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Departments find assessment process
is hard work but may create opportunities
December 7, 1998

With the economics department just one week away from the conclusion of the first phase of the University's program assessment process, department head Steve Miller is ready for a break. He and the economics faculty have spent the past 18 months looking inward, asking hard questions, considering how - and how much - they must redefine what they do and the next phase also promises to require extra effort.

"The intention of the program assessment process is to provide a functional and structured approach to thinking strategically about each academic department and program."

Mark A. Emmert

In the end though, Miller and his colleagues on the faculty, along with future undergraduates, graduates and employers, will likely benefit from the changes now being made not only in economics, but also in the departments of modern and classical languages, history, dramatic arts, chemistry and soon, every department in the University.

Program assessment, a tool designed to help all academic departments and programs at UConn keep tabs on what they, and their peers, are doing, and to maintain their focus on their goals and mission, is well underway.

So far, four departments have completed the three-semester process, and seven others have completed self- studies, hosted site visits, and sculpted plans that are ready to be finalized with their deans and Chancellor Mark A. Emmert. Another three have begun a self-study of their areas, and six more have had an initial meeting with the leadership team that is coordinating the process.

"It's been a pretty good process," says Robert V. Smith, vice provost for research, dean of the graduate school, and one of the assessment coordinators. "There's been a little bit of realignment - we had hoped to do all 70 or so areas in four years, but we've pushed it back to five. There's a tremendous amount of work involved, both in the individual departments and programs, and in the Office of Institutional Research (where much of the data required for the process is stored). All of us involved have at times felt a little overburdened."

Maureen Croteau, head of the journalism department, is among the group that has just learned the parameters of the process and, though it's too early for her to feel overburdened, she is wary.

"Nervous? No, I'm not nervous. But it is a daunting procedure, a lot of work," she says, ticking off the various steps and timetables that now confront her and her four faculty members.

Croteau is hopeful, though, that the department has laid at least some of the groundwork already. With help from its long-standing advisory committee, the department is in the midst of developing a 10-year plan that will offer information on where the department hopes to be in the year 2000 and beyond, that may prove useful for the self-study. And recent efforts to bring journalism alumni back to Storrs have provided the department with a solid base of more than 650 former journalism majors that also will help in part of the study, she says.

The process stems from the University's Strategic Plan. A 17-member task force crafted the details of the assessment process which, the members wrote in their report, is designed "to assist the University and its constituent academic units in the pursuit of excellence." They also set as a goal that the assessment should help officials with decisions surrounding the allocation and development of resources based on a department's mission, value and performance.

"The intention of the program assessment process is to provide a functional and structured approach to thinking strategically about each academic department and program," says Emmert. "The process gives departments the opportunity to look at themselves, to assess their progress, their direction, their strengths and their challenges, where they are with respect to their peers."

It also helps departments focus, says Smith, who adds that UConn - and its various components - "cannot afford, or even hope to be, outstanding in all academic fields. No university can. So we're looking at where people need to focus," he says. "We did this in economics and in chemistry, where they decided the focus should be on organic and biological chemistry. That doesn't mean they will eliminate the other disciplines (in chemistry), just that there should be more focus placed on those two."

In the history and modern and classical languages departments, two areas that were heavily affected byretirements last year, the losses proved to be both a negative - the loss of proven talent - and a positive - giving the departments an opportunity to appoint faculty to build on identified areas of strength or to explore new partnerships.

Altina Waller, head of the history department, says the loss of both faculty who taught ancient history, for example, created an opportunity to join the modern languages department to possibly share a classics professor.

Waller also says the external reviewers of her department suggested that history faculty consider broadening the Western Civilization course, either moving toward global history or offering a menu of courses in the current arrangement. A third possibility would be to study whether the department can handle the load at all. Waller says faculty teach more than 2,300 students a year in Western Civilization classes - a general education requirement - creating a tremendous load. "But we're very committed to the program," she says, "so the third option is highly unlikely. A better course would be to decide how can we do it and do it well? How can we make the freshman experience in that a really good experience, more personalized."

A similar problem confronted the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, where the critical languages program was swamped with students, all taught by graduate students or native speakers brought in to teach one of the the dozens of languages taught in that broad-based category, which does not offer a major. (The department offers majors in the classical languages, French, Italian, German, and Spanish.) But, says department head David Herzberger, the students brought in to teach the languages rarely, if ever, had actually taught someone a language before, and they foundered.

"It would be like you going to France and trying to teach someone to speak English. You know English well, but how do you explain it to someone who has never heard it before? You really need someone who knows how to teach a second language."

During their assessment process, he says, the team discovered that most of UConn's peer institutions had turned to self-study for students in this situation, and Herzberger's department will now do the same.

"A lot of students want to take a language, either out of intellectual curiosity, professional need, or tracking their ethnic heritage, for instance. With the new program, we screen more thoroughly - to take the course we require previous experience with a language, and at least a 3.0 GPA," he says. The students work with a tutor twice a week, and listen to tapes and read between visits. Before receiving credit for the course, an outside examiner gives the students a proficiency test they must pass, which forms the largest piece of their grade.

As a result of the assessment, Herzberger says language majors also will now be required to participate in a study abroad program, something that was voluntary before the program.

"The self study was hard," says Herzberger. "But, after that, it wasn't too bad. I do think the site visit should be lengthened. A day and a-half just isn't enough. They got a snapshot of the department, but it would have been more helpful with another day or more."

Miller, the economics department head, agrees the self study was hard but says it was worthwhile. "I'm pleased with our process. The discussion was very frank and honest. If it's done correctly, if you ask probing questions about your department, it's going to be stressful," Miller says. "But that's the only way to make progress."

Richard Veilleux