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WASC Glossary


Academic calendar    the institution’s published scheduling arrangement for classes, i.e., quarter, semester, trimester, summer, intersession, etc.

Academic freedom    institutional policies and practices that affirm that those in the academy are free to share their convictions and responsible conclusions with their colleagues and students in their teaching, research, and writing. According to the AAUP statement on academic freedom, teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but should not introduce controversial matter that has no relation to their subject.

Academic Resource Conference (ARC)    annual meeting sponsored by the WASC Senior College and University Commission.

Accountability    in higher education, being answerable to the public, e.g., students, parents, policymakers, employers. Historically, accountability has focused on financial resources; emphasis now extends to students’ academic progress, including retention, acquisition of knowledge and skills, and degree completion.

Accreditation    as practiced by WASC and other regional accrediting associations, a voluntary, non-governmental, peer-based form of quality assurance at the institutional level. To receive or reaffirm accredited status, institutions demonstrate that they are in compliance with state and federal law and meet the accrediting association’s standards. Accrediting associations must be recognized by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) in order for their accredited institutions to qualify for federal grants and loans to students.

Accreditation Liaison Officer (ALO)    the individual at an institution who is assigned to conduct continuing relations with the accrediting agency and to oversee processes associated with the institution’s accreditation status.

Action letter    an official, public statement of findings, approved by the WASC Senior College and University Commission and signed by the WASC president, at the conclusion of the institutional review process. The letter typically commends exemplary institutional efforts, notes areas for improvement, contains recommendations, sets the number of years until the next review for reaccreditation, and may impose other conditions such as an interim report or special visit.

Admissions policy    the rationale, criteria, and processes that determine which applicants are permitted to enroll at an institution. Based on their criteria, institutions are sometimes described as highly selective, moderately selective, or open admission institutions.

Aggregation    a process of grouping distinct or varied data together and considering them as a whole. See “disaggregation.”

Alignment    connections among functions or dimensions of an institution that support achievement of goals, e.g., among curriculum, pedagogy, and expected outcomes; or priorities, planning, and resource allocation.

Assessment (of student learning)    an ongoing, iterative process consisting of four basic steps: 1. defining learning outcomes; 2. choosing a method or approach and then using it to gather evidence of learning; 3. analyzing and interpreting the evidence; and 4. using this information to improve student learning.

Assessment method     a way to collect evidence of student learning. See “direct method” and “indirect method.”

Authentic assessment    1. an assessment approach that requires students to actively generate a response to a question, for example in an essay, rather than choose from a set of responses, e. g., a multiple choice or matching activity; 2. an assessment approach that uses an activity close to “real life” rather

Benchmark    a point of reference or standard of excellence in relation to which something can be compared and judged. A specific level of student performance may serve as the benchmark that students are expected to meet at a particular point in time or developmental level. Retention and graduation rates may also be benchmarked against those of peer institutions or national norms. than an academic construct such as a test.

Capacity and Preparatory Review (CPR)    the second step in the institutional review process introduced by WASC in 2001 and still required for institutions seeking candidacy. The three-step process may also be mandated for other institutions under special circumstances. Review focuses on the adequacy of finances, facilities, human capital, information resources, quality assurance processes, and other aspects of institutional infrastructure. See also “Proposal,” “Educational Effectiveness Review.”

Capstone    a culminating project or experience, usually associated with undergraduates but also applicable to graduate education, that generally takes place in the student’s final year of study and requires review, synthesis, and application of what has been learned over the course of the student’s college experience. The result may be a product (e.g., original research, an innovative engineering design, an art exhibit) or a performance (e.g., a recital, an internship, student teaching). The capstone can provide evidence for assessment of a range of outcomes, e.g., core competencies, general education outcomes, and institution-level outcomes, as well as those for the major or graduate degree.

