Conducting a program-wide review requires time, patience and the willingness to look at every aspect of a program with an eye to improvement, even if things are already working well.
That was the attitude adopted by the University of Lethbridge’s Department of Modern Languages when its program was reviewed in 2013. Dr. Inge Genee, department chair, says the review was a positive process for their department despite the time commitment involved.
“I would generally advise not to treat a review as yet another piece of red tape that we are required to do that keeps us away from our research. If you do it properly and try to identify, separately from the requirements of the policy document, the issues that you wouldn’t mind a second eye on, you can get some good things out of a review,” says Genee.
U of L programs, or units in some cases, must be reviewed once every seven years, both to ensure degree programs meet the University’s quality standards and to differentiate and solidify the U of L’s place as a comprehensive research university. Having a reputation for high-quality programs, as the U of L does, helps recruit and retain students and faculty.
The review process follows predetermined guidelines and involves four basic steps, the first of which is a self-study. A department committee examines the program in depth and creates a Self-Study Report. The self-study, which includes surveying students and staff and examining demographic and enrolment data, describes the program’s history and current form.
The next step involves appointing two external reviewers who are subject matter experts at outside universities. After an on-campus visit, they write a report that highlights the strengths of a program and recommends potential changes.
The self-study committee reviews the external report and responds to the recommendations. Then the Dean crafts a response to both reports and develops an action plan, which is submitted to the U of L’s Quality Assurance Committee. The committee prepares a closing memo listing the major findings and the Provost lists the required actions generated by the review process. The memo is posted to the quality assurance website but the review process doesn’t end there. Progress on addressing the actions is reviewed at the one- and three-year intervals to ensure implementation is on track.
With the review of Modern Languages now in the rearview mirror, Genee reflected on the process and offered some suggestions that other departments might use.
“I would advise other departments to appoint a person to be responsible for this process and arrange for that person to be properly compensated, whatever that means,” Genee said. “It really is a big job if you want to do it seriously.”
Genee says the self-study portion of the review took longer than anticipated and the department lead on the review should have been relieved of some regular duties to offset the demands of the review.
As it turned out, the external review provided the most valuable feedback. The reviewers, from the University of Winnipeg and Western University, visited at the beginning of March.
“They really did their best to understand the department as a unit,” says Genee. “They extensively met with every faculty member individually, with students individually and in groups, and with administrative support. They worked hard to understand the specific context that we have at the U of L.”
Their report pointed to a way to be more efficient when collaborating with other faculties about combined degrees, particularly when the requirements of faculties clash.
“We have been, for years, trying at a departmental level to address some of those things. It always doesn’t quite get resolved,” says Genee. “The external reviewers suggested a number of creative ways we could be dealing with these issues, which we are now pursuing.”
The external reviewers also noted that faculty members’ time was spent on teaching and providing services like counseling and advising to students to the detriment of research activities, teaching development and revamping curricula.
“They were able to tell us that some of our workload is improperly weighted and so we are looking at that,” she says.
Since 2006, 28 reviews have been closed, 10 are in progress and another four began in September. The goal is to have reviewed every single program and unit by 2020.