Written by Jennifer Friberg, Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL and Associate Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at Illinois State University
I spent last week in the Washington D.C. area for a meeting of the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology (CAA). I’ve served on the CAA for almost four years and currently serve as Chair of the Council. In that time, I’ve had ample opportunity to consider accreditation and the potential ways in which the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) might contribute to accreditation processes, evidence, and planning. I would argue that while accreditation is a complex endeavor, the use of systematic study and reflection of teaching and learning has the potential to strengthen an application for (re-)accreditation and highlight evidence-based ways in which programs are meeting their accreditation standards in ways meaningful to local academic contexts. SoTL can be used directly to gather data about a given phenomenon or indirectly to inform a scholarly approach to decision making. As a representative of an accrediting body, I believe that this sort of data – used well – can be used to verify compliance with various accreditation standards.
While requirements for academic accreditation vary widely based on disciplinary needs and differences, there are several unifying considerations for most disciplinary standards attached to accreditation. I’ve explored several of these below, and have provided examples of how SoTL might be operationalized to support accreditation efforts across disciplines.
SoTL can inform strategic planning. Most accredited programs are required to have a strategic plan that is shared with all relevant stakeholders. Some accreditors prescribe that strategic plans have measurable goals and objectives. I have argued that conducting new SoTL investigations could (and maybe should!) be a strategic goal/objective for most programs. In collecting data about a teaching/learning issue, a program systematically gathers data to plan or problem-solve, potentially across a curriculum. Additionally, outcomes from completed SoTL projects can help to identify successful teaching/learning practices that could be utilized across a program or less successful practices that might need to be revised or revisioned. In sum, SoTL included as a part of the strategic planning process can identify areas of need or areas of strength.
SoTL can help determine faculty sufficiency. It is typical that a program’s faculty sufficiency is included as a component of accreditation standards. One aspect of faculty sufficiency can be represented by how well the faculty in a program are able to meet institutional requirements for teaching, research, and/or scholarship. I see SoTL as being a boost to faculty in this manner. SoTL-active faculty generally practice as scholarly teachers, potentially impacting teaching effectiveness. SoTL-active faculty produce scholarly work, increasing their overall research productivity. Finally, SoTL-active faculty have opportunities to engage in service to local, national, and international SoTL groups/organizations, which improves service productivity. Depending on the mission of an institution, any or all of these types of endeavors could help support faculty meeting institutional expectations for all aspects of academic employment.
SoTL can aid in curriculum development. A key component of many standards for academic accreditation is the idea that a curriculum must be offered to students that supports the emergence of competence, professionalism, and understanding of core disciplinary concepts. SoTL inquiry can be designed to examine part of a class or an entire course for impact. Findings can be used to tailor curriculum tweaks or (in the case of coordinated SoTL study across a program) inform wholesale curricular re-design and change. Programs can also apply extant SoTL to make curricular changes, as well, implementing practices such as service learning, study abroad, or research experiences – all evidence-based pedagogies – to design and plan innovations across the curriculum.
SoTL can be an integral component in formative and summative assessment of student learning. Accreditors might ask for ways in which a program uses or conducts formative and summative assessments of student learning to improve the program on a continual basis. SoTL is, in some ways, a true measure of formative or summative assessment, depending on how it’s designed and carried out. SoTL can help to identify aspects of a course that are impactful (or not) or whether a whole course truly meets its learning objectives. In a similar fashion, SoTL inquiry can provide data as one component of a program’s assessment agenda.
SoTL can be used to better understand reported student outcome measures. Many accrediting bodies require programs to report some sort of student outcome data as part of their regular processes. CAA standards require that programs report on time program completion rates, pass rates for our national certification exam, and employment rate of graduates one year post-graduation. High percentages on these outcome data can indicate that a program is strong and performing well. However, lower percentages might indicate that a problem exists with some aspect of the program. A well-designed SoTL investigation can help identify areas of strength and weakness in a program that might be impacting student outcome data. This might be closely tied to programmatic assessment, something most accreditors require evidence of as part of continued quality improvement efforts.