One of Washington State University’s four primary goals, according to its strategic plan, is to “offer the best undergraduate experience in a research university.”
Nice words, but how do you do it?
For more than 10 years, many faculty and administrators have discussed the need for an office focusing on undergraduate education and a teaching academy, said Doug Baker, vice provost for academic affairs. But for a number of reasons, those concepts never became a reality, leaving WSU as the only university in the Pac-10 without such an office.
That situation ended earlier this month, however, when the Budget Council allocated $145,000 annually from WSU’s already tight operating budget to take decisive action on the issue:
• $80,000 for the establishment of an Office of Undergraduate Education
• $65,000 to create a Teaching Academy.
The Budget Council also provided $200,000 in funding to continue the Teaching and Learning Improvement Initiative, which began last spring. Baker said an additional $100,000 in 2004 will be funded from the Samuel H. and Patricia W. Smith Teaching and Learning Endowment to bring funding for the program up to last year’s level. In 2003, the university awarded $300,000 to support 14 grant proposals. For information on submitting proposals see http://provost.wsu.edu/undergraduate_grants/index.html.
“We could have used a larger budget,” Baker said, “but given the recovering economy and revenue cuts, the recent allocation is probably a realistic start, and we appreciate the support of the Budget Council.
When will it begin?
In January, the Provost’s Office will officially launch the Office of Undergraduate Education, with Baker juggling double duties and titles — the second as director of the OUE.
In its first year, the OUE will tackle two primary goals — creation of a universitywide outcome assessment system, and establishment of the President’s Teaching Academy to enhance teaching, learning, pedagogies and programs. To help with those efforts, a search for an assistant vice provost for assessment will begin soon. That position will be funded from internal reallocations in the budgets from the Provost’s office and the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.
The stars have aligned
One reason the OUE wasn’t formed previously is perennially tight state budgets that have affected WSU for more than a decade. Now, however, there is an accumulation of forces moving the program ahead.
“Figuratively speaking, the stars are aligning,” Baker said. “From internal strategic goals to external regulations — federal and state government requirements, as well as accreditation criteria — all are moving us to take action.
“The genesis of this effort stems from the university’s strategic planning,” said Baker. “The Strategic Planning Undergraduate Design Team argued that we needed to create a center for undergraduate education, and it suggested numerous activities that could be included.”
A second force pushing the project ahead is an expanding movement by state and federal government agencies to establish learning assessment outcomes on all levels. Nationally, this educational movement began in the 1960s under President Lyndon Johnson, and it has been gaining momentum since the 1980s. (See http://www.nagb.org/pubs/95222.pdf)
“The federal government and regional accreditation commissions are putting a lot of pressure on universities to clearly identify learning outcomes for students, measure those outcomes and then make programmatic adjustments. They are taking these processes very seriously and will hold us accountable in the next few years,” Baker said.
“If the university were to lose accreditation, we would lose a considerable amount of federal funding, so it is a big deal.”
Provost Robert Bates agrees. “The increasing national emphasis on assessment of learning and the need to demonstrate accountability to the public for their investment in higher education makes it almost imperative that we formally adopt this strategy at this time.”
Four years and counting
In 2007, WSU will be required to start a universitywide accreditation self study, which immediately launches the Office of Undergraduate Education into a high-speed effort.
“The university’s accreditation commission requires that (within the next three years) learning outcomes be defined for all programs, that those outcomes be measured, and that weaknesses be addressed,” said Bates. “I invite the faculty to call upon the OUE and its constituent areas — the Writing Program, the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, Assessment, the Honors College, General Education, Community Service Learning, and the Student Advising and Learning Center — to help them with those efforts.”
A number of departments that require outside or industry-related accreditation have already tackled this process. Examples include selected programs in engineering, education and business, as well as many professional degrees, Baker said. In addition, the accreditation process is a little easier or at least clear cut for some programs.
For example, in Management Information Systems there is a clear set of skills and knowledge bases that accreditation and certification boards expect students to attain — specific databases, operating systems, software programs and computer languages. And, even though those requirements change every few years, they may be relatively easy to identify, with employers speaking out about what graduates need to know.
Some programs, however, have not tackled the outcome assessment process, and in some cases it’s more difficult.
