COMPETING ON QUALITY
PART 1: RECONCEPTUALIZING ACADEMIC PROGRAM REVIEW AS A MEANINGFUL PROCESS
Bethany Alden-Rivers, Associate Vice President, Institutional Effectiveness, email@example.com
Mark Arant, Provost and Senior Vice President, Academic Affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org
This paper draws on extensive literature and sector practices from the last four decades to present a case for rethinking academic program review as a more meaningful process. The paper outlines a new set of guiding principles and a possible process for academic program review at Lindenwood University.
One of the most pressing issues facing higher education in the United States is the quality of academic programming (Bresciani, 2006; Bok, 2013; Goff, 2017; Tandberg and Martin, 2019). The process of evaluating the quality of academic programs is central to the vitality of any university in terms of its ability to increase revenue, decrease expenses, enhance the quality of the student learning experience, and strengthen its reputation (Dickeson, 2010). Although program review processes have been in place in North American universities for more than 80 years (cf. Conrad and Wilson, 1985; Skolnik, 1989), it is only within the last 45 years that the quality assurance of academic programs has become more “prominent, organized, and influential” (p. 627). And, it has only been in the last two decades that program review has become a topic of interest and debate within the higher education sector (Halpern, 2013).
Commonly, universities dedicate much time and resource into reviewing and reporting the quality of their academic programs in order to satisfy the requirements of states, federal agencies, and accrediting bodies (Subramony, Wallace, and Zack, 2015; Brown et al., 2017). In an era of financial constraints and what some scholars describe as a state of “constant crisis” (Kretovics and Eckert, 2019), the program review process is perceived by many as a mechanism for justifying the existence of a program, or in other words, “survival of the fittest” and “punitive” (Patton et al., 2008, p. 3). Furthermore, when program review processes are carried out in isolation of other institutional effectiveness activities, such as strategic planning, budgeting, and assessment of learning, there is less potential for the program review process to be a catalyst for positive change (Barak and Mets, 1995).
However, academic program review, if designed and facilitated well, holds the potential to be “one of the most powerful and effective tools to shape and reshape an institution” (Jayachandran et al., 2019, p. 54). Effective program review can positively impact the student experience (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005) and can be a cornerstone of a comprehensive framework for quality assurance (see Parvin, 2019). According to Bok (2006), “[t]hough the process of program review may not be perfect . . . program review, when thoughtfully carried out, is more reliable than hunches or personal opinions” (p. 320).
3.0 DEFINING ACADEMIC PROGRAM REVIEW
Academic program review is a process of gathering and analyzing information about a specific academic program for the purposes of guiding the broader activities of the institution. Patton et al. (2009) described the process as being a “miniature accreditation self-study within a designated area of campus” that helps universities take stock, celebrate successes, and plan for the future (p. 8). A more specific definition is offered by Brown University (2012).
The purpose of academic program review is to improve the quality of academic units
individually and the university as a whole. Academic review provides an opportunity for
each academic unit to reflect, self-assess, and plan; they generate in-depth
communication between the unit and the university administration, thus offering a
vehicle to inform planning and decision-making… By stimulating program planning and
encouraging strategic development, academic program reviews can be a central
mechanism to advance the University mission. (p. 4)
Just like there is no generally accepted definition for academic quality assurance (cf. Harvey and Green, 1993; Biggs, 2001; Newton, 2002; Kliejnen et al., 2013; Goff, 2017), nor is there a universally-accepted definition for academic program review (cf. Feikema, 2016; Tandberg and Martin, 2019). However, there are three common features of program review seen across the sector. These include: 1) an internal, faculty-driven self-study; 2) an external evaluation carried out by a peer or committee from another institution; and 3) a comprehensive evaluation of the two studies, resulting in an action plan. Most program reviews are carried out over a six- to 12-month span, but some can take much longer (Hanover, 2012, pp. 2-3).
4.0 APPROACHES TO PROGRAM REVIEW
Although the literature suggests a general consensus around the importance of academic program review, there is no agreement on how colleges and university leaders should approach this process (Badalyan, 2012; Feikema, 2016). Therefore, myriad approaches to program review are seen across the higher education sector, and these are often designed to serve a particular purpose.
4.1 STRATEGIC PROGRAM PRIORITIZATION
Strategic program prioritization generally involves a data-informed review of an
institution’s portfolio of academic programs that focuses on market share and market
growth. Through categorization, ranking, rating, or weighting certain attributes of a
program, the review usually leads to recommendations to sustain, stop, or enhance
each academic program in the portfolio (Fannin and Saran, 2017). Dickeson (2010) is
commonly used as a reference for this approach. Dickeson suggested 10 factors or
dimensions to be considered when evaluating a program, which reflect internal and
external demand; quality of inputs, processes, and outcomes; revenue, costs, and
impact. Other models for strategic program prioritization promote the use of the Boston
Consulting Group’s (BCG) two-factor business model, which categorizes programs as
“Stars”, “Cash Cows”, “Questions Marks”, and “Dogs” (e.g., Debracht and Levas, 2014).