Catalog    an educational institution’s official bulletin or publication that provides information on admission, institutional mission, majors, minors, current course offerings, costs, faculty, and other topics. To receive a degree, a student must ordinarily meet the requirements in effect and so noted in the catalog when the student first enrolled. The catalog is typically posted on an institution’s Web site; it may also be available in hard copy.

Ceiling, floor    in assessment of learning, a ceiling effect occurs when the assessment activity is not challenging enough, or the scoring rubric is not ambitious enough, to accommodate higher levels of student performance. A floor effect occurs when data cannot represent a value lower than what the assessment activity or the rating scale allows.

Closing the loop    refers to the four-step assessment cycle (see “assessment of student learning”) and the need to complete the cycle in order to improve learning. “Completing the cycle” may be understood as 1. completing step 4; or 2. completing step 4 and then repeating the cycle to see whether the changes implemented have produced the desired result.

Co-curricular learning    learning that takes place in activities and programs that are not part of the prescribed sequence of courses in an academic program.

Comparative data    data drawn from other sources: from within or, more typically, from outside the institution. Comparative data can enhance meaning and contextual understanding of the primary data being reviewed and analyzed.

Competency    in assessment of student learning, a specific skill, body of knowledge, or disposition; can also refer to the student’s ability to demonstrate that learning. “Competency” is sometimes used interchangeably with “outcome,” “objective,” and “ability.”

Core commitments    WASC’s Standards and process are founded on three Core Commitments: to student learning and success; to quality and improvement; and to institutional integrity, sustainability, and accountability. WASC-accredited institutions demonstrate their adherence to these commitments through the institutional review process.

Core competencies    as defined in WASC Standard 2, Criterion for Review 2.2, institutions report on graduating students’ levels of performance in five core competencies: written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and information literacy. Not to be confused with “core curriculum” (see “core curriculum”).

Core curriculum approach to general education that requires all students to take the same set of courses, rather than choosing from a menu of options; 2. sometimes used as a synonym for general education. See also “general education.”

Credit, unit of; credit hour     a commonly accepted quantification of student academic learning. One semester unit represents the time a student is expected to devote to learning in one week of full-time undergraduate study (typically two to three hours of preparation for each hour of class, or the equivalent, for a full-time course load of 14 to 16 units per semester). At the graduate level, typically, more than three hours of study for every hour in class is expected. Institutions using other academic calendars generally calculate units of credit relative to semester units. For example, one (15-week) semester unit may be equated to 1.5 (10-week) quarter units.

Criterion    a characteristic mark or trait on the basis of which a judgment may be made. Criteria for good writing, for example, may be the ability to state a position clearly, support the position, anticipate contradictory arguments, and do so in error-free language.

Criterion for Review (CFR)    as used by WASC, a Criterion for Review (CFR) is a statement in relation to which an institution is reviewed. Criteria for review are more specific than the four Standards of Accreditation and are intended to define and explain the Standards. Substantial compliance with both the Standards and Criteria for Review is required by state and federal laws for accreditation. CFRs also provide guidance to institutions and form the basis for Commission decisions about an institution’s accreditation status.

Criterion-referenced    testing or assessment in which student performance is judged in relation to pre-established standards and not in relation to the performance of other students. See also “norm-referenced.”

Critical thinking    the ability to think in a way that is clear, reasoned, reflective, informed by evidence, and aimed at deciding what to believe or do.  Dispositions supporting critical thinking include open-mindedness and motivation to seek the truth.

Culture of evidence    a habit of using evidence in assessment, decision making, planning, resource allocation, and other institutional processes that is embedded in and characteristic of an institution’s actions and practices.

Curriculum map    a visual representation, usually in the form of a table or matrix, that shows the alignment of course outcomes with program learning outcomes. Well-crafted curriculum maps also show development of proficiency levels, for example using terminology such as “beginning,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” or “introduced,” “developed,” and “mastered.”

Descriptive data    data that describe the student body (e.g., SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA, class rank, age, socioeconomic status, full- or part-time status, financial aid status, credits earned) as well as data about the institution (e.g., enrollment, assets, graduation rates, loan default rates).

