The University Abilities provide the central learning outcomes for the General Education program and the framework for university-wide assessment. These eight areas, which reflect both broad content knowledge and skill development in the General Education courses, align closely with the "essential learning outcomes" identified by AAC&U's LEAP initiative (this alignment is discussed in more detail in Chapter 7, Core Component 4b).
The faculty reached consensus on the Abilities and their related skills during the Spring of 1999, with the completion and approval of the Abilities, Skills, and Levels booklet. This document has seen some revision over the ensuing decade as faculty experience with the senior portfolio developed, but the Abilities remain unchanged. Table 6.1 indicates the eight Abilities and their skills; the Abilities are described in detail on page 39 of the current Catalog.
Campus-wide consensus on this framework has allowed a common language across campus and course-by-course implementation of projects that demonstrate a student's progress in each Ability area, projects that can be used for course assessment, program assessment, and university-wide assessment in these areas. The updated assessment plan, VCSU's Assessment of Student Learning, most recently revised in Summer 2010, describes the campus processes for each use of the University Abilities for academic assessment.
Starting with the 2000-2002 Catalog, the General Education requirements have been organized according to Ability area, in order to make clear to students how the required coursework relates to each part of the Ability framework. Each course must have students complete a project that demonstrates their level of competence in the stated Ability. Each summer these projects are gathered and assessed using small faculty teams.
In implementing this framework back in 1998-99, the Curriculum Committee mapped the Ability projects in specific courses, to ensure an even distribution of the Abilities throughout the General Education Program. This map is reviewed and updated (in 2004-5, and again in 2009-10) to assure accuracy as faculty and curriculum change over time.
The Curriculum committee completed a syllabus review for all General Education courses in 2005, and began work on a rubric and assessment process that connected logically with the assessment of Abilities at the senior (portfolio) level. The initial plan was to assess one Ability per semester, and the Committee began with the Communication Ability in Spring 2008. Over the next two years, it became clear that this process was too slow and could not provide enough aggregate data to make informed decisions. The Curriculum Committee decided it would be more effective (and make better use of faculty time) to assess all eight Abilities each summer, during the same time period when faculty were already reviewing senior-level Ability projects from the senior portfolios.
The first full-Ability review was completed during the 2011 Summer Institute, with 21 faculty members involved in the assessment process. The results of this process will be presented to the Assessment Committee and General Education Council as baseline data. The annual collection of data will allow these groups to note trends and recommend improvements to the General Education program curriculum and (through representation from each Division on these two committees) course and project-level revisions.
The Senior Portfolio has been a graduation requirement for all undergraduate seniors since the 2000 Catalog. Each division/program has identified at least five Abilities that can be further developed in the program major; students use projects completed in their major coursework to demonstrate their achievement in each area. Every course must identify a project that meets one of the program Abilities; every program has developed a map of these courses/projects, to assist students in identifying the projects they may use in their senior portfolios.
Students present their portfolios to faculty in their program area at the end of their senior year. This faculty review allows for collection of data in each program which can be used for program review and curricular revision; in addition, these projects, representing the final or "best" work of each senior, are used for university-wide assessment, following the same procedure used to assess projects from the General Education program. Refinement of the scoring tool during the past two years has allowed for a more meaningful comparison of work at the general education and graduation point for each Ability.
A catalog review in Summer 2009, at the start of the self-study process, revealed several inconsistencies in articulating outcomes from program to program. First, divisions varied in identifying statements included in the catalog - some included a mission statement, some did not. Second, although each division included the Abilities the student must demonstrate for completion of the major (these are the Abilities required for a senior portfolio in that division), learning outcomes related to content knowledge were not always clear.
In Fall 2009, each program/division identified several learning outcomes for inclusion in the 2010-12 Catalog; these outcomes were then included in the initial Annual Program Update (APU), and baseline data, or a plan for collecting this data, was submitted for these outcomes in Spring 2011. In Fall 2011, faculty will review and revise these outcomes for the 2012-14 Catalog. While the system for gathering and using content knowledge learning outcomes is in its early stages, and implementation and quality varies across campus, the framework for data collection and its use has been established.
Focus on program-level mission statements and strategic planning began in Fall 2010, following the development of the university-wide strategic plan, VCSU 2015. Each program/division developed a mission statement and a program-level strategic plan that made connections with the University's mission and the VCSU 2015 strategic plan. All programs were asked to report progress on their goals in their Spring 2011 APUs; in Fall 2011, programs/divisions will revise catalog descriptions to reflect their goals and missions in the 2012-14 Catalog. Once again, a framework is in place to assist those programs not already in the habit of reflective planning. To assist faculty in this process, the Assessment Committee has developed a rubric for the APUs, which identifies acceptable and target levels. The Committee plans to organize a workshop in Summer 2012 to further support faculty understanding and improvement of program assessment processes.
From its inception, the Graduate School has built a comparable, systematic capstone assessment process, using six Core Values (instead of Abilities) and a final portfolio defense to document achievement. The Core Values include
These Core Values and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) lay the broad foundation for the overall program design. At the course level, the required projects and activities provide a rich and diverse collection of assessment opportunities for the instructor. Both the Core Values and NBPTS are mapped to the core courses and the courses in each concentrations.
Some of these projects are used in the capstone portfolio, which is presented to the student's committee. Faculty participating in the portfolio defense assess each of the Core Values, and this data is used by the Graduate Office to review curriculum, assess course rigor, and make adjustments as needed.
Each of the degree concentration areas, whose curriculum has been developed in alignment with content standards, include an additional section in the graduate student portfolio for the assessment of projects demonstrating achievement of content area standards.
Faculty in these areas gather data from the content standards projects which may be used for curricular improvements in their program areas, and, in the case of the Library Media concentration, for pursuit of AASL accreditation.
The Abilities provide opportunities for assessment at course, program, and institutional levels. Use of the Abilities is fully operational at this point - all courses require projects; all seniors and graduate students prepare portfolios (program assessment); samples from course projects are collected at all levels for institutional assessment. Institutional Ability assessment is beginning to generate data that will be used for curricular review and improvement, while course and program assessment uses of 'Abilities projects' has been ongoing.
Use of faculty from across disciplines for annual Ability assessment workshops to generate institutional data promotes understanding and more complete implementation of Ability assessment at the course and program level. The addition of content learning outcomes has further allowed programs to identify areas not assessed through the Abilities, to further improve their understanding of curricular effectiveness.
Strengths: VCSU has more than ten years of experience evaluating portfolios that address the institution’s Abilities. The School of Education and Graduate Studies has taken the initiative in analyzing assessment data and making adjustments to their curriculum based on this data. Annual summer assessment workshops have provided systematic direction in collecting this data. The use of the Abilities is part of the campus culture, as evidenced by Ability projects in every class and the senior portfolio requirement.
New Initiatives: The General Education Council is working to review and improve the General Education program, including its mission and outcomes. Additionally, the institution has focused on assessing general education courses as part of this initiative. Divisions have developed program-specific outcomes and are in the beginning stages of gathering and assessing outcome data.
Challenges: While VCSU has ten years of Ability data collected and a strong framework developed to encourage reflective uses of this data, actual use of the data to improve programs is scattered across campus, with the School of Education and Graduate Studies providing the best examples of ways the institution can move forward in this area. The administration must remain committed to an annual review of data and continue to require data to support curricular and budgetary requests.
While the institution has designated a person to collect and report on the university-wide assessment processes, faculty continue to need guidance on course and program assessment, as well as assistance in making meaning of the data and using the data to make changes in curriculum.