“This (outcomes assessment) is really an enormous change in higher education,” Baker said. “It requires faculty to come together, identify essential criteria and build a consensus, which is not always easy.
“For example, if you are a faculty member in a liberal arts program that has not been through a professional accreditation process, it may take a good deal of time to identify the knowledge and skills your graduates need. It also may take a good deal of time and debate among faculty members to develop measures of those factors, collect data on them and then make adjustments based on the findings,” Baker said.
To help ease and speed this process, the Office of Undergraduate Education will be available to work with departments to facilitate discussions about learning outcomes and ways they might be measured.
Required, but good change
The outcome assessment process in Washington state’s K-12 system — which is still in its early stages — has created a stir of both criticism and praise among teachers, parents, businesses and students. Consequently, future adjustments are expected in both student testing and teaching approaches.
Baker said he anticipates that in some areas the outcomes assessment process may receive a similar reception at WSU.
“The reality of it is, we’re not going to have the choice,” he said. “External forces (federal, state and accreditation agencies) are going to require us to do it,” he said. “Our challenge will be to make it a useful activity so we do indeed improve teaching and learning.
“Overall, I think it will be a good thing in the long run. It provides us with a process to examine what we are really trying to do as we educate our undergraduates and to collect data to inform us about how we are doing,” Baker said.
How subtly or drastically teaching approaches and programs might be affected will vary depending on each department’s goals, the feedback they receive and their assessment. In some cases, very few changes might be required. Conversely, the process could reveal overlaps or gaps in curricula between professors and the way classes are taught.
For example, Baker said, “critical thinking is a goal or outcome that many professors identify. So, this process may lead to methods that better develop critical thinking skills, like changing from a lecture and multiple-choice test approach to one that emphasizes engaged learning and utilizes such methods as service learning, internships, problem-based learning or undergraduate research.
“Improving our undergraduate education experience will make our students more competitive in the job market, as well as more competitive for graduatescholarships and fellowships. We believe students will score higher on Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and license certification tests, and they will communicate a higher level of knowledge on their application forms for employment, graduate school and scholarships. The best graduate schools compete for the best students, and if our students compete well there, it enhances WSU’s reputation as a top-ranked university.”
Faculty Senate opinions
So far, the Faculty Senate has not taken an “official position” on establishing the Office of Undergraduate Education, said professor Tom Brigham, executive secretary of that body. “My assessment is that the majority would favor it, but that there would be a number of senators who do not see the need for another administrative unit and would oppose it.
“Many faculty see the establishment of an OUE as important for supporting the teaching mission of the university,” Brigham said. “There are equivalent units to support research (The Office of Research) and graduate education (the Graduate School) and the establishment of the OUE would give similar visibility to undergraduate teaching.
“Certainly, the Higher Education Coordinating Board and Legislature have placed heavy emphasis on undergraduate education, and the OUE would be a sign to those bodies that we are equally concerned with quality undergraduate instruction.”
Brigham said he “strongly supports” the OUE project because he believes the university “needs a more systematic coordination of its undergraduate instructional efforts.”
He suggested that programs like General Education, the Writing Program, the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology, and the Student Advising and Learning Center, “should be integrated into a single division to better serve departments and colleges.”
At the forefront, catching up
Although WSU is late in establishing the OUE, it hasn’t been sitting idly by. A number of related programs have been instituted that will help WSU catch up relatively quickly.
WSU has been at the forefront on critical thinking and writing for a number of years and has been recognized nationally for these efforts. This fall WSU’s Writing Program was recognized by U.S. News and World Report, Baker said. Meanwhile, the critical thinking program has nabbed prestigious grants from Weyerhauser, the Higher Education Coordinating Board, and the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education.
In addition, WSU’s libraries are working to put the university at the forefront in information and technology literacy.
Also helping accelerate the process will be the President’s Teaching Academy.
“We will be calling for nominations to the academy in the next few weeks,” said Bates. “The focus of the academy will be to have a core of our best teachers to act as resources to improve teaching throughout the university.
“We are also going to initiate the search for an assistant vice provost for educational assessment this semester. I invite faculty to take part in the interview process next year when candidates visit campus.
“The good news,” said Bates, “is that with the addition of the OUE we can accelerate the pace of our progress in our quest to offer the best undergraduate experience in a research university.”