Driven by Mission

How one school keeps its curriculum-embedded assessments in perfect alignment with the four tenets of its mission.

SOME BUSINESS SCHOOLS use multiple-choice standardized tests provided by professional testing organizations to assess student learning and benchmark their students against those in other programs. But because standardized exams often are administered at the end of a program, they typically are not integrated into the curriculum. Larger schools often administer standardized exams only to a sample of students—and sometimes not to every graduating class. Moreover, standardized exams may not help schools fulfill AACSB International’s Standard 8 for business accreditation, which requires a school’s learning goals, curricular design, and assurance of learning to align with its mission.

That’s why, at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, we take a mission-driven approach to defining our learning goals and assessing student learning, and we embed our assessments throughout our entire curriculum, not just at a program’s end. This approach helps us gauge whether we need to make adjustments at each step of the program. Moreover, it allows us to better ensure whether our curriculum is aligned with our mission.

MISSION-BASED ASSURANCE OF LEARNING HELPS US ENSURE THAT OUR MISSION DRIVES OUR CURRICULUM, EVALUATION, AND IMPROVEMENT PROCESSES.

FOUR GOALS, ONE MISSION

The Byrd School enrolls about 275 BBA students and 100 MBA students. Our mission is reflected in the learning goals we’ve set for students in both programs, in four primary areas: decision making, ethics, leadership, and global perspective. Under each learning goal, we have organized a range of learning objectives around the hierarchy set out in Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals—known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. As Bloom suggests, we time our learning objectives so that students progress through the phases of “knowing,” “feeling,” and “doing” as they advance in their programs. The highest-level learning objective for BBAs is the lowest-level learning objective for MBAs.

When we first adopted an assurance of learning plan eight years ago, we embedded just two multidisciplinary cases—one for the BBA and one for the MBA—in only a few core courses. However, a few years ago, our Curriculum and Assessment Committee (C&AC) discovered three problems with that approach during its formal review. First, students and faculty were fatigued by the use of just two cases. Second, because assessment activities were included in so few core courses, few faculty members fully understood the process.

Finally, we were measuring the same learning objectives in different courses—in some cases, we were making as many as eight assessments of a single objective. As a result, we found that students often met a learning objective in one discipline but could not satisfy the same learning objective in another. So, even though we were gathering a great deal of data, it was difficult to interpret whether learning objectives were achieved.

At that point, we made several changes. First, with input from the C&AC and faculty in each discipline, we adopted six new cases: three for the BBA and three for the MBA. One case is used in both programs, but not in the same disciplines or to assess the same objectives.

Second, we made sure that each learning objective is assessed in only one course, with no more than three learning objectives measured in one course. In this way, we can unambiguously identify whether an objective has been achieved. And, third, we expanded the reach of the assessment process to encompass eight undergraduate and ten graduate core courses. (See a table that outlines our learning objectives and the courses where each is assessed below.)

COORDINATING THE PROCESS

Faculty from each discipline determine what methods they will use to assess their assigned learning objectives. Once selected, that method of assessment is fixed for all sections of the course, regardless of who teaches it.

For instance, we assess MBA students’ ethical mindsets via a final exam question in our course on accounting for decision making. The question asks them to evaluate the consequences of different ethical dilemmas and select the best courses of action. At the BBA and MBA levels, the leadership learning objective is assessed via individual leadership plans, which might include homework assignments, exam questions, or an essay. To measure our MBA students’ global mindsets, we include a case-based essay question in our capstone course in business policy.

Students examine the case and describe how the company’s vision, competition, supply chain, and other elements affect global operations.

After administering assessments, instructors complete standardized reports, in which they outline and analyze the results and recommend future improvements. At semester’s end, the C&AC reviews the reports and posts them to a Blackboard page available to all faculty and staff, who use the data to determine whether we need to make changes in our teaching or assessments.

For instance, last year, we were surprised when several students in our capstone course in business policy tackled the case and essay question from ethical, rather than global, perspectives! In the future, the instructor will emphasize the question’s objective more clearly during discussions about the final exam.

ADDED ADVANTAGES

We’ve found that a mission-based approach to assurance of learning has important advantages over relying on standardized tests. It helps us ensure that our mission drives our curriculum, evaluation, and improvement processes, which in turn helps us fulfill AACSB’s Standard 8. It keeps our instructors, students, partners, and other stakeholders focused on our mission. It also promotes the use of cross-disciplinary cases and integrates learning across the curriculum. Students see that core courses do not stand alone, but provide different ways to evaluate business problems.

To strengthen our program’s connection to practice, we plan to embed assessment questions related to professional certifications in appropriate courses. These could include practice exam questions from certifying bodies such as the Society of Human Resource Management and Project Management Institute. We want to know that our students can pass certification exams—and that what we teach is consistent with real-world practice.

Embedding assessments can be complex and cumbersome, and evaluating results from multiple sections is labor-intensive. We continually train faculty in our assessment processes and assign mentors to help new faculty ensure that their syllabi and course requirements effectively measure learning objectives in assessment-related courses.

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Such an approach might not be applicable for very large business schools, but we believe that three aspects are relevant—if not crucial—to all business schools. The first is that all of a business school’s learning goals should be mission- based. The second is that learning objectives should conform to a learning hierarchy such as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Finally, and most important, a business school’s curriculum and course content should align with the learning objectives, which in turn should align with mission. Only then can business schools deliver their promised value to their students and to the business community.

 

 

Bruce K. Gouldey is associate professor of finance and chair of the Curriculum and Assessment Committee, and Miles Davis is professor of management and dean at Shenandoah University’s Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business in Winchester, Virginia.