Assessment Notes

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October 13, 2009

Assessment of Business Education at a Liberal Arts College

Vicki L. Baker, Albion College
Marie Kendall Brown, University of Louisville

In 2002, AAC&U’s Greater Expectations: The Commitment to Quality as a Nation Goes to College (2002) identified a number of key challenges faced by American higher education, including a stricter regulatory environment, shifting enrollment patterns, and changing student demographics. More recently, AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) report, College Learning for the New Global Century (2008), noted a critical disjuncture between longstanding postsecondary curricula and the knowledge, skills, and abilities that today’s graduates need to be successful in a global economy (p. 2).

Compounding this complex higher education landscape is the very real ideological tension between the advocates of a traditional liberal arts education and those in practical, skills-oriented fields such as business, nursing, and social work. Liberal arts colleges provide a particularly vibrant venue for this debate. As Stark and Lowther noted in Strengthening the Ties that Bind (1988), a complicated paradigmatic challenge is presented when institutions, administrators, and faculty consider “how to integrate liberal and professional study [by] effectively building upon the best that each has to offer” (p. 16). We have observed this paradigmatic tension firsthand and, in this issue of Assessment Notes, we describe how faculty in one vocationally oriented program situated in one liberal arts college negotiated the assessment process. We hope that sharing our experience and recommendations will assist practitioners—especially teaching faculty and staff—by providing practical advice about how to use assessment formatively in their work.

We believe that reframing the liberal arts and vocational debate to acknowledge the similar goals that both traditions espouse invites productive conversation. Traditional liberal arts curricula and practice-based disciplines both seek to develop students’ effective reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. Further, both perspectives seek to develop graduates who will be responsible and ethical citizens who demonstrate leadership skills, utilize critical thinking, and who have a lifelong inclination to inquire. Since the means that each approach uses in achieving these outcomes differs, uncertainty and resistance among vocationally oriented faculty situated in liberal arts institutions and among faculty in traditional liberal arts disciplines can be a very real challenge. As the following case study illustrates, it is possible to develop learning outcomes that remain true to a liberal arts core while incorporating the skills, knowledge, and abilities required of today’s graduates.

The Case Study of Albion College

Private institutions, specifically liberal arts colleges, are now subject to the same level of accountability and scrutiny that K-12 education and other public institutions have been contending with for the past several decades. Parents want to know what their sons and daughters are learning in college, and their expectations for return on investment are high. Similarly, employers want to know that the graduates they hire are prepared for the job they have today, and for the jobs they will have in the future. In the case of Albion College, these demands for accountability are heightened by the reality of an upcoming accreditation visit. During the spring of 2009, all departments, institutes, majors, and programs at Albion College were charged by the provost, Susan Conner, with developing an assessment process aimed at continuous quality improvement. Fortunately, there is a general consensus among faculty and staff on campus that repositioning assessment within the fabric of the institution “is the right thing to do.” As with any new initiative, however, there is a fear of the unknown, a fear of change, and the need for strong leadership.

One of the authors, Vicki Baker, is a faculty member in Albion’s Economics and Management (E&M) department and major, a discipline that is rooted in the liberal arts tradition (students are required to take courses in economics, mathematics, and statistics). At the same time, departmental faculty are cognizant of the demands of the “business world” and of the need to balance these with student demands and interests. The challenge of assessment, at least for the E&M department, was developing learning outcomes that were both in line with Albion’s liberal arts mission and sensitive to preparing students for the career challenges they will face while conducting business in an increasingly global society. In addition, as a faculty, E&M wants our students to be competitive and appealing to potential employers and to the graduate and professional programs that recruit them. We (E&M) soon discovered that these two paradigms—the traditional liberal arts core and vocationally oriented skills—were not as divergent as we had previously thought.

Developing a departmental assessment plan was a multiple-step process. We first reviewed and revised our mission statement and relied on Strategic Management 101 to create a new one. We asked ourselves, (1) Who is our “customer,” (2) What are their needs, and (3) How will we serve them? In response, we developed the following departmental mission statement:

The mission of Albion’s Economics and Management Department is to provide an excellent undergraduate education that helps students develop the technical, analytical, and problem-solving skills needed to be successful in business and other endeavors. As a department, we are committed to teaching economics and management in the context of a broad liberal arts education, and we strongly believe that individuals who aspire to pursue business careers or graduate school will be better prepared because of the content knowledge they gain throughout our program.

