Improving Student Learning Through Assessment & Accreditation

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Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on October 02, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

At the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith (UAFS), small class sizes and applied learning opportunities support the student-centered education offered at this public institution to more than 6,600 students each semester. Located in Fort Smith, the second-largest city in Arkansas, UAFS has had a formal process of assessing student learning outcomes for more than 25 years and is constantly looking for ways to improve it. In 2016, UAFS started experimenting with Blackboard Outcomes Assessment, a solution that supports and facilitates institutional processes related to assessment and accreditation.

“Assessment is just a way for an educator to document that student learning has occurred. Good teachers and professors are already documenting learning and using the results to improve the learning process,” says Rebecca Timmonsdirector of Academic Assessment and Accountability and co-chair of the Committee for Assessment of Learning Outcomes (CALO), responsible for coordinating assessment activities on campus.

At UAFS, student learning outcomes assessment is faculty-led and occurs at three levels: course, program, and university. Timmons explains that the course-level assessment for student learning outcomes are set by the individual faculty, or faculty departments, and are tied to the course competencies agreed to by the department.

“Every academic program specifies university learning outcomes and program learning outcomes that are measured to determine ways in which to improve student learning. These findings are used for curriculum improvement, planning, resource allocation, and to determine if students have learned the material,” explains Timmons.

According to the director, although UAFS has had a formalized assessment process since the early 1990s, they are now beginning their third five-year cycle of assessment, in which faculty analyze the results of the assessments and determine what needs to be changed or implemented to achieve the desired results for both program and university learning outcomes.

University of Arkansas – Fort Smith
·       7,000 students enrolled
·       18-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio
·       Offers 60 bachelor and associate degrees, 35 certificate programs, and a master’s program

Applying Blackboard Outcomes Assessment

In the fall of 2016, during a Blackboard Outcomes Assessment workshop, UAFS learned how to use the solution to configure their university, program, and course learning outcomes and assessments.

“We discussed how to set up the goals and rubrics, identify artifacts, how to score rubrics in the outcomes experience, and apply the analysis and reporting feature. Since that workshop, we have experimented using Blackboard Outcomes Assessment at all three levels,” says Timmons.

As UAFS is always looking for ways to improve student learning, using Blackboard Outcomes Assessment was an opportunity to see if the solution, which seamlessly integrates into Blackboard Learn, fit into the institution’s culture and provided faculty with the results they sought after.

Ethical Decision-Making Pilot Project

In the Fall 2017 semester, UAFS started a pilot project to assess one of the university’s learning outcomes — ethical decision-making, Objective 1: Students will identify ethical dilemmas and affected parties – using the Blackboard Outcomes Assessment feature. Three professors volunteered to participate in the pilot for the 2017-18 academic year.

“We met and discussed the assignments each one would use for the pilot, the process for assessing them using Blackboard, and the timeline for the project. The faculty then used the ethical decision-making rubric to assess the artifacts collected in the fall semester. In the spring semester, we met to discuss the results provided by Blackboard in the report overview, the findings, and what needed to happen to improve student learning in ethical decision making, as well as the assessment process,” shares Timmons.

The pilot project will be ongoing, meant for faculty to apply these ideas and suggestions to the 2018-19 academic year and then assess again using the ethical decision-making rubric.

Regional accreditation will become more important as we advance through the 21stcentury. Accreditation takes into account not only student learning, but also the financial healthiness of an institution, as well as the integrity of its practices and processes. Standards are constantly being tweaked, and more and more, higher education institutions are being held accountable. As higher education becomes more under fire, institutions will be held accountable for student learning.” – Rebecca Timmons, Director of Academic Assessment and Accountability at University of Arkansas – Fort Smith

Results & Benefits

Although the university does not intend to use Blackboard Outcomes Assessment as a standalone universal assessment solution —another digital tool is currently used as a repository of faculty narratives and reflection on the assessment results — Timmons believes there are benefits of using an assessment solution pulling directly from the digital learning environment.

The main advantage is that everyone on campus is using the same system, which makes for a standardized access to the process, location of the artifacts, and results storage. “The data can be archived and accessed at a later date. No one has to look for information stored on shared drives or in folders,” says Timmons. The results are also standardized, so faculty know what they will be able to retrieve and analyze upon the completion.

An additional benefit is that, once faculty are trained in using the digital environment assessment process, they don’t have to be retrained. “Sometimes assessment lingo can become confusing. When everyone understands the Blackboard Outcomes Assessment process and terminology, it reduces confusion,” says Timmons.

Regionally accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, UAFS is an Open Pathway institution. Timmons explains that the Open Pathway is a 10-year cycle with reviews conducted in the years 4 and 10 with a focus on quality assurance and institutional improvement.

For the accreditation conducted in the years 4 and 10, assurance arguments are written and submitted — a process that involves campus staff, faculty, and administration in reviewing each of the five criteria and their subcomponents to determine how they meet the standards and providing supporting evidence.

“Student learning is central to educational and organizational quality. Accreditation focuses on the institution’s commitment to knowing what students are learning, improving the teaching process, and supporting these efforts through the integrity of the institution and financial support,” Timmons explains.

Best Practices in Assessment & Accreditation

Diverse Assessment Practices: UAFS allows for flexibility in assessment and works with faculty and programs to document what they are already doing and build on that knowledge. “Although the UAFS assessment reports are standardized, the individualized assessment practices are not,” says Timmons.

Teaching and Learning Improvement: At the beginning of the five-year assessment cycle, faculty determine their program learning outcomes (PLOs), which are displayed on each program’s website. The PLOs assessments are then created to support these outcomes. Throughout the five-year cycle, students are taught, assessments are conducted, results are collected, and analyses are performed. Teaching methods and document collections are also modified. “The conversations we have about student learning are probably the single most important factor in improving learning. Reports are written that support these conversations. This is all documented and keyed into a template that faculty can refer to,” affirms Timmons.