An overview of CU-Boulder assessment activities
For NCA self study LMcC, PBA, April 15, 1999

Background
  • Assessment in general. See listing of activities: http://www.colorado.edu/pba/qis/current/cc8.htm written for the CU-Boulder submission to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) quality indicator system. This document, written in spring 1998, is organized in accord with topics CCHE lists under assessment but includes other topics as well, for a comprehensive overview. Topics discussed include activities in and use of information on or from
    • Undergraduate and graduate student learning
    • Student persistence and completion of educational objectives
    • Placement rates and after-graduation performance
    • Student satisfaction
    • College, school, and department committees
    • Academic program review
    • Accreditation reviews
  • The CCHE quality indicator system is itself another form of assessment. The commission specifies 10 "indicators" that all institutions report on; assessment and accountability is one of these, along with graduation rates, alumni satisfaction, and others. Institutions may also add their own indicators, and CU-Boulder's submission provides extensive information on indicators the campus has judged as important. See http://www.colorado.edu/pba/qis for the entire CU-Boulder submission.
  • For more extensive information on CU-Boulder's undergraduate outcomes assessment process and results, see http://www.colorado.edu/outcomes.

Analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats

Strengths
  • Significant activity and scrutiny at multiple levels: Course, department/major, college, campus, and state/public
  • A long-standing, well-established system of academic program review (PRP, program review panel), which has survived several personnel changes
  • Long time series of student survey responses and retention and graduation rates available for analyses relative to student characteristics and to University actions
  • Detailed goal statements for undergraduates in individual majors, published since the early '90's in the catalog and in departmental materials
  • Departmental assessments of achievements in the major using many different methods, some exemplary, and consequent changes in undergraduate programs made by some departments. Full departmental "ownership" of goal-setting, methods of assessment, and assessment use.
  • A web site on undergraduate learning outcomes assessment reporting activities by individual units; the site has been important in earning CU-Boulder a national reputation for undergraduate outcomes assessment

Weaknesses
  • Compartmentalization: Many on and off campus see departmental activities reported as "outcomes assessment," department and college curriculum or grad/undergraduate education committees, retention studies, student and alumni surveys, and PRP as completely independent. The "big picture" is difficult to see from faculty, student, and administrative levels. In addition, activities that could fit under 'assessment' are sometimes not reported as such because they are labeled differently. We suspect that accreditation activities in engineering (for ABET 2000) and business are examples.
  • Administrative structure: PRP and curriculum committees have well-established administrative rules and changing personnel, and graduate-student assessments are coordinated by a committee of the graduate school. In contrast, no formal campus-wide oversight committees for assessment of courses, assessment in undergraduate majors or general education, or for guiding survey use and design, have existed for years. In addition, no college-wide committee in Arts and Sciences examines or even receives undergraduate assessment reports from all A&S departments. The retention subcommittee of the now-defunct enrollment management team did lead retention studies through late 1997.
    • Note that PRP procedures direct department self-studies to examine their assessment processes, results, and uses. If this part of PRP were taken more seriously by the review panel departments would more likely link their various assessment activities and make explicit use of results.
  • An unfortunate reporting cycle: In 1997 the cycle for department reports on undergraduate assessment efforts was changed from one to two years, with the expectation that each department would engage in assessment (but not reporting) in both years of the cycle. This may have saved departments some time spent in pro-forma reporting, but has caused wide-spread confusion and difficulties in continuity, tracking, funding, and reporting.
  • Uneven results: Commitment to, use of, and creativity in implementing assessments of student learning and satisfaction vary enormously across departments, schools, and colleges. These are especially weak in general education areas not the responsibility of one department, such as critical thinking.
  • A lack of campuswide stated educational goals for undergraduates. The Arts and Sciences core curriculum requirement listing is the closest thing available to a published statement on campus goals.
  • Dependence on external requirements for motivation
    • CU-Boulder's undergraduate assessment program started in 1988-89 in response to a state requirement. The program plan states that the goal is assessments useful for faculty in individual units as they consider changes in curriculum, teaching, and course design. Nevertheless, many departments saw their primary purpose as reporting to CCHE (Colorado Commission on Higher Education, the state coordinating board). With new legislation, CCHE now requires only that the campus document the "existence and operation of a formal, comprehensive, and effective institutional assessment and accountability program" -- not report on individual departments. Conversations with departments now often begin "now that we don't have that legislative requirement any more . . . ."
    • The graduate school survey was initiated in 1997 in direct response to comments from North Central Association (NCA, our accrediting agency). While graduate school officials are interested in and may take action based on some survey results, they often say that the results are "for NCA."
    • This dependence leads to a focus on reporting instead of use. As an example, one department surveyed its graduating seniors, produced frequencies of all items, and sent that listing as its report, with no evidence that anyone in the department had attempted any interpretation or use.
    • A change in the campus-wide undergraduate assessment coordinator in early 1998 led to a natural experiment in which departments were not prompted, nagged, or even reminded about reporting requirements after May 1998. 16 of 24 departments with reports due by 9/15/98 had not reported by the end of February 1999.; some of these have done so now, after a reminder.

Opportunities and threats (all items listed are both!)
  • Increasing external pressures for assessment and accountability from accrediting agencies, the public, and the state. Opportunity: External pressure may mean more activity. Threat: Resistance or compliance that is simply pro forma.
  • Frequent changes in state directions and directives. We have seen major changes over the last ten years; with a new CCHE executive director and new governor these could well accelerate. Opportunity: To move to more meaningful indicators of learning and success. Threat: Make-work activity to meet ever-changing rules.
  • A move to use department, school, and college performance indicators in determining internal budget allocations. These might include the fact of doing or using student-learning assessments, and student satisfaction measures. Opportunity: To provide meaningful incentives and rewards for departments to engage in true assessment, to make use of results, and to focus on program-level activities (vs. course level). Could also help align University and faculty/department goals for academic programs. Threat: Meaningless activities designed simply to fill slots in tables of measures. Could also lead to the next item.
  • Pressures to use assessment measures that are easy to collect and quantify, and are comparable across departments or institutions. Opportunity: More "user-friendly" information. Threat: Less meaningful measures.
  • Increasing availability of information from peer institutions about activities and outcomes at a department level. Opportunity: Ability to measure departments vs. similar departments elsewhere. Threat: Overwhelming amounts of information, with "peer groups" tailored to make every CU-Boulder department look good.