‘Ahead of the curve’

Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, speaks to participants of ECU Assessment Day on campus Sept. 23. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

SACS president speaks on assessment at ECU

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

East Carolina University already is ahead of the curve compared to other institutions in measuring student learning, the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said.


Dr. Belle Wheelan

Dr. Belle Wheelan, SACS president, visited campus Sept. 23 for ECU Assessment Day held in a packed auditorium at the East Carolina Heart Institute.

The day included an examination of best practices at ECU through poster presentations and peer discussion, and presentations by Wheelan and Dr. Marilyn Sheerer, ECU provost.

ECU’s self-review comes ahead of the university’s next SACS reaffirmation of accreditation visit scheduled for 2013.

“I think the fact that you’ve got concrete examples of what’s going on in the different departments, that faculty are talking about it not just in the departments but across the campus, and you’re having conversations about learning, that puts you out front of a lot of your peer institutions,” Wheelan said following her presentation.

“There is a better collective understanding of why we do assessments. I really get the feeling just being here today that it’s more than a SACS requirement. It will benefit students, and that’s a good feeling.”

Wheelan is the first African American and the first woman to serve as SACS president in its 116-year history. Her 30-year career includes roles in faculty, student services and campus administration as provost and college president.

Students are the center to success, and faculty must be involved for students to be successful, she said.

She said questions that should be considered include, what skill sets will they take away when they graduate? How does a student’s life improve as a result of being at ECU? How do you expose students to a broad view of the world and how it relates to each discipline? How do you ensure student competitiveness and competence?

Wheelan said faculty should match theory taught in class with practical applications in the real world for today’s college students. Leaders should also be mindful that many students, particularly minority students, are the first in their families to attend college.

Data from assessments shouldn’t just be collected, but used for continuing accountability. “You want people to feel good about the degrees students earn at ECU,” Wheelan said.

Assessment has always been a critical part of the academic environment, Sheerer said, and it’s even more so today with emphasis on accountability and demand for use of assessment results in improving the learning environment.

“We still need to keep the expectation of student learning front and center,” Sheerer said.


Assessment Day participants reviewed poster presentations set up outside the auditorium where Belle Wheelan spoke.


ECU forum continues conversation

Grades don’t tell the whole story.

That fundamental principle, say top academic officials at East Carolina University, is driving a push to improve how faculty and staff assess student learning.

Effective assessment of student learning goes hand in hand with demonstrating accountability to a diverse audience deeply invested in how well the university meets student-learning outcomes, said David Weismiller, associate provost for Institutional Planning, Assessment and Research.

He said the university is accountable to students, parents and faculty as well as the federal government, which contributes billions of dollars toward higher education.

Accountability also plays a role in whether the university receives reaffirmation of accreditation from SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. ECU’s next SACS reaffirmation visit is scheduled for 2013.

While reaffirmation of accreditation is critical, Weismiller said he expects faculty and staff at ECU will “set the bar higher for student success on our own, not just to meet external standards.”

“We should do this because we care, not because somebody’s coming to visit,” he said.

Setting the bar higher was at the center of an upcoming conversation on student-learning assessment – ECU Assessment Day at the East Carolina Heart Institute. Assessment Day featured, among others, Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on College.

ECU Provost Marilyn Sheerer said that assessment “has always been a critical part of the academic environment. With today’s emphasis on accountability in the academy and the ever-increasing demand for use of assessment results in improving the learning environment, the Assessment Day event is one of utmost importance to us all.”

The university is striving toward what Weismiller terms a “mature assessment system,” which moves beyond acquisition of data. “Mature assessment is when we have the conversation about what the data means, what has been successful and how we take this information forward and use it to inform program decisions,” he said.

ECU has been focusing a concerted effort on assessment since about 2007, Weismiller said. Meetings with faculty identified a desire to continue the conversation, which led to development of the Assessment Day forum.

“Everything we do at East Carolina University should be about student success,” Weismiller said.

An A-minus or B-plus cannot adequately express student success. The grade does not show how well a student has learned to apply critical thinking, collaborate within a group or succeed in a leadership role.

For that reason, assessment of student learning at East Carolina University extends well beyond a letter grade. It is an ongoing process in which faculty and staff consider best practices on how to obtain, evaluate and incorporate student-learning data into decisions that improve student learning, Weismiller said.

– Joy Holster, ECU News Bureau


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