Strategic Planning for Accreditation & Assessment

UWest kicked off a new strategic planning cycle last Fall by asking the campus community to share their visions for what UWest could become by 2020. On April 14, 2014, the UWest Cabinet reached consensus on a common Vision Statement:

UWest will model Whole-Person Education through engaged and interdisciplinary learning in all programs; an exceptional, caring faculty and staff who fulfil our unique mission; and service projects to improve local and global communities. UWest graduates will practice social responsibility, value diversity, and pursue lifelong learning and spiritual growth. UWest will be a widely recognized name.

This vision was offered to the campus community at a Town Meeting on April 30, 2014. Although it was the product of months of discussions and contributions, many community members still thought it sounded too vague. While others found it to specific! Ah, such is the life of a Vision Statement.

However, the Vision is just the beginning! It serves as both a guide for action and a yardstick for how success is measured in the future. By itself, though, it is far from complete. So at that same Town Meeting, President Morgan encouraged university faculty, staff, and administrators to begin considering our Values. UWest’s current Values were handed down from leadership in 2012 without much discussion. Consequently, President Morgan would like to reaffirm if these are indeed our Values, what they mean, and/or what might need to change. They are currently:

  • Excellence
  • Responsibility
  • Harmony
  • Peace
  • Compassion

Faculty and staff brainstormed about these Values at the Town Meeting and ongoing discussions are being held on and off campus over the summer.

But what does this mean for accreditation and assessment? Several things, actually.

First, the standards under which UWest is accredited call for it:

Criteria for Review (CFR) 4.6: The institution periodically engages its multiple constituencies, including the governing board, faculty, staff, and others, in institutional reflection and planning processes that are based on the examination of data and evidence. These processes assess the institution’s strategic position, articulate priorities, examine the alignment of its purposes, core functions, and resources, and define the future direction of the institution.

Planning is also referenced in CFR 3.1, 3.4, 4.2, 4.3, and 4.7 in the 2013 Handbook of Accreditation. WASC is concerned with planning because it wants every institution it accredits to be sustainable and viable in the future. It won’t accredit an institution that seems unlikely to exist four or five years from now, long enough to graduate today’s entering students. Periodic strategic plans serve as evidence for if and how a university will exist when this Fall’s crop of freshmen become alumni.

More importantly, however, strategic plans are beneficial to the university itself, with or without WASC. They help us prioritize from among myriad choices, directions, and projects, so that resources are allocated wisely ad the university is responsive to its environment. A strategic plan is just a map to help us achieve an agreed upon goal.

Assessment is an important tool for knowing if and how well we are achieving the goals set forth in the strategic plan. Assessment also tells us what needs to go into a strategic plan in the first place. It is a two-way relationship. For example, assessment told us in 2010 that students were not writing as well as faculty would like. Therefore, a more rigorous placement test was implemented and new tutoring staff hired. Assessment being conducted in 2014 can tell us if those changes have made a difference and, if so, where to allocate resources next. Academic and co-curricular departments can use assessment data to support the proposals in their departmental plans and, after those proposals are implemented, use assessment data again to see how successful they were.

For this reason, WASC also calls on university’s to have robust assessment systems and to actually use the assessment data they collect to make improvements:

Criteria for Review 2.4 The institution’s student learning outcomes and standards of performance are developed by faculty and widely shared among faculty, students, staff, and (where appropriate) external stakeholders. The institution’s faculty take collective responsibility for establishing appropriate standards of performance and demonstrating through assessment the achievement of these standards.

Criteria for Review 4.1 The institution employs a deliberate set of quality-assurance processes in both academic and non-academic areas, including new curriculum and program approval processes, periodic program review, assessment of student learning, and other forms of ongoing evaluation. These processes include: collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data; tracking learning results over time; using comparative data from external sources; and improving structures, services, processes, curricula, pedagogy, and learning results.

Strategic planning, accreditation, and assessment are intimately inter-related activities. They also both require the strong involvement of multiple stakeholders from across the institution. Working together, we can accomplish all three of these otherwise daunting processes bit by bit. Now, on to Values!


FAQ Updates: Assessing Artifacts vs. Grading Students

A question at the meeting of the Mission and Identity Committee (MIC) today prompted updates to the FAQs. If you have questions related to assessment, accreditation, or institutional research and you cannot find the answers here, please submit them to Not only will you receive an answer via email, but they may appear on the FAQ page to help future faculty and staff.

What is the difference between grading a student and rating an artifact?

