Commentary: Taking on curriculum reform for a new assessment culture

In 2013, the accreditation mandates for Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) — which is affiliated with the State University of New York (SUNY) in Hopewell — increased substantially.

They included regulations related to general education and seamless transfer requirements from SUNY, and assessment and curriculum requirements from its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. With these changes, FLCC faculty began the hard work of reexamining curricular requirements of an FLCC degree, which started the process of articulating a new learning framework.

With the help of a committee, we finalized a robust learning framework in spring 2015 to help streamline assessment, provide a curricular skeleton for programs and meet mandatory requirements. The framework is the supporting structure developed for courses and co-curricular experiences, supporting our FLCC values: vitality, inquiry, perseverance and interconnectedness.

By fall 2015, most FLCC programs started working with assessment coaches to review their curricula and align them with the new learning framework. While we are still in the midst of implementing our curriculum reform initiative, we recognize the importance of creating a strong methodology when embarking on a new assessment culture. Some of our lessons learned include:

Appoint reform advocates. Enlisting strong supporters throughout the institution to offer guidance is necessary for any reform initiative. At FLCC, we’ve trained a team of coaches — who are all faculty members — to rewrite values and missions for courses, as well as revise student learning outcomes. Working in concert with faculty members, the team assesses program learning outcomes and maps out future goals. Institutional learning outcomes are also assessed.

Having these strong supporters throughout the campus has helped for a smooth transition. Coaches have ensured that key assessments can be mapped from the course learning outcomes. In this way, programs are connected to each other through our institutional learning outcomes, and we satisfy the Middle States requirement for curriculum mapping, and do it in a way that will streamline our overall assessment practice.

Find a tech-savvy leader to take charge of the initiative. Having a person dedicated to learning about assessment and the curricular process is key, possibly even someone outside of your faculty. While IT can support the overall process, in most cases IT does not have the resources or interest in serving as the advocate, so it is very helpful to hire or pull in a project leader who is familiar with technology, automated systems and writing code. This lessens the burden on IT and ensures the curricular/assessment office has the necessary technology guidance and support.

Create a good technology framework. We partnered with higher education assessment provider Chalk & Wire to create an environment where we can collect and record assessment data for all programs. Since we redefined our institutional learning outcomes, all programs need to be revised and approved by our assessment committee. ePortfolios, traditionally known for assessing student work, are used to collect information about each of our academic programs. This information is stored in our curricular database. With a smoother and automated process, faculty and committee members can easily review the ePortfolio and provide feedback.

Developing a historical database of curricular change was paramount for the current and future success of our academic reform. We’ve created a technology environment that can store assessment data for all academic programs so that individuals can record feedback and give others access to this critical information.

This is important for the approval process, which can often be challenging due to the many steps in modifying courses. We also started using SurveyGizmo to create forms that we presented to faculty so that they could easily offer additional course feedback which would then go into our overall curricular database.

Keep your eyes open for unknown challenges. At the start of the reform initiative, we hadn’t set out to redefine our curriculum. As the project began and based on feedback, we realized it was necessary. Being open to constructive feedback from faculty and students, we are able to redefine our values, overarching skills and three pillars of curriculum (scientific and quantitative reasoning; societal and global citizenship; and values, ethics, and diverse perspectives). We also added first-year experience and capstone courses to all programs and have included co-curricular activities as sites of learning.

Be prepared for change resistance. When institutional and even departmental processes change, there will always be push back or some resistance. It is important to have a solid plan in place and be very open communication so that faculty and staff are aware of modifications or new processes. Being as upfront as possible can help alleviate any anxiety about a change in institutional processes or using new technology.

About the Author

Maggie Miller
is a technical specialist at Finger Lakes Community College in New York.