Most deans and provosts accept that assessment is an
inevitable and time-consuming part of their work. Expectations for
assessment from accrediting agencies are high. In fact, it might
sometimes seem as if you’re asked for so many reports by institutional
and program accreditors that you don’t have time to make sure the
results are used to improve student experiences.
Four members of Dean & Provost’s advisory
board participated in a conference call to share their best strategies
for making assessment not only manageable but also useful.
“We are definitely better as a result of assessment and
the continuous improvement philosophy,” said Jill Murray, executive vice
president and chief academic officer at Lackawanna College in
Process raises challenges
There’s no question that assessment is time-consuming.
And in divisions with numerous program-specific accreditations, it can
require constant effort.
For example, the University of Florida’s College of Fine
Arts has regional, statewide and program accreditations. Most of the
requested reports ask for a lot of the same information but in slightly
different formats. That makes it impossible to cut and paste, said Dean
Officials have hardly finished one process when they
need to jump into the next one, which doesn’t leave time to put
improvements into place, Lavelli said.
There are “so many pieces and moving parts” of
accreditation, Murray said. But the real challenge is “not just moving
and doing it but what you do with it,” she added.
Assessment is an unfunded mandate, said Herman Berliner,
provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Hofstra
University. But putting the money and time into doing it well so that
your institution gets a clean accreditation report is a lot easier than
correcting deficiencies, he said.
Organization is key
Effective assessment relies on having a good process in
place. At Hofstra, an associate provost for assessment and accreditation
oversees a faculty-driven process, Berliner said. Because there are
vast differences among disciplines, the faculty can choose how they want
to perform assessment, but participating is not optional. Hofstra’s
record of Middle States accreditation visits with no follow-up involved
are a persuasive argument for its importance.
At UF, two institutionwide assessment offices produce
several reports every day, Lavelli said. Within her unit, the associate
deans, program directors and faculty all have responsibility for
Connecting assessment with other campus efforts and time
lines ensures that it occurs on a continuous basis. For example,
strategic plans can help structure institutional assessment.
Lackawanna’s includes facilities, and Middle States looks carefully at
how those are assessed, Murray said.
Officials at Lackawanna review progress toward their
three-year plan on a quarterly and yearly basis. Administrators use it
to evaluate space needs, classroom technology and athletics. Officials
can review assessment results from academic and nonacademic areas to
determine the best ways to balance spending among the areas, Murray
At Lackawanna, departmental plans link with and support
the institutional plan. “Assessment is embedded into each departmental
plan, and the implementation of each departmental objective or strategy
is measured,” Murray said.
Since the plans were implemented in 2011, 68 percent of
all the strategies and objectives identified in departmental plans were
achieved, 4 percent were not yet achieved due to budget constraints, and
28 percent were not yet achieved for reasons unrelated to the budget
but are in process, Murray said.
In June, the entire community was invited to a two-day summit to review departmental plans and discuss progress to date.
Hofstra’s five-year plan helps officials set priorities.
During the recession, they couldn’t do everything in the plan, but
regular assessment provided them with a format for determining
At UF, the plan also helps set priorities with aging
facilities. Since a significant amount of maintenance is deferred,
sometimes Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations
determine what will be done, Lavelli said.
Complete loop for continual improvement
Assessment for its own sake is a waste of time. But the
real goal is to use what you learn to make improvements. For example,
assessing the general education curriculum at Hofstra convinced faculty
members that it did not include enough focus on oral communications
skills, Berliner said. They made changes to gen ed, plus each major
added a course that included a significant oral communications
Also, the Psychology Department administered a
standardized test to majors to identify areas they knew well and those
they did not. Then they revised the curriculum to address the
Assessment results are also useful for advocating for resources such as new faculty lines, Lavelli said.
At the Texas Tech University School of Law, officials
administer standardized tests such as the Law School Survey of Student
Engagement to benchmark students’ experiences against those of peers at
other law schools, said Dean Darby Dickerson.
Programs to address problems are offered in ways that
appeal to law students. For example, a program about drinking might
focus on how students can represent their future clients, but it could
also cover how an attorney’s conduct could put his licensing at risk.
Good data is essential
Ensuring data integrity in the accreditation process is a
challenge, Murray said. Lackawanna is a small college, so officials
have the luxury of mining data in different ways to compare the results
Also, multiple individuals work with the data so that checks on its validity can be made on a continual basis.
At Hofstra, the institutional research vice president
checks data integrity, Berliner said. The two people who have held that
position have been an accounting professor and a math professor who
understood data well. Both prepared templates for faculty members to
input data so that the professors could enter it in a consistent format.
For law schools, institutions altering data reported to groups such as U.S. News & World Report has been a big problem and has resulted in poor press for several major schools, Dickerson said.
Plus, law schools must report career and salary data for
graduates. At Texas Tech, officials start with forms completed by
students. They review the results carefully to make sure they are
accurate before releasing a report.
Want to think about context?
To think about how the trend toward increasing
assessment ties into other developments, Lucinda Lavelli, dean of the
School of Fine Arts at the University of Florida, recommends Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott.
The Bottom Line …
To ensure effective assessment, make sure your institution implements these strategies:
- Engage stakeholders. Faculty will be more enthusiastic if
they are driving the process. And widespread involvement makes it
possible to complete the large amount of work required.
- Ensure data integrity. The results you get when you analyze data are only as good as the data you start with.
- Organize your process. Assessment efforts need to be completed on a time line.
- Use results for improvement. There’s no point to assessment if the findings aren’t put to work.