DFWI    refers to courses with high rates of grades of “D” or “F,” withdrawals, and incompletes for the students who enroll. Frequently associated with “gatekeeper” courses required for admission to a specific major, and “bottleneck” courses that impede students’ progress to higher levels of study and degree completion. DFWI courses signal areas that can be studied to improve student success.

Direct assessment    1. A way of gauging the quality of student learning by examining student work products and performances directly, rather than relying on surrogates, e.g., grades, credit hours, “seat time”; 2. A means by which institutions may award federal aid to students enrolled in competency-based programs. Authority for institutions to do so has existed under the Higher Education Act since 2005 but is assuming greater salience with the emergence of alternative educational models.

Direct method    in assessment of student learning, a way of gathering evidence of learning directly, e.g., through scoring of actual student work or performances, rather than indirectly, e.g., through self-reports, surveys, etc. Direct evidence can be supplemented by indirect evidence and descriptive data. See “indirect method.”

Disaggregation    a process of breaking out aggregate data according to specific criteria in order to reveal patterns, trends, and other information. Data such as retention and graduation rates are commonly disaggregated according to demographic characteristics such as race/ethnicity and gender. Other potentially relevant criteria include age, full- or part-time status, transfer status, and Pell Grant status. Data from assessment of student learning can be disaggregated to derive information about the needs of different subgroups and ways to improve their performance.

Distinctiveness    the identity or “brand” that sets one institution apart from others, usually expressed through the institution’s mission, values, and traditions. Institutions’ distinctiveness can be expressed in terms of learning outcomes that make a graduate recognizable and different from graduates of other institutions. Students’ levels of performance can be contextualized in relation to institutional distinctiveness. See also “context,” “mission.”

Diversity    the representation and recognition of people of different backgrounds and points of view in the various constituencies of a college or university, e.g., student body, faculty, staff, and governing board.

Domain    in assessment of student learning, an area of knowledge, skill, or disposition to be assessed. Sometimes described as cognitive, skill, and affective domains. Common domains are college readiness skills, college-level intellectual skills, general education, the major, the minor, co-curricular learning, and outcomes related to institutional distinctiveness

Educational effectiveness (EE)    producing the intended learning results in an educational endeavor. As used by WASC, educational effectiveness includes clear and appropriate educational outcomes and objectives; and alignment at the institutional and program level of resources and processes, including assessment, to ensure delivery of programs and learner accomplishments at a level of performance appropriate to the degree or certificate awarded. At the institutional level, findings about learning are integrated into planning, budgeting, and decision making.

Educational Effectiveness Framework (EEF)    a rubric-like matrix used by WASC evaluation teams to rate institutions as “initial,” “emerging,” “developed,” or “highly developed” in the areas of student learning, the teaching/learning environment, and institutional learning, as well as holistically. Institutions frequently use the matrix for self-assessment.

Embedded assessment    a minimally intrusive and efficient method of collecting evidence of learning using the work or performances that students produce in response to course assignments.

Evaluation    a process for measuring and judging the quality of performance of an institution, a program, a process, or individuals, e.g., instructors, administrators. While assessment of student learning and evaluation processes are related, they do differ and it is best not to use the terms interchangeably.

Exhibits    the required data, documents, and other items that are included as part of the institutional report and are reviewed for reaffirmation of accreditation.

Floor, ceiling    in assessment of learning, a floor effect occurs when data cannot represent a value lower than what the assessment activity or the rating scale allows. A ceiling effect occurs when the assessment activity is not challenging enough, or the scoring rubric is not ambitious enough, to accommodate higher levels of student performance.

Focus group    a qualitative assessment method that uses small-group discussions, led by a facilitator and following a protocol, to gather information about attitudes, beliefs, and experiences. Responses are recorded and then analyzed. Although focus groups are usually considered an indirect method, they have been used to provide direct evidence, e.g., of students’ ability to apply learning or demonstrate institutional values.

