our self-study design):

The working group reports are essential for crafting the final self-study report. They provide vital input in terms of analysis and recommendations; however, they are not the final self-study report. The final self-study report is crafted through collaboration among the working groups and steering committee, and finally synthesized by the tri-chairs. The working group report drafts will be subject to extensive feedback from the steering committee and tri-chairs, and the final drafts will be edited for consistent style, voice, and format.

The working groups should see their purpose in writing to be analyzing the relevant documents to determine how well we are doing in achieving our mission and gleaning evidence thereof; and making recommendations which are connected to strategic priorities, and which are finite and manageable. The purpose is not to describe everything at the institution related to the standard, nor is it to provide a history. The strongest evidence and most representative examples should be chosen to illustrate how well we are doing in meeting the standard under consideration. We might think of the process of writing the working group reports and the final self-study report as analyzing evidence and drawing conclusions the way one might for a research article, and the drafts will be subject to a similar kind of “peer review” and editing process.

Once the working group drafts have been submitted, they will be read in a form of “peer review” by the steering committee. The steering committee is responsible for making sure the standards are addressed, solid evidence and examples are selected and interpreted, and that appropriate analysis and recommendations are included. The steering committee will make suggestions, note connections across reports from different groups, and review the strength of the analysis and the quality of the recommendations.  The working groups will then work on revisions, to be submitted to the steering committee for final review. The tri-chairs will then work on synthesizing the working group final reports, making any necessary revisions, and editing to create the self-study report draft.

Members of the campus community should, as always, feel free to get in touch with questions, either online or off — we’ll be available at the General Faculty Meeting on February 22 for updates and questions, too.  Have a good spring!

Happy Winter Break from Widener Middle States

The teams working on Middle States here at Widener are heading into the break with their tasks right on schedule.  After a very productive semester, we are happy to say that all the Working Groups turned in their outlines by the December 1 deadline, and the Steering Committee spent a constructive two hours last week peer reviewing all the drafts.  The discussion was robust and collegial, and the Working Groups are well-positioned to write their draft reports, due on January 31.  Another round of peer review will follow, before the final draft deadline later in the spring.

We wish all of the members of the Middle States team — and all members of the campus community — a restful break.  The blog will be on hiatus until the new semester begins, so if you’re looking for some winter reading, here’s a roundup of recent articles of interest, assessment/accreditation-related as well as examining higher ed and teaching more broadly.

“Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Advocates Oppose Proposed Changes to NEASC Standards,” by Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed [link]

“Despite Efforts to Increase Them, University Graduation Rates Fall,” by Jon Marcus, The Hechinger Report [link]

“Collegiality as Pedagogy,” by Sean Michael Morris [link; scroll down for some comments on “rigor”]

“The 2015 Influence List:  A Special Report,” from The Chronicle of Higher Education [link]

“Ending Well,” by Bonni Stachowiak, Teaching in Higher Ed [PODCAST; link]