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How RMU Improves Student Learning and Student Services
Accrediting agencies, legislators, parents, funders and employers of college students and graduates are demanding that colleges provide more and better evidence that they are fulfilling their educational missions. Higher education costs continue to escalate and people want to know that their investments are producing results. RMU and other accredited colleges and universities are constantly gathering data in order to measure how well they are serving students and improving their operations. The umbrella term for these activities is "outcomes assessment."
What is Outcomes Assessment?
Outcomes assessment describes the measurement activities that colleges conduct to determine what and how well their students are learning and how well student learning is being supported. Outcomes assessments differ from course grades in their scope. They are broader measures than individual grades, often covering learning across multiple courses or an entire academic program. Outcomes are also sought from activities outside the classroom as well as from alumni and external parties such as employers of RMU's graduates. The comprehensiveness of a college's outcomes assessment program, the findings from those assessments and its ability to prove that is uses those results to improve its services determine whether a particular school has an effective continuous improvement program. An effective outcomes assessment program provides actionable data and documented evidence that the college is fulfilling its mission.
Robert Morris University is presently accredited by the Middles States Commission on Higher Education. The Commission's outcomes assessment requirements are contained in Standards 7 and 14 of its publication, Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education: Eligibility Requirements and Standards for Accreditation.
Outcomes Assessments at RMU
RMU's outcomes assessment program has several major components:
- The University's 2014-2018 five year strategic plan contains numerous quantifiable measures of success. The degree of attainment of these measures will be directly indicative of RMU's effectiveness at carrying out its educational mission.
- Pursuit of program accreditations for specific academic schools or majors has been an important objective at RMU over the past decade. This highly successful effort has resulted in the attainment of eight discipline-specific accreditations (Actuarial Science, Business, Computer Science, Education, Engineering, Nuclear Medicine, Nursing and Nursing Simulation). Two-thirds of all RMU undergraduates are now enrolled in accredited academic programs.
- The most direct evidence of student learning available can be seen in academic programs where students are required to pass comprehensive licensing examinations in order to work in their chosen career. Currently, three RMU majors have such a requirement prior to graduation (Education, Nursing and Nuclear Medicine Technology) and several other majors (Accounting, Actuarial Science, and Engineering) require licensing examinations soon afterwards.
- The University's contract with its faculty union provides incentives for faculty members to engage in course-level assessments of learning outcomes.
- A wide variety of other assessment measures are employed at RMU. These measure areas such as student satisfaction with RMU's facilities and services, student engagement, employer satisfaction with RMU graduates, job placement rates, and adherence to published industry standards.
The outcomes assessment effort at RMU is administered in a decentralized way with each academic school and student support area given responsibility for implementation of assessments that are pertinent to each unit. These efforts are coordinated and directed by senior officers of the University.
Assessment data is helpful only if it is evaluated and then used to make necessary improvements. Several examples are provided of how assessment is used as part of a continuous improvement process at RMU. The University also has a well-established, formal process to document its assessments and the improvements made on the basis of assessment data.
RMU has attained discipline-specific accreditations for many of its academic programs to accompany its University-wide accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. These program-specific accreditations include very specific and stringent requirements that RMU measure student learning in the accredited discipline. The possession of the accreditation itself is validation that the accredited academic program has passed in-depth, third-party scrutiny of its faculty, curriculum and outcomes.
Specialty Accreditations and Their Assessments
The applied nature of many of RMU's majors lends itself well to assessment. The graduates of three RMU undergraduate majors (Education, Nursing and Nuclear Medicine Technology) literally cannot work in their chosen field unless they pass national comprehensive examinations given at RMU during their senior years. These examinations are written by recognized experts in the field and a passing grade provides evidence that the test-taker has a body of knowledge sufficient to preform in their chosen career.
Graduates in other majors such as Accounting, Actuarial Science, and Engineering must pass licensing examinations but they do so after they have left RMU so tracking their pass rates is not possible. In these cases RMU must rely upon feedback from employers and alumni in order to determine how successful the University is in preparing graduates for the examinations in those careers.
Assessment Results - Professional Licensing Examinations
RMU and other colleges also attempt to measure other types of outcomes, including student success in the general education portion of their studies (communication skills, social science and humanities courses taken by all undergraduates regardless of major), student satisfaction with RMU's facilities and services, students' degree of participation and engagement with in- and out-of-class learning and service activities, and alumni/employer satisfaction with the quality of education received at RMU.
General indicators of student success are also measured, including the one-year retention rate and six-year graduation rate of each entering freshman class, graduates' job placement rates, and other indicators.
Assessment Results - Other Outcomes
No college has an outcomes assessment effort that is either perfect or complete. There are always ways in which the comprehensiveness of an assessment effort, use of assessment results for improvement, or the administration and governance of the assessment effort can be improved. RMU is working hard to try to improve the three following aspects of its outcomes assessment effort:
- General Oversight - Outcomes assessment at RMU is a decentralized effort that is administered through each academic school administrative department. The University is currently reviewing alternatives for governance of its outcomes assessment process.
- Assessment of General Education - General Education courses are often referred to as "Core" courses in the academic world. These are the courses in English, History, Humanities, etc. that every college student takes to assure that they have a well-rounded education.
RMU, like many other colleges, has had difficulty assessing student achievement in its general education curriculum for both practical and organizational reasons. RMU's Core curriculum does have stated learning outcome goals. However, the 13 core courses are spread across six different academic departments. Since every RMU undergraduate must take these courses, there are hundreds of sections taught and dozens of faculty members teaching them each semester. RMU's Core curriculum does not exist as a separate administrative unit with dedicated management; rather, it is a conceptual entity run as a cooperative joint venture. Changes to the Core Curriculum are thus difficult to implement.
Another problem confronting RMU and other colleges is that desired outcomes of a general education program are often difficult to both articulate and measure. What does it mean to be "well-rounded" or "globally aware" or other similarly-cited desirable outcomes for general education? And even if you know what these mean, how do you measure them, particularly when students only take one class in a specific discipline as part of their Core education?
RMU continues to work on addressing this issue and it is far from unique in this regard.
- Non-Accredited Disciplines - Pursuit of program accreditations and the satisfaction of licensing requirements have been the main means for establishing an effective outcomes assessment system at RMU. However, not every major or academic program is covered by such accreditations or requirements. Non-accredited programs in general have not been as proactive in installing assessment procedures as those programs who are subject to specialty accreditation requirements. RMU continues to address this issue as an important part of its strategic plan.
Outcomes assessment provides RMU with evidence of how well it is carrying out all the activities that support the University's Mission. RMU has made great progress in using the findings from these measurement activities for institutional improvement. The University continues to aggressively seek other opportunities to measure its outcomes as well as to improve the processes that it employs to evaluate what it has learned from its assessment program.