We next developed a series of learning outcomes. To inform our work, we reviewed the learning outcomes of the College (to ensure that our learning outcomes were in line with those of the institution), and we developed our own departmental outcomes. We developed the new E&M outcomes prior to reviewing our existing courses, pedagogies, and other program experiences because we did not want to focus too much on our areas of strength. We aspired to a ground-up approach to developing an assessment plan, one that took into consideration ideas beyond “the way it’s always been done,” because those methods are not always the most effective or appropriate. We also referenced recent reports from sources such as Business Week and the Wall Street Journal to gather information about the skills that today’s employers are looking for in new graduates, particularly students entering business professions. Finally, we relied on feedback from current employers that recruited our students. For example, employers told us that our students’ technical skills allowed them to take on a great deal of responsibility early in their employment and to be quick learners on the job. Employers also told us that our students needed further skill development in communication (e.g., making effective presentations) and in the ability to work in and manage teams. Based on these two comments, we developed the following learning outcomes: (1) ability to effectively communicate (in writing and orally) one’s ideas, observations, analyses, conclusions, and recommendations to others in a variety of professional and personal contexts; and (2) ability to be team players, as demonstrated by the ability to form, build, and/or participate in effective problem-solving teams, while exercising leadership and interpersonal skills. Such outcomes are consistent with a traditional liberal arts college education since they emphasize critical thinking skills, effective communication, and appreciation for diverse ideas. At the same time, these skills are highly desirable to employers in a range of fields, not just business. [Refer to the Economics and Management home page for a list of all our learning outcomes]

After developing our learning outcomes, each faculty member reviewed his/her courses to determine which experiences supported the agreed-upon learning outcomes. More specifically, faculty were asked to identify core or required courses within the department that met or supported the learning outcomes, to note elective courses and associated activities within the department that met or supported the learning outcomes, and to indicate other experiences associated with the department (such as directed studies, internships, competitions, etc.) that met and supported the learning outcomes. We purposely emphasize “within department” in this essay because while students may be achieving these outcomes in other courses or experiences across Albion’s campus, departmental assessment implies just that: within the department. If members of a department believe that certain outcomes are important, it is up to that department (and the members of the department) to ensure that the necessary experiences, courses, activities, and curriculum are achieving those learning outcomes for their graduates. Breaking this step into three parts allowed us to examine how effective our required courses were (since those courses are common among our students), as compared to elective courses and students’ other experiences. This step was critical to the process because it shed light on where there were deficiencies in our existing curriculum without requiring us to collect data in the traditional sense. We listed each outcome and included the associated information such as course sequence (required course, elective course, outside class experiences) followed by course examples. The template below was used (and we provide an example to illustrate):

We then asked ourselves: What kinds of data do we want to collect to determine if we are achieving our learning outcomes? We felt that our graduating seniors would be a good first place to start and we created a graduating senior survey. The survey included demographic information, required course assessment (technical skills and abilities, professional skills, overall experience), elective course assessment that mirrored the required course assessment, overall satisfaction, and open-ended questions (if you are interested in a copy of the survey, please contact Vicki Baker – We also conducted a focus group with a group of alumni and employers. This approach allowed us to assess if our current curriculum was sufficient in preparing graduates for current and future work demands. We are working to compile a summary with the goal of identifying common themes. Doing so allows us to identify our most immediate course of action for the upcoming academic year. These summaries will also help us prioritize action items for the years ahead for an ongoing assessment plan of continuous quality improvement.

The process described here has not been an easy one. As one would expect, we as faculty still struggle with identifying programmatic learning outcomes based upon our mission statement, and it is still a challenge to identify those key experiences in our courses that support those outcomes. Further, while we agree in principle that program and curriculum changes are needed, changes of this magnitude do not happen overnight. However, we are committed as a College and as a department to shepherd this evolving process through.

Strategies and Recommendations

Based upon the case study described here, we offer a series of strategies and recommendations for other faculty members and staff who are beginning similar assessment initiatives. From a college-level perspective, the most important component of the assessment process is securing executive-level support and faculty buy-in. Since faculty are responsible for teaching, training, and developing the next generation of graduates, they are inextricably linked to the success of assessment efforts. During economic times such as these, stipends or bonuses may be difficult to offer, however, colleges should be creative in offering incentives to secure faculty buy-in, and to show support and appreciation for those faculty who are fully engaged in departmental or college-wide assessment efforts. Accordingly, we suggest offering faculty incentives, such as flextime for course redesign or counting work on departmental assessment towards faculty service requirements.