Grades and assessment are not the same thing. Letter grades are assigned to students according to grading criteria in the course syllabus. Student work is also assessed according to Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), which are also in the syllabus, but the purposes of artifact assessment and student grades are very different. If you’re faculty, then you already understand grades, so here’s how assessment is different.

Assessment measures how well the course, program, and institution is doing, not the student. Yes, we collect artifacts from students, like papers, tests, presentations, etc., to be evaluated in relation to CLOs using rubrics. However, the purpose of assessment is to determine how well the artifact represents the learning outcome on the 1 through 5 rubric scale. The rubric scale is designed so that a 3 is ‘acceptable,’ meaning that the artifact demonstrates the outcomes of the course. A 3 does not equate to a C grade. A 4 is ‘excellent’ and means that the artifact exceeds the outcomes for the course. This might happen, for example, when a paper in a 100-level course demonstrates a mastery of the learning outcome on par with a 300-level course. A 5 is ‘ideal’ and basically means that the artifact shows mastery of the outcome not only for the course, but for the entire program. A 5 rating for any artifact should be astonishingly rare. In practice, artifacts turned in by students who earn an A grade in the course will most often be rated a 3 on the CLO rubric.

When faculty write their course learning outcomes, rubrics are phrased so that the majority of artifacts will fall into the 3 category. For example, in a 100-level course, an ‘acceptable’ outcome for critical thinking might be for an artifact to demonstrate that it “evaluates new information and identifies underlying assumptions; identifies problems and significant variables; shows emerging ability (tries) to seek solutions.” Artifacts from students who pass the course should be rated a 3 on the CLO rubric. The goal for this CLO is for 80% of artifacts in the course to be rated a 3 or higher. However, the “or higher” should be relatively rare. To continue the example, if there are 20 term papers submitted in the class, only two or three might be rated a 4. In 300 and 400-level courses, more artifacts may achieve 4 or 5 ratings, but the majority should remain in the 3 category.

Faculty know their rubric is not calibrated correctly when a majority of artifacts are rated 4 or higher or when more than a very small number are rated a 5. In this case, faculty can review the language of the rubric categories and make necessary adjustments. This type of “meta-assessment” is a part of the ongoing assessment process for any course, program, or institution.

Institutional Learning Outcomes in Process

ILOs by % Artifacts Fall 2013Related pages: Understanding Mission & Learning Outcomes (updated 2/28/2014) and Curriculum Maps

The latest analysis from the Institutional Research and Assessment Office (IRAO) shows an uneven collection of assessment artifacts across UWest’s four Institutional Learning Outcomes (ILOs) during Fall 2013. Academic departments are in the process of developing curriculum maps to ensure that learning outcomes are assessed more systematically, holistically, and evenly in the future.

Last semester, close to three-quarters of all assessment artifacts collected from students measured ILO1 Wisdom and Skillful Means. The remaining quarter, were spread through ILOs 2 to 4. This is illustrated in the chart above. Curriculum maps will ensure that learning outcomes will be assessed at several points during a student’s progression through their academic program.

UWest created a set of four Institutional Learning Outcomes in October of 2011 to help guide the educational activities of each of the university’s academic program. In addition to traditional educational outcomes, such as imparting knowledge of a subject or academic skills, UWest felt it was important to its mission of whole-person education and bridging East and West, to include more holistic outcomes, such as Self-Awareness, Liberation, and Interdependence. Each of the four ILOs has three to five Sub-Areas. These Sub-Areas are not ILOs themselves, though they are worded similarly, but rather used to ensure that outcomes are narrow and specific enough to be measurable. Program and course  level outcomes often align with these Sub-Areas. Student artifacts (i.e. papers, tests, projects) are collected and assessed by instructors in relation to their CLOs.

As the chart above illustrates, far more artifacts were collected for the ILO1 Sub-Area of Knowledge, than any other area, a total of 2,892 or 21% of all artifacts. The next largest area was Ethics, with 2,213 or 16% of artifacts. All five of the most represented areas fall under ILO1. Outside of ILO1, the next largest was ILO3 Liberation Sub-Area for Pluralism, with 758 or 6% of the artifacts. One area, ILO4 Interdependence Sub-Area for Nature saw only 20 artifacts collected and assessed in Fall 2013.

Department Chairs were asked to review the curriculum maps for each academic program during the 2013/14. By taking this ‘big picture’ view, chairs were able to identify where (which courses) students would be introduced to, develop, and master each Program Learning Outcome (PLO). Chairs then selected the specific courses in which these PLOs would be assessed through related CLOs and artifacts. Each PLO will be sampled in two to four courses in the program curriculum.

