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University of the Pacific's Approach to Educational Effectiveness

Eileen McFall, Director of Learning and Academic Assessment

University of the Pacific's mission is to provide a superior, student-centered learning experience integrating liberal arts and professional education and preparing individuals for lasting achievement and responsible leadership in their careers and communities. We translate this mission into an educational goal of preparing "practice-ready" graduates, but what does it mean to be practice ready? We can promote that goal, and evaluate our educational effectiveness, by using research into proficiency and its development. We don't expect students to be experts in their fields upon graduation, but we do expect them to be proficient; that is, able to apply knowledge skillfully and ethically to address meaningful problems. Furthermore, we expect them to be on a trajectory toward becoming experts as they continue to learn in graduate or professional school, in their careers, and in their personal lives and communities.

Our approach to educational effectiveness involves examining how well all of our resources and efforts align to support students' development of proficiency. Even though the operations of the university are complex, our mission and strategic plan can serve as a guide to assess and improve upon our educational effectiveness. Those areas where our resources and efforts are not fully aligned in support of our mission and strategic goals become the focus of attention for improvement.

In order to assess, evaluate, and improve our educational effectiveness, we need to have a common understanding of proficiency-practice-readiness-and how it develops. Proficiency includes discipline-specific knowledge and procedural knowledge and skills, or what we call "major field competence." Proficiency also includes metacognitive skills; that is, students' ability to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own thinking and learning, and to continue to learn with increasing efficiency and effectiveness. Finally, it includes the "big picture" or mental model of how each student organizes all her or his knowledge, skills, and values. Students develop domain-specific knowledge and skills through major courses, writing-intensive courses, and the General Education program. They also develop metacognitive skills and mental models, including values related to professional and civic engagement, through their major program, General Education, the diversity course requirement, their co-curricular experiences, and the complete constellation of their experiences at Pacific. Each program describes what proficiency "looks like" within the major, phrased as program outcomes and aligned with the university-wide objectives that represent educational values common to the entire university community. An understanding of proficiency helps us to assess not just knowledge and skill, but also the metacognitive skills and mental models that are crucial to practice-readiness.

Proficiency develops through certain types of activities, and its development is best promoted in particular conditions. Activities that promote the development of proficiency include high-quality formal instruction and study to inculcate foundational knowledge, and also active and experiential learning, including deliberate practice, trial-and-error with reflection and guidance, discovery learning, and problem solving.  Experiential learning such as internships, research, and study abroad, and reflection and feedback on the meaning of those experiences, are crucial to development of accurate mental models. These "high-impact" educational practices, many of which are integral to a Pacific education, were described by George Kuh for AAC&U in 2008, including first-year seminars (like PACS 1 and 2), undergraduate research, service learning, internships, and capstone experiences.

Conditions that support the development of proficiency encompass the full set of environments-department, residence halls, university, home and family-and the interactions among those environments and the student. Conditions that foster the development of proficiency include both structural and cultural supports. Structural supports include things like a student- faculty ratio and class size that allow each student to benefit from faculty attention and receive specific feedback, access to academic support and advising, opportunities for prolonged engagement and practice in the discipline, and opportunities for undergraduate research and experiential learning in which students can develop procedural knowledge and skills and an accurate mental model of their discipline and related professions.

Cultural supports include an environment in which learners are encouraged to explore and risk mistakes in their pursuit of excellence, and one in which gaps in knowledge are seen as opportunities for further learning rather than as evidence of innate faults. Perhaps most importantly, a culture that contributes to the development of proficiency is one that values, creates, and maintains structural supports such as those listed above.

Our approach to educational effectiveness involves creating assessment and program review systems that serve to align all our resources and efforts to support students' (and our own) development of proficiency, so that graduates are prepared for lasting achievement and responsible leadership in their careers and communities.

For additional reading:

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., and Norman, M. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G. (2008). High-impact educational practices: A brief overview. Excerpt from High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm

University of the Pacific Guide to Academic Assessment (a work in progress)

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