Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

University to assess student learning outcomes

With academic accreditation just three years away, the University of Denver is taking an introspective look beyond accreditation requirements to determine what students need to learn, assess how well they are learning and find ways to improve that learning.

“As a university, we need to do this for us,” says Provost Gregg Kvistad. “All of us want to know if the learning that we think is taking place actually is taking place.”

In 2010–11, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association will send a peer review team to DU to provide objective evaluations and recommendations before issuing accreditation. Based on DU’s self study and the results of this comprehensive visit, the commission’s board will approve or deny accreditation.

Accreditation, which happens every 10 years, certifies institutional quality and gives the University an opportunity for self improvement.

“This is our opportunity to reflect on what we do for our students and what we should do,” says Janette Benson, director of the newly created Office of Academic Assessment.

The University has approached this opportunity from several fronts, according to those leading the effort. DU has developed Undergraduate Student Learning Outcomes to codify learning expectations; created an Office of Academic Assessment to focus on student learning; formed a faculty Committee on Learning Assessment to assist academic units; and established a core group of leaders charged with pulling together program reviews for accreditation.

DU’s Undergraduate Council approved the University’s Undergraduate Student Learning Outcomes — statements of what students are expected to know and be able to do by the time they graduate — in May 2007. Those broad outcomes tie into the University’s mission and provide a starting point for individual units to define program-specific learning goals. They include statements on quantitative reasoning, communication, community engagement and more.

Student assessment against these learning outcomes is just one of the criteria each academic unit will describe as part of its self study. Units also must explain how they meet other accreditation criteria set by HLC, including adherence to the University’s mission, preparation for the future, effectiveness of student learning, demonstrated scholarship and community engagement efforts.

Each year, about a third of DU’s academic units will complete their self studies. The Committee on Learning Assessment and the Office of Academic Assessment were set up to support the units by sharing information and new approaches to assessing students and programs. Each member of the committee has been assigned a unit to consult, according to the School of Engineering’s Ron DeLyser, who co-chairs the faculty group.

DeLyser, who has participated in a smaller accreditation process for engineering schools, says such assessments should be imbedded in teaching. It’s important, he says, for academic leaders to continually evaluate student learning against outcomes to improve programs.

“As long as you are required to do this for accreditation, why not make it meaningful?” says DeLyser.

Once all the units have completed their self studies, a group led by Jim Moran, vice provost for graduate studies and research, and Jennifer Karas, assistant provost for academic programs, will roll them into an instructional self-study document which will be presented to the HLC review team.

Moran says it is important for each unit to look at its degree programs and make sure they are still relevant in today’s educational marketplace. Some will be strong in community engagement, he says, while others may focus more on pure research. But all should serve student learning, he says, and together, serve DU’s mission of being a great private University dedicated to the public good.

“Accreditation is about maintaining quality programs,” says Moran. “It’s hard work, but we ought to be doing it anyway.”

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