The Voice: Summer 2001

The Voice

Program review aims to improve the curriculum

Sally Jongsma

Music theory students work exercises on the board under the teaching eye of Dr. Karen De Mol.     You can't fatten a hog by weighing it,” a farmer once said at a public hearing on educational assessment. Yet until the farmer weighs the hog, he doesn't know whether his feeding regimen has given him a hog of the weight and size he hoped for.
    A similar point could be made about the growing emphasis on assessment and program review in education today. Feeling burdened by the addition of another major task to their already heavy preparation and grading loads, faculty members often respond like the farmer. Program review demands significant amounts of time and energy that can take time away from teaching. But those who have gone through the process agree that it gives both faculty and the institution a clearer picture of how effective their teaching is, how individual courses contribute to departmental goals, and how the department's program contributes to the goals of the institution.
    “We've always been doing assessment, making the best judgments we could,” says Dr. Rockne McCarthy, vice president for academic affairs. “We're now doing it more formally than before.”
    Simon du Toit, chair of the theatre arts department, which is in the process of completing its program review, believes that the effort has been good for the department. “It obliges us to search for, examine, and reaffirm our most cherished ideas about what we do and why we do it. We also examine how well those ideas are being carried out and then change whatever we can to move closer to those goals.”
    Dr. Paul Otto, chair of the history department agrees. “The process allowed us to lay on the table what we thought our curriculum should look like.” It has also allowed them to dream. “We claim to be distinctive in our approach, so we need to make sure we know why we are doing what we are doing,” he says. The opportunity was particularly helpful for the history department, whose members have all joined the faculty within the last ten years. They have worked with a curriculum that has seen periodic changes but which was set up many years ago.
    “We not only looked at how we concretely work out of the curricular perspective Dordt has adopted, but considered our department members' international diversity and experiences,” Otto said.
    Of the psychology department's review, Dr. Sherri Lantinga said, “It allowed us to see evidence of our curricular strengths and our weaknesses. It also gave us an opportunity to sit down together to think about what we're doing in our individual courses and how those can be improved.”
    This more formal review process will benefit the institution, McCarthy says. Not only the proposed changes, but the study and assessment results are now available to more people. This in turn allows the institution to make better judgments about its overall program.
    “For the first time, the curriculum committee can actually enter into the curricular change process in a full way,” McCarthy says. With the formalizing of the process, departments affected by changes in another area are given opportunity to respond as well. “It makes it easier to make good decisions,” says McCarthy.
    The process also meets the North Central Accrediting Association's requirement that colleges demonstrate how they are accomplishing their goals.
    Departmental reviews are supposed to occur every five years, and faculty are given the time and resources needed to make their report. The department must interact with other departments that have a direct interest in their course offerings, and they are to solicit outside peer reviews. Students must also be involved in the process.
     To give departments guidelines for conducting their reviews and to ensure consistency in the process, the college has put together a document on academic program review and planning. The four pages of guidelines, which have been revised based on the experience of departments that have gone through the process, list issues to be addressed in the report. These range from explicit program goals and assessment plans to how their curriculum is structured, from who the students are to how they are advised, from evaluating teaching to encouraging cross-cultural awareness.
    “The process as it is laid out for us seems simple, but in fact is very complex, requiring much thought, writing, reading, discussion, and planning,” says du Toit. “In going through the review we discovered more about each other's values and teaching. We ended the process by shaping a vision for the future of our department that inspired all of us and that is now guiding many of our decisions and actions. But at this point he thinks that perhaps five years is too often to do such a comprehensive review.
    The first time each department goes through this formal review will be the most work, McCarthy believes. Institutional documents such the “Educational Framework of Dordt College” have been adopted only in the last ten years. Most departments have not had the time to investigate whether and how their curriculum can contribute to a more holistic expression of the college's goals and principles.
    “You can build a house by just putting together walls and a floor and a roof, but sketching out a blueprint first will give you a better one,” says McCarthy. The same is true for a curriculum. Consciously making the parts fit together well will give students a better education.
    “We want to formally demonstrate in a more systematic way that what we are doing is based on the goals we have set. We need to ask how each course contributes to the goals of the department and of the institution, how our introductory courses lead to intermediate ones, and how they pick up on general education courses,” says McCarthy. And as departmental assessment plans become a more integral part of the educational process, doing reviews will also be easier.
    McCarthy realizes that telling faculty who feel swamped with the review process that it will get easier is a bit like telling a first-year faculty member drowning in work that it will get better. It's small consolation at the moment, but it does happen. And he hopes that as
faculty see student learning improve, review will also become easier to commit to.
    The concrete changes already occurring also demonstrate the value of the process. Several departments have introduced new introductory courses in their major as a result of program review. Others have added new capstone courses designed to encourage in-depth study, reading, research, writing, and advanced problem solving. Changes have also been made in the core requirements of some majors to fill holes or add depth. New practicums and internships are being required, and new programs and emphases have been added in some majors.
    The psychology department, for example, restructured its one-size-fits-all major into a two-track program to better meet the needs of students interested in pursuing careers in human services and students interested in graduate school. They also designed a psychology minor, developed some new courses and sequences, and wrote an advising handbook to help their students make more informed choices about the courses and electives they choose. The history department added new required courses on both ends of their major: an introduction to historical studies and a senior course in the history of historical interpretation.
    These and other changes brought about through the review process will give Dordt students a stronger education. And by providing information about what their programs are trying to accomplish, judgments about what they are doing well, and recommendations about what they can do better, departmental program reviews will help the institution continue to plan for the future.

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