Peer Review

The Engaging Departments Institute: Fostering Alignment of Learning Outcomes across Departmental Majors

If someone has attended any one of the three AAC&U summer institutes, they know not to mistake these multiday affairs for the typical conferences we academics have come to expect. Granted, the institutes do possess some common traits of the kindred conference: social receptions, presentations of big ideas and intellectual inquiry, networking opportunities, sightseeing (and shopping) respites. The difference, however, is that the AAC&U institutes connect these facets within a single, overarching principle—teamwork. These summer gatherings provide space for individual passions and expertise to move beyond office silos in order to connect with colleagues, who may not always be like-minded but do share a common sense of purpose for institutional advancement. And perhaps nowhere is that movement from office silos to collaboration more visible than at the Engaging Departments Institute. At this institute, faculty members come together from across departments to identify, implement and assess the common learning outcomes that span major areas of study and disciplinary content.

On average, about one half of a college student’s total coursework occurs within his or her chosen major. This reality, along with contributions to general education curricula, highlights the central role of academic departments in helping to align institutional learning outcomes across both curricular and cocurricular experiences. And although the institute is called “Engaging Departments,” it is really about engaging the faculty who compose, lead, and shape these departments. Thus in bringing together faculty from across disciplines, the institute invites them to ask: “How can the breadth of knowledge and skills provided by a liberal education be better infused with the depth of content provided by the majors to produce graduates who possess both the knowledge of their chosen discipline and the ability to apply, integrate, and advance that knowledge regardless of context?” For many teams, answering this question often meant first asking a host of others: What learning outcomes are applicable across majors? Which outcomes align with general education goals? How has the notion of a “department” been conceived? Who are the campus champions of this work? Who are the change agents and the stakeholders? Where are the obstacles and forces of resistance?

Francis Bacon once wrote, “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” To enable campus teams to begin to find answers for the preceding questions, the institute schedule and curriculum invites the same kind of engagement, discussion, and reflection to which Bacon’s quote alludes. The structure of the institute incorporates assigned readings, discussion with team members, consultation with institute faculty and staff, and a final culminating written exercise in the form of a campus action plan. To produce a document outlining the actionable next steps for advancing change at their institution, teams collaborated intensively over four days, attending faculty-led sessions on related topics of reform, often taking the opportunity to engage with other campus teams and workshopping ideas and solutions to common roadblocks to change.

Although the institute itself is a focal point of this issue and of the narratives within it, the institute is by no means the core. The core of this issue of Peer Review, rather, is the teamwork achieved within each campus team and across institutions. And, though the institute often acted as catalyst, a conduit, and maybe even a place of genesis for the work, it cannot be credited with the endurance needed to achieve change once participants returned to campus. These Peer Review articles were written in the spirit of the collective capabilities fostered by teamwork and the processes of collaborative change that are the real engines of reform efforts. To this end, we asked campus contributors to tell their stories of what brought them to the institute, what happened while there, and what issues followed them back home. This issue contains voices representing just a fraction of the diversity that populates the landscape of higher education: a large, public university; a university that adheres to the mission of a Historically Black University; a private, metropolitan university; a residential, private liberal arts college; and a community college serving a broad and varied student population.

Though there are myriad differences across these institutions, the narratives in these articles remind us of the ideas, obstacles, and passions that resonate regardless of institutional type, creed, location, or affiliation. For example, California State University at Monterey Bay (CSU–MB), like many institutions, is negotiating the challenges of curriculum reform in a time of great economic challenge. Team members from CSU–MB offer multiple vantage points on how they have worked to translate a recent program review into an effort to map outcomes across the curriculum and build a cohesive assessment agenda. Indeed, assessment was on the minds of many institute participants. Team members from Norfolk State University describe their work on developing a mapping model for tracing learning outcomes across the curriculum and the additional effort to assess the efficacy of the curriculum maps itself. A member of George Washington University’s team offers his perspective on building a culture of assessment—a critical, and often challenging, piece of the overall assessment picture for many institutions. The contribution from Siena College reminds us that most institutions are at varying stages of progress with regard to reform. While we often talk about mapping the curriculum for purposes of assessment, Siena’s narrative illustrates the processes of the conceptual mapping of reform by walking readers through the early stages of assessment and revision while also mindfully navigating the obstacles and realities of campus culture. A final narrative from Eugenio María de Hostos Community College provides a reminder of the familiar drivers of change: meeting the needs of a large, diverse student body; addressing retention issues; helping students to connect the dots of their coursework; and building a community of learners in the process. In meeting these challenges, the authors describe how they became a community of learners themselves by looking carefully at both national and campus level work to guide their own institutional reform.

Finally, the campus narratives are bookended by two perspective pieces from Jo Beld, director of academic research and planning at St. Olaf College and a faculty consultant during the institute, and Michael Middaugh, associate provost for institutional effectiveness at the University of Delaware and incoming chair of the Middle States Commission. Beld’s piece invites readers to consider the multidimensionality of achieving successful, department-level assessment and the rewards that can be reaped from a job well done. As the voice from a large, regional accrediting body, Middaugh illustrates why the labors of departmental alignment across meaningful learning outcomes is a welcomed and encouraged endeavor for demonstrating institutional advancement within the national context.

As we look forward to the second year of the Engaging Departments Institute, AAC&U staff will revisit both the markers that define the institute’s success and our achievement of them. Just like the campus teams that attended the institute, we will assess our efforts, talk among ourselves, and evaluate our goals for the coming year. Ultimately our success is not measured by number of participants; it is measured by our ability to assist campuses in achieving their own unique goals. We hope the Engaging Departments Institute will continue to be a part of that process for years to come.

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