Likening American academia to a rusty automobile industry, government professor Mark Rom argued that University Provost James O’Donnell’s call for an academic review gives Georgetown a chance to improve by taking stock of its past highs and lows.
As Georgetown prepares for its 10-year reaccreditation procedure, the Office of the Provost is offering monetary support to departments willing to assist the university in conducting a self-assessment.
Every 10 years, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education — an organization that accredits schools in the Middle States region — mandates a self-study review that examines the university’s accomplishments across a number of areas. Student learning, institutional operations, general education and planning and resource allocation all fall under the MSC’s purview. In order to gain accreditation from the organization — which is necessary for the University’s operation — Georgetown has to demonstrate that it is maintaining the standards imposed by the MSC.
To encourage departments to take part in the extensive self-study, the Office of the Provost recently sent a memorandum to all of the departments and academic programs offering grants of up to $8,000 to support program-level assessments. Departments will use the funds to finance projects that analyze and apply information regarding student learning.
Randall Bass, English professor and faculty co-chair of the accreditation review team, said that including academic departments, rather than just the administration, is an important component of the self-evaluation, particularly when it comes to gauging student learning.
“We believe that the first principle of student learning is that it should be a concern of all programs and departments, and it shouldn’t come from the top down,” Bass said.
A number of academic departments already have systems in place to measure student learning.
For over 20 years, the department of biology has asked graduating seniors to take a test to measure learning that may not appear on the GRE. The department’s test includes questions that measure the seniors’ analytical skills and knowledge. The science, technology and international affairs major encourages students to maintain electronic portfolios where they can write how different elements of their undergraduate education have helped them obtain the goals of their major. Other departments are looking into implementing similar programs.
While the grants offered by the provost may be applied to programs that are already in place, the Georgetown accreditation review team hopes that departments will also take advantage of the offer by proposing new internal assessment programs.
Rom plans to submit a proposal that will evaluate the four introductory courses in the department by issuing student-assessment surveys at the beginning and end of the semester, instead of only at the completion of the course. Rom also wants to examine the syllabuses of different courses across the department and look for ways they relate to one another in order to improve the inter-class learning experience within the department.
The provost’s initiative comes following the release of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” a book that argues students are failing to improve in areas such as writing and critical thinking. Citing statistics from the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the book states that 36 percent of students do not demonstrate significant improvement in learning during their entire undergraduate career.
Bass said that the CLA is not an appropriate tool to measure all levels of student learning, but he still believes that universities should work more to improve students’ writing and critical thinking skills.
Rom said that a reevaluation of teaching methods may also be in order.
“I think that in some ways American universities are like American car companies in the 1970s,” Rom said. “We’ve always been No. 1, we think we make a great product, and we get kind of, not lazy, but we have the idea that what we’ve done in the past is good enough, and we ought to keep doing that.”
In order to actively battle complacency, reinvention is key according to Rom.
“I think universities, including Georgetown, need to really focus on how we can improve what we’re doing.”