Next, individual institutions should create a college-wide assessment committee that is responsible for reviewing departmental and programmatic assessment plans. Committee members should serve as within college “consultants” to provide support to individual departments. At Albion, for example, we have such a committee and the members of the committee developed an online assessment template that mirrors the example provided above (including the steps outlined in this essay). The template lists each step followed by an open-ended “bucket” where faculty and staff can input their specific departmental or program details related to that step. Once each step is completed, the entire document can be saved, printed, and submitted directly to the assessment committee. Creating this template not only provided a step-by-step guide for departments, but also streamlined the process, which helps assessment committee members be as productive and efficient as possible in reviewing assessment plans.

We further suggest that colleges and departments seek funding from within and outside the college to support assessment efforts. For example, sources within the college may include the faculty development office, academic affairs, or campus centers for teaching and learning, if present. This may mean that an institution will need to redefine the funding criteria, but grants from these sources could support and supplement departmental efforts. College development offices could work to identify external grants that are geared specifically towards assessment efforts and post-program changes based on data obtained through assessment. Once funding has been secured and departmental changes have been made, we recommend that college-wide brown bags or lecture series be implemented with the goal of informing the larger college campus of these opportunities. For example, Albion College allotted time on the faculty meeting schedule to discuss assessment this past spring semester. Albion also has an internal publication, The Deanery, which informs the campus of such programs and initiatives. Outlets and publications such as these can be used to overcome misperceptions about assessment, to combat uncertainty, or even simply to initiate conversation about best assessment practices. What works in E&M may not work in biology and vice versa; however, creating opportunities such as these opens the lines of communication and keeps the assessment process transparent and visible to the campus community.

An important focus of many colleges and universities is alumni and employer involvement, and college assessment efforts can be used to engage alumni and employers at both college and departmental levels. Alumni are a great source of data: how have their educational and cocurricular experiences prepared them for employment and graduate level experiences? Employers, too, are a great source of data since they can provide insight into their current needs and the skill sets they are looking for in new hires. Using these sources of data to inform assessment efforts and program and curricular changes allows departments to solidify and strengthen partnerships with these important stakeholders.

We acknowledge that conducting assessment successfully involves a significant amount of time and effort. In these economic times, especially, colleges and universities have to do more with less, and employers want recent graduates to have more real-world experience. For this reason, upperclassmen should be involved in an institution’s assessment work. At E&M, we hired a student intern to help organize and analyze the assessment data we have collected thus far. The student will assist us in identifying common themes across the data sources. Compiling this information into an assessment report and presenting the findings and key recommendations to department faculty and to the provost offers an excellent opportunity for developing research and communication skills (learning outcomes that are a part of the revised E&M curricula). And using readily available student talent provides much needed support to departments and faculty who are working on assessment. Our plan is to meet in the fall (as per the timeline of the College) to talk next steps. As of right now, our student intern is scheduled to present the findings to both the provost—before the fall semester begins—and to our department, sometime during the first three weeks of the semester. After that, we will discuss next steps and courses of action based on the findings.

Concluding Thoughts

In this essay, we described one example of assessment that accounts for the realities of the liberal arts college landscape, particularly the struggle to integrate traditional liberal arts goals with vocationally oriented training. In organizing the efforts at Albion, we relied on assessment sources and experts such as the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State University and assessment workshops hosted by accreditation agencies to craft an assessment program that works for us. We hope this essay also serves as a resource for others in the field. We close with some final thoughts. First, in order for any assessment effort to be successful, it needs a champion for assessment. Ideally, this champion should be an upper-level executive or respected senior-level faculty member who understands the process and its importance. At Albion, both Donna Randall (president) and Susan Conner (provost) have been instrumental in heightening awareness and the need for assessment. However, one person alone cannot conduct an institution’s assessment efforts. We therefore strongly encourage the formation of an assessment committee to offer guidance and accountability. As part of that accountability, an assessment schedule must be developed. Otherwise, assessment is an activity that is all too often put on the back burner. And finally, we encourage practitioners to be creative about undertaking and funding assessment efforts. During times such as these when resources are scarce, the use of priorities when deciding on resource allocation becomes vitally important. Assessment initiatives should be one of those priorities given the connection to accountability—a current and critical demand of higher education stakeholders.