Formative assessment    assessment intended to provide feedback and support for improved performance as part of an ongoing learning process, whether at the student, program, or institution level. See also “summative assessment.”

General education    the portion of an undergraduate course of study that provides general background knowledge and develops generic higher-order intellectual skills. General education can take many forms. Some programs are “foundational,” i.e., students complete required courses before going on to the major; other programs run parallel with study in the major over the entire college career; still others integrate the learning outcomes of general education into other coursework

Goal    1. in assessment of student learning, a high-level, very general statement of learning expected of graduates, aligned with the institution’s mission, vision, and values (more specific learning outcomes are derived from goals); 2. a statement developed by an institution or program related to strategic planning, financial development, and other important issues.

High-impact practice (HIP)    HIPs include first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning, internships, and capstone courses or projects. Research suggests that if students experience one or more HIPs in the course of their studies, they are more likely to persist, achieve higher levels of learning, and complete their degrees.

Indirect assessment    A way of gauging the quality of student learning and the educational experience through the use of surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. The findings are “indirect,” i.e., filtered through the perceptions and opinions of the respondents.

Indirect method    in assessment of student learning, a way to capture evidence of learning in the form of opinions—for example, of students, employers, and alumni—by means of surveys, focus groups, exit interviews, etc. Indirect evidence is mediated by personal perceptions and experiences, and learning can only be inferred. Indirect evidence may be supplemented by descriptive data. See “direct method.”

Information literacy    according the Association of College and Research Libraries, the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use the needed information” for a wide range of purposes. An information-literate individual is able to determine the extent of information needed, access it, evaluate it and its sources, use the information effectively, and do so ethically and legally.

Institutional review process (IRP)    in WASC usage, periodic review of an institution for reaffirmation of accreditation. Documentation includes earlier reviewers’ findings from annual reports and focused reviews (e.g., substantive change, finance, retention and graduation); the institution’s response to earlier recommendations; and responses to current Standards of Accreditation and expectations. The institution undertakes a self-study and submits an institutional report; the evaluation team then conducts Offsite and on-site reviews. The IRP culminates in a team report, Senior College and University Commission action, action letter, and posting of the team report and action letter on the WASC Web site.

Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)    gathers information from every college, university, and technical or vocational institution that participates in federal student financial aid programs. Institutions report data on enrollments, program completion, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid.

Liberal Arts    Traditionally has referred to specific disciplines (humanities, social sciences, and sciences) taught to develop the intellect rather than practical skills. The quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) and the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), reaching back to classical antiquity and the Renaissance, provided the basis for the modern liberal arts.

Liberal Education    an approach to learning that combines breath with in-depth study in a specific area. Aims to develop transferable intellectual and professional skills such as oral and written communication or quantitative reasoning, and personal dispositions such as a tolerance of ambiguity and a sense of personal and civic responsibility.

Meaning, quality, and integrity of the degree    in WASC usage, a phrase that refers to the goals, coherence, sequencing, alignment, resourcing, and overall quality of the educational experience leading to conferral of an institution’s degree.

Mission    in higher education, an institution’s formally adopted statement of its fundamental reasons for existence, its shared purposes and values, and the students that it aims to serve. The mission is central to decisions about priorities and strategic objectives and provides a context for WASC decisions about quality and accreditation.

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE)    a nationally normed, widely administered survey that asks students about behaviors, e.g., how often they ask questions in class, use the library, consult with a professor outside of class. The survey does not assess learning directly; the assumption is that higher engagement will lead to higher levels of retention, completion, and learning. A suite of analogous surveys has been developed for two-year schools, members of a school’s faculty, etc

Norm-referenced    testing or assessment in which student performance is judged in relation to the performance of a larger group of students, not measured against a pre-established standard. See also “criterion-referenced.”

Norming    1. in assessment of student learning, a process of training raters to evaluate student products and performances consistently, typically using criterion-referenced standards and rubrics; 2. in accreditation, can be applied to other reviewing and rating processes, e.g. institutional evaluation, Commission actions.

Objective    1. in assessment of student learning, a concise statement of what the instructor (or program or institution) intends a student to learn (on some campuses, objectives then lead to development of learning outcomes); 2. sometimes used interchangeably with “outcome,” but “outcome” has become the more common usage because of its more direct focus on the result (or “outcome”) for the student; 3. in institution- or program-level planning, more specific statements derived from general goals; 4. in psychometrics, a test consisting of factual questions requiring short answers that can be reliably scored using an answer key, minimizing subjective judgments.

Offsite review    the first major stage of WASC review for reaccreditation. Carried out by an evaluation team that examines the institutional report, reports of the Retention and Graduation and Financial Review Committees, and other documentation. Offsite review leads to preliminary findings that are subsequently verified by the evaluation team during an physical visit to the institution.

Oral communication    communication by means of spoken language for informational, persuasive, and expressive purposes. In addition to speech, oral communication may employ visual aids, body language, intonation, and other non-verbal elements to support the conveyance of meaning and connection with the audience. Oral communication may include speeches, presentations, discussions, dialogue, and other forms of interpersonal communication, either delivered face to face or mediated technologically.

Outcome    1. in assessment of student learning, a concise statement of what the student should know or be able to do. Well-articulated learning outcomes describe how a student can demonstrate the desired outcome; verbs such as “understand” or “appreciate” are avoided in favor of observable actions, e.g., “identify,” “analyze.” Learning outcomes can be formulated for different levels of aggregation and analysis. Student learning outcomes are commonly abbreviated as SLOs, course learning outcomes as CLOs, program learning outcomes as PLOs, and institution-level outcomes as ILOs. 2. Other outcomes may address access, retention and graduation, and other indicators aligned with institutional mission and goals.

Persistence    like “retention,” refers to the rate at which students return to college from academic term to term and year to year, or “persist” in their education. Some educators interpret “retention” as putting the responsibility for degree completion on the institution, whereas “persistence” puts the responsibility on the student.

Portfolio    in assessment of student learning, a method of collecting student work so that the evidence can be reviewed in relation to specific learning outcomes. Most student portfolios also include a reflection on the learning process. Portfolios are highly adaptable: they may be developmental (showing progress from rough draft to finished product) or cumulative (i.e., students’ “best work”); and they may be assembled at the level of the individual student, program, or institution.

Professional program    an educational program designed to prepare students for a specific profession. It may apply to both undergraduate and graduate programs that prepare students for direct entry into employment. Graduate-level professional programs typically presuppose an undergraduate degree.

Program review    a systematic process of examining the capacity, processes, and outcomes of a degree program or department in order to judge its quality and effectiveness and to support improvement. Historically, program review focused primarily on capacity and research output; more recently, educational outcomes and student success have been included. While student success and assessment of learning at the program level are an important part of program review, they should not be confused with the more encompassing process of program review.

Quality assurance    any process for systematic monitoring and evaluation to ensure that standards of quality are being met. Higher education has many traditional processes for quality assurance, including review of courses and programs, tenure review, program review, annual reports, personnel evaluations, peer review of research and publications, and assessment of student learning.

Quantitative reasoning    the ability to apply mathematical concepts to the interpretation and analysis of quantitative information in order to solve a wide range of problems, from those arising in pure and applied research to everyday issues and questions. It may include such dimensions as ability to apply math skills, judge reasonableness, communicate quantitative information, and recognize the limits of mathematical or statistical methods.

Reliability    in psychometrics and assessment of student learning, the consistency and dependability of judgments and measurements. See also “validity.”

Research    collection, analysis, and publication of data, studies, or other findings in order to expand a field of knowledge or its application.

Retention    typically refers to the rate at which students return and re-enroll in college from semester to semester and year to year; retention rates from first to second year are of particular interest, since that is when the heaviest attrition is likely to occur. See also “persistence.”