Volume 12, Number 2 September 10, 2004

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Five-year-old SPR undergoes review

By Lawrence McMahen

The tables have been turned on Systematic Program Review (SPR).
The ambitious U of S project to review the quality of all 152 academic programs in a six-year cycle is now itself the subject of an intensive evaluation.

Two renowned experts in university assessment will visit campus Sept. 29 through Oct. 1 for a first-hand look at the five-year-old SPR process.

The two are Trudy Banta, Vice-Chancellor of Planning and Institutional Improvement at Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis, and Janet Donald, Professor in McGill University’s Centre for University Teaching and Learning.

By November Banta and Donald will offer their evaluation of SPR.

And three officials in charge of SPR say the external assessment, along with a just-finished internal self-study of the review process, will go a long ways towards telling U of S academic leaders how much revision SPR needs before it starts its second cycle of program reviews.

Provost & Vice-President Academic Michael Atkinson, SPR Academic Director Trevor Gambell and SPR Administrator Tonya Wirchenko also say the assessment will likely influence how SPR will work in the future with the expected growing assessment of other U of S functions, like research and administrative units. The recently approved U of S Integrated Plan for 2003-07 calls for development of “a culture of assessment” across campus.

Wirchenko says when it launched SPR in 1999, University Council directed that a review of the process be conducted before its first six-year cycle is complete.

Council’s Planning Committee and the SPR executive worked together to design this review of SPR. It is modelled on SPR’s own format for reviewing academic programs: first, the program leaders gather data and write a “self-study”; then, external reviewers take a close look at the program and write a report; lastly, SPR leaders and Planning Committee determine a final outcome of the program review.

Wirchenko and Gambell say SPR’s own inward-looking review began with a lot of data collection.

It included information from deans and associate deans who have been through SPR review of their programs, interviews of past internal reviewers, a web-based survey that gathered data from program heads and past SPR self-study participants, and focus groups conducted with students and others involved in SPR.

Gambell says it all went into the self-study report which was to be sent this week to consultants Banta and Donald. He adds it will also be posted later this month on the University’s PAWS web portal for all in the campus community to read.

There were a couple of surprises in what Gambell and Wirchenko heard in their data-gathering, although over the five years SPR has operated, there has already been a wealth of feedback about the perceived benefits and shortcomings of the review process.

For instance, since SPR began, faculty and program heads have applauded how eye-opening and beneficial its self-study process is. And many external reviewers – some of whom are international leaders in their disciplines – have marvelled at the thoroughness and quality of the SPR review process.

Over the years the U of S has received a number of requests from other universities for information about the process, “and we’ve heard of two universities now modelling their program reviews on SPR,” Wirchenko says.

Gambell says the recent self-study of SPR found a number of people noted how onerous the review process is, and yet they also said it was a good process.

“What surprised us was that most also said the assessment categories – commonly referred to as grades – were an important thing to have in the process,” he says. An SPR review of a program gives it an A, B, C or D grade. A-graded programs are outstanding, Bs need a few changes, Cs need fundamental changes and an action-plan, and Ds are considered for termination.

Provost Atkinson sees SPR’s five-year track record, and now this external review of it, as major steps towards ensuring quality in everything the U of S does.

“SPR represents a significant investment in a culture of assessment on campus. We need to build on our experience with SPR and measure ourselves using world standards.”

Wirchenko says the U of S is honoured to have two “top-notch” authorities like Banta and Donald looking at SPR. She said faculty and staff are encouraged to attend an open meeting with them from 11:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m., Sept. 30 in Kirk Hall Rm. 144.

Also, Banta will present an open lecture on “Trends in Assessment in Higher Education” from 8:30–10:00 a.m., Oct. 1 in Rm. 299 in the Murray Building.

Wirchenko says that in this sixth and final year of the first cycle of SPR program reviews, the last 20 U of S academic programs will be assessed. These include Women’s & Gender Studies, Biology, Physical Therapy, Dentistry and programs in Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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