While others have proposed the use of the General Electric-McKinsey model (or
Industry Attractive-Business Competitiveness Model, which measures criteria across
two dimensions: competitive capabilities and industry attractiveness (see Hax and
Majluf, 1983; Wells and Wells, 2011, Udo-Imeh, Edet, and Anani, 2012).
4.2 CYCLICAL PROGRAM REVIEW
Cyclical program reviews are the most common approach across the higher education
sector. Cyclical program review includes a data-informed, reflective self-study, which is
usually completed by the program faculty and reviewed by the department chairperson
and dean, before it is reviewed by both internal and external reviewers. Cyclical program
reviews also include an action planning element, which prompts continuous
improvements during the years between reviews. This type of program review is
generally expected by regional accreditors to take place on a regular basis and to be
integrated into the broader system of planning and budgeting (see Higher Learning
Although there are common elements, there is no universally accepted process for
cyclical program review. Authors have suggested processes to include core
components. For example, Jayachandran et al. (2019) stated that an effective program
evaluation should include a curriculum review, an evaluation of teaching and learning,
evaluation of resources, and assessment of performance against quality indicators.
These authors also suggested that most program reviews, at a minimum, require data
on program demands, program resources, program efficiency, and program outcomes.
4.2 SYSTEMATIC PROGRAM REVIEW
Systematic program review is an annual program review process that is less formal than
a cyclical program review. Shambaugh (2017) describes systematic program review as
a “semi-formal means to proactively involve higher education faculty, staff, students and
administrators in analyzing and making decisions about the future of their programs.
Shambaugh proposes that this type of frequent program review can be used to ask
more informal questions, such as “Who are our students?” and “What changes need to
be made or what gaps exist in our programs, gaps that students need?” Similarly,
Ludvik (2019) suggested that program review can be a lever toward closing equity gaps
in student learning and achievement.
5.0 EMERGING METHODS FOR PROGRAM REVIEW
The discourse around program review can create conflicting viewpoints and approaches. On the one hand, program review has been used, historically, as a way to defend or assure the quality of an academic program. On the other hand, program review also holds the potential to catapult faculty into a transformative mode, through problem-solving, continuous improvement, and innovation. The marriage between these two views is what Biggs (2001) characterized as “enhancing quality”. The literature points to two emerging methods for embracing problem-solving and innovation in the program review process.
5.1 LEAN HIGHER EDUCATION (LHE) AND RAPID IMPROVEMENT EVENTS (RIE)
Over the past 30 years, universities across the world have benefited from applying
principles of total quality management (TQM) that were previously only used within
industry (Balzer et al., 2016). Processes such as Kaizen, Six Sigma, and Lean have
allowed institutions to become more “flexible, flat, and fast” (Zimmerman, 1991, p. 10),
thereby becoming more responsive to the demands of the higher education
marketplace (Balzer et al., 2016). Findings from a systematic literature review by
Cudney et al. (2020) suggested that Six Sigma and Lean can be applied effectively
toward the improvement of teaching methods, administrative processes, and other
aspects of higher education.
Balzer (2020) presents a working definition of “Lean Higher Education (LHE)”.
Lean Higher Education (LHE) is a problem-solving framework used to increase the
value and performance of university processes. Grounded in the principles of
continuous improvement and respect for people, the successful application of LHE
will meet the expectations of those served by the processes, engage and develop
employees who deliver the processes, and enhance efficiency and effectiveness of
the university. (p. 16)
Central to LHE are Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs), which are facilitated problem-
solving activities leading participants through a series of ideation, solutions, planning,
examples of institutions that have embraced RIEs as part of the process improvement
approach (Key-Mathews and Fadden, 2019).
5.2 DESIGN THINKING
Recently, the notion of using design thinking for program evaluation has emerged within
the literature. Design thinking is a creative problem-solving methodology that focuses on
the people who will use or benefit from a solution. Generally speaking, design thinking
follows an iterative five-step model of developing insights, problematizing, ideating,
prototyping and testing (IDEO-U, 2020).
Boyko-Head (2019) documents a process for testing design thinking for academic
program reviews, and proposes this as a possible approach for overcoming traditional
challenges related to program review, such as a lack of buy-in and engagement. Boyko-
Head notes that through this process, the team was able to generate and nurture
stakeholder participation, envision more actionable opportunities for innovation and
renewal, provide faculty with professional development, enhance clarity and
transparency around the process, and create reproducible tools for implementing
program review findings.
6.0 COMMONLY CITED CHALLENGES AROUND PROGRAM REVIEW
The literature suggests there are common challenges for faculty who engage in program review, which include limited time and resources available to carry out a quality evaluation, lack of expertise or assistance with the process, skepticism about the benefits of program review, and concern they were bothering students when asking them to complete surveys to support the process (Bresciani, 2006; Germaine et al., 2013). Additionally, Bresciani (2006) points to a lack of shared understanding.
Faculty and practitioners do not understand the purpose, goals, or intended outcomes
of the activity or why they are being asked to participate. (p. 18)
Importantly, the literature suggests there is a significant challenge in integrating academic program review to planning and budgeting. Feikema (2016) stated that while there is some literature on the program review process and on implementing program review, there is very little known about how program review influences institutional planning, budgeting, and decision making (see Barak and Mets, 1995). Furthermore, the literature suggests that when university leaders do not consider academic program review during the strategic planning process, this continues to undermine the value of program review. This appears to be particularly relevant when external market forces influence the strategic planning process without taking into account the findings from program review (see Ahmad, Farley, and Naidoo, 2012).
7.0 CURRENT STATE: LINDENWOOD UNIVERSITY’S APPROACH TO PROGRAM REVIEW AS OF MAY 2020
Currently, each academic program at Lindenwood University completes a comprehensive program review every seven years. The process begins in the spring semester of calendar year 1 when the department faculty members meet to begin the self-study process.
The draft self-study report is submitted to the School/Division Curriculum Committee (SDCC), School Dean and System Provost in fall of year 1, and is revised and finalized before the end of the fall term.
The Program Chair and System Provost identify an appropriate external reviewer for the program who is invited to visit campus to review the program in the spring of calendar year 2.
The reviewer’s report is submitted in the summer of year 2 and the department’s response to the review is submitted to the SDCC, School Dean, and System Provost in the fall of year 2.
The Academic Program Advisory Committee (APAC) reviews all of the documents associated with each review and makes recommendations for the program.
These recommendations are framed as action items on which the program faculty are expected to report by the winter of year 3.
Appendix A provides a detailed outline of what the current self-study report includes for each academic program undergoing program review.
8.0 PROBLEM STATEMENT
Despite federal, regional, and local agencies promoting program review as an important and influential process, and despite widespread acknowledgement of the inherent potential for program review to be a highly effective mechanism, the literature presents a compelling argument that academic program review, largely speaking, is poorly conceived, not communicated clearly, undervalued, and detached from the broader systems of planning and budgeting. Additionally, there is no common definition or process for academic program review for institutions to adopt. Many of the commonly cited challenges for effective academic program review, such as lack of time, lack of training, lack of integration into planning and budgeting, are also challenges for Lindenwood University.
Therefore, the problem for Lindenwood University, as well as most other institutions, is how to develop a process that gives meaning to academic program review for all stakeholders involved.
9.0 AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE: PROGRAM REVIEW AS A MORE MEANINGFUL PROCESS
Within learning organizations, it is particularly true that processes of evaluation and continuous improvement that intend to assure the quality of service—or in the case of universities, the student experience—are considered inherently purposeful. In learning organizations, the notion of ‘quality assurance’ is characterized as moving beyond demonstrating quality toward a transformative position of quality enhancement (Biggs, 2001; Goff, 2017). As Lindenwood University competes on the basis of academic quality, it is essential to harness the purposefulness and potential for academic program review as a mechanism for transformation.
9.1 MEANINGFUL TO WHOM?
Simply put, meaningfulness means having purpose and value. When considered in
terms of academic program review, the notion of meaningfulness becomes more
complex because of the many stakeholders affected by this process. Table 1 outlines
the purpose and value of academic program review for six key stakeholder groups.
Table 1. Purpose and value of academic program review by stakeholder group
Stakeholder Purpose and value of academic program review
Regional Accreditor Program review provides evidence of systematic, continuous (HLC) improvement of academic programming and evidence of an
integrated approach between the quality assurance of
academic programs and institutional planning and budgeting.
Institution Program review provides a systematic process to provide
assurance that the institution’s academic programming is
relevant to the mission, suitable for its target market, and fit
Academic School/ Program review provides a mechanism to assess the
Department effectiveness of academic programs within school or
department by identifying what is working well and what is
needed to improve. Program review is an opportunity to
formally request support and resources for maintaining
Program Faculty Program review is an opportunity to receive and review data
related to a program and to demonstrate the effectiveness of
the curriculum and teaching. Through program review, faculty
have the opportunity to outline ideas for continuous
improvement and request support and additional resource.
Students Program review is a process that evaluates the effectiveness
of the academic program in achieving its goals and in
supporting the mission of the institution. Program review,
therefore, can have a significant impact on the student
experience, even if students are not aware of this process. By
engaging in this process, students can provide important
insights and contributions toward continuous improvement.
Community Program review is a process to assure employers and other
members of the community that the academic programming
is relevant to the workforce and societal needs of the 21st
century. By engaging in the process, employers, alumni, and
other community members can provide insight into how well
the program is meeting the needs of the community.
9.2 GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR MEANINGFUL PROGRAM REVIEW
Table 2. Guiding principles toward meaningful academic program review
9.3 ADOPTING A COMBINED APPROACH TO PROGRAM REVIEW
10.0 A POSSIBLE PROCESS FOR ACADEMIC PROGRAM REVIEW AT LINDENWOOD
Figure 1. A proposed seven-year process for academic program review at Lindenwood University
11.0 REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
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CURRENT OUTLINE FOR A PROGRAM REVIEW SELF-STUDY REPORT AT LINDENWOOD UNIVERSITY
[AS OF MAY 2020]
The program self-study report includes the following sections, with data provided to the program representatives by the university’s Institutional Research Office.
I. Status of the Discipline – brief description of the national status of the discipline, including
emerging issues and trends relevant to higher education.
a. Regional/national trends in student enrollment*
b. Employment opportunities for graduates*
a. Brief overview of the program – Major vs. General Education, if applicable
b. Mission statement for the program; reference its relationship to the university mission
c. Goals and objectives of the program with regard to teaching, scholarship, and
service; assessment of the program with respect to these aspects.
d. Program Learning Outcomes and a curriculum map indicating which Learning
Outcomes are addressed by each required course (Appendix A)
e. Brief summary of degree requirements (Appendix B, complete list of degree
f. Community college articulation
g. Involvement of advisory board(s), if applicable
III. Program Evaluation
a. Briefly describe the means of assessing student learning outcomes and recent
improvements based on the results of such assessment.
b. If applicable, provide a brief analysis of the grade patterns of courses with high
D/F/W rates* and an action plan for student improvement in these areas.
c. Online course and program offerings
i. Comparison of student performance – on-ground vs. online*
d. Quantitative indicators – 7 year trends*
i. Number of students majoring in the program
ii. Student-credit hours (upper vs. lower division vs. grad)
iii. Number of sections offered (upper vs. lower division vs. grad)
iv. Average class size (upper vs. lower division vs. grad)
v. Percentage of courses taught by adjunct instructors (upper vs. lower division vs.
e. Involvement of students in “high impact practices” such as individual research,
community service, study away/abroad, or internships**
f. Planned changes in curriculum
g. Options for new majors, minors, or emphasis areas, if applicable
h. Assessment of graduate level courses against Lindenwood University’s Course Level
a. Academic profile – ACT, high school GPA, transfer GPA - FTFTF vs. Transfer
students (undergrad only)* - Undergraduate cumulative GPA (grad only)*
b. Retention in the major – internal vs. external transfers (undergrad only)*
c. Graduates per year*
d. Terms to degree completion - FTFTF vs. Transfer students (undergrad only)*
e. Summary of most recent assessment report (Appendix C, full report)
f. Outcomes information on graduates*
g. Summary of student survey results (Appendix D, full report*)
a. Brief summary of qualifications and experience of Full-time Faculty and any adjunct
instructors who teach key majors courses (Appendix E, 2-3 page cv of each faculty
b. Teaching productivity and activities designed to enhance teaching and the curriculum
c. Summary of student course evaluations for key courses, by course rather than
d. Average number of advisees per faculty advisor – majors vs. non-majors*
e. Scholarly productivity
f. Service, including university committees, student groups, and work with K-12
g. Professional development
VI. Facilities and resources
a. Classrooms and laboratories
e. Support personnel
VII. SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses (internal factors), Opportunities, and Threats (external
VIII. Vision and plans for the future of the program
a. Provide a vision statement of the program in 7 years assuming no additional financial
investment beyond maintaining current resource levels.
i. Actions to be completed within the next 3 years
ii. Actions to be completed within the next 7 years
b. Provide a vision statement of the program in 7 years assuming that additional
financial investments are made beyond current resource levels.
i. Actions to be completed within the next 3 years & associated major expenditures
ii. Actions to be completed with the next 7 years & associated major expenditures
IX. Program faculty recommendations for improvement
a. Changes that are within the control of the program & school
b. Changes that require action at the Dean, Provost, or higher levels