Guided by Your Mission
From the May 2002 AAHE Bulletin
Decades ago as students at the Juilliard School,
“listen to the music” was a refrain as familiar as the countless hours we
spent practicing the piano. It inspired and pushed us to go beyond the
boundaries of technique and memorization into the deeper regions of musicianship
and musical understanding. Having retreated to the conventions of the academy
from those of a performing musician, I find that parallels between the two
experiences often emerge.
For example, just as in a musical performance
where instrumental agility can give the appearance of musical understanding, so,
too, can the massive collection of data on finances, governance, curriculum,
faculty, student services, library, technology, and so on give an impression of
institutional knowledge and depth in accreditation self-studies.
While we hope to hear in a performance the
connection between technique and musical understanding, in a self-study we hope
to find a connection between institutional data and the inspiration manifest in
the mission. The following are examples of obstacles that institutions must
overcome to make that connection.
Lack of Connection to the Mission
Case 1: A private college claims that it
prepares students for the world of work in the 21st century. How is the claim
reflected in the educational and learning dimensions of the mission? How is the
claim characterized and expressed by different campus constituencies to an
external audience, including members of an evaluation team? In short, how does
the mission connect intentionally to what an institution reports on what it
Case 2: A large public university has
adjusted to the influx of adult students into classrooms that were traditionally
filled with students between the ages of 18 and 22. How is the outreach to the
“new” students and their educational needs reflected in the educational
mission? How has the mission been transmitted to the “new” population?
Failure to Make Understood Why the Institution
Does What It Does
Case 3: A traditional liberal arts
institution has modified its curriculum to accommodate the influence of the
professions. The curricular changes are clearly described in the self-study. At
the same time, little insight is provided about the institutional processes that
have accompanied and resulted from the curricular transition. For example, how
does the curriculum reflect an institution’s thinking about itself, its
students, as well as the educational and pedagogical challenges that accompany
Case 4: A community college has adapted
some of its degree offerings in its curriculum to electronic format and
delivery. The self-study describes the changes but provides little reflection on
the institutional processes behind the pedagogical decisions to integrate
technology, or any evaluation of the impact of technology on the curriculum.
Lack of Follow-Through
Case 5: A research university claims that
its students learn and are successful upon graduation. Outside of course
evaluations and perhaps alumni surveys, the institution submits a set of
assessment activities as information about student learning. Even with a
plethora of activities, little information emerges about how the institution has
ascertained whether or not the activities produce clear evidence of an
institution’s understanding of how its students learn.
What qualities of student work ought to be
compiled? Should work be collected in a portfolio and analyzed from entrance to
graduation, or should it be evaluated through performance and fine arts juries?
What has the institution learned from year to year about how and what its
students have learned?
Case 6: A small religious college offers
data to support how and what students learn in a particular major. Sections of
the self-study describe how the faculty assesses student progress in a major,
including application to graduate and professional schools. Yet, in the sections
that speak to student learning in general education courses, there is little
faculty avowal about student learning in that area. How does the institution
validate student learning and academic progress for work completed at the degree
level achieved? How does the institution engage faculty responsibility for
connecting learning to a student’s major course of study?
Be Upfront About What the Report Does Not Say
Instead, simple explanations as to why particular
institutional plans have not yet been met or, in some cases, including a list of
realistic expectations with relevant time and budget lines are some responses
that better serve the institution. Similarly, while institutional stories about
student success can be both inspirational and meaningful, the anecdotal evidence
would carry more weight if it was accompanied by evidence and data.
From a vantage point built upon a variety of past
experiences in institutions different in size and mission, I observe that the
smaller, private institutions have tended to produce self-studies that have been
more reflective of institutional mission. These institutions also appear to know
why they do what they do and for whom. Even in a financially challenged
institution there is the impression that a student’s academic performance and
persistence to graduation serve as the single institutional focus. It is as if
the very act of sustaining viability has ignited for the educational community a
unique and palpable sense of institutional mission and, as a result, creates
environments that engage student learning.
Paradoxically, the issue of student learning
within the more financially stable institutions appears not to attract the same
kind of intensity or attention as in the previous group. It may be partly
because of size, and partly because of the different funding and contractual
issues that challenge many public institutions, that attention to student
learning across the undergraduate years does not appear to claim the focus it
deserves. Regardless, it remains clear when evidence about the way students
learn and progress manifests itself and reflects on the institutional mission,
there is “music” in the self-study.
Lily Owyang is a staff associate for the Western
Association of Schools and Colleges. She has served in a variety of roles and
positions in private and public institutions during her 30-year career in higher
education, including faculty member, dean, acting vice president for academic
affairs, and accrediting teams evaluator. Contact her at email@example.com.
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