This chart should look very different in one year’s time. However, UWest still recognizes the difficulty of assessing some ILO Sub-Areas. Not all Sub-Areas have a related PLO in every academic program and some are not very prominent. Therefore, UWest continues to build out its Co-Curricular Program, complete with its own PLOs and assessment database.

Together, the curriculum maps and Co-Curricular Assessment will provide a better picture of the whole-person education UWest is actually providing to students.

Guiding Principles Updated

PrinciplesThe WASC Core Committee reviewed and updated UWest’s Guiding Principles for Assessment at it’s December 2013 meeting. These principles include the purpose of assessment, basic roles and responsibilities of Department Chairs, Faculty, and the Accreditation & Assessment Team in relation to assessment, central focus, and how to keep assessment manageable and meaningful. The updated principles are available here. The are useful when learning about assessment for the first time or as a refresher when planning or conducting assessment activities. Feedback on these principles is welcome from all faculty and staff and should be directed towards the Accreditation Specialist, Ms. Monica Sanford.

The WASC Core Committee is made up of the Executive Team (President, CFO, Dean of Academic Affairs, and Dean of Student Affairs) and the Accreditation & Assessment Team (Accreditation Liaison Officer, Institutional Research & Assessment Officer, and Accreditation Specialist). It meets several times a semester to review information and progress relevant to UWest’s accreditation status, including institutional capacity and educational effectiveness. 

Unique UWest

University of the West was founded in 1990 by Grand Master Hsing Yun of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist order of Taiwan. It began offering classes at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, in the spring of 1991. In 1996, it moved to its present campus on the green hill in Rosemead, California, overlooking the San Gabriel Valley. Today it is only one of four accredited universities in the United States founded by Buddhists. That means UWest belongs to a small club, but that isn’t what makes it unique.

Based on Grand Master Hsing Yun’s aspirations, UWest is on a mission to “provide whole person education in a context informed by Buddhist wisdom and values; and facilitate understanding and appreciation between East and West.” Classic liberal arts colleges have long focused on a “well rounded” education, providing students with broad knowledge in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences and also preparing them to be good citizens. Religiously-affiliated schools often add a spiritual or service component that that curriculum. Many universities are also adding a new emphasis on globalism and cultural pluralism. What makes UWest unique is the way it combines all these aspects into something brilliant that happens on the ground.

A Fall Meet & Greet happens in the courtyard on Friday afternoon. Students, faculty, and staff play “human bingo,” rushing around and introducing themselves to total strangers. “Are you left handed?” a new Chinese woman in the English as a Second Language program asks a young Hispanic man, born and raised in L.A., from the Business program. “Yes!” he answers and signs her bingo sheet to fill in that square. She rushes up to a Korean graduate student in Religious Studies and asks “What month were you born?” Students join the mentoring program, nibble on snacks, and mingle. Finally, a young business student from Russia triumphantly hands her completed bingo sheet to the judge. But the game isn’t over; there are many prizes to give out.

The Tea-Dhamma club meets on the dining hall balcony on Friday evenings. The air is cool and the sun is going down. Around a long table, they share tea made in the traditional way, brewed in small clay pots and served in tiny white-and-blue cups. Monks and nuns and laymen and laywomen (the fourfold sangha) from China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea, Vietname, America, Canada, and Uganda share laughter and stories around the table. The tea is tea and the Dhamma is community.

A group of faculty and staff meet in Ken Locke Hall on Tuesday morning to talk about where UWest is going in the next five years. They brainstorm and throw out ideas, literally splashing them all across one wall, then brake into small groups for intense conversation. They are crafting what will become the new vision statement for the university. Words like “connection” and “community,” “leader” and “excellence” get thrown out. Someone pulls out their phone to look up the precise definition of “integrative.” Over the next month, other small groups will be meeting all over campus to discuss the same question. The university is harnessing the collective wisdom of all its stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors – to chart its future course.

These are things you won’t see together at other schools. UWest students are half domestic and half international, coming from all over the United States and world to provide a unique cross-cultural experience. Monks, nuns, and laypeople from many different traditions gather here to learn about Buddhism and other religions. Although our faculty and staff is still small, and hardworking, they always find time to do that extra bit to help the university along because they believe in its mission.

These examples and many others abound at UWest. That’s why I’m passionate about this school, about helping it grown and making it better, and why I want to share that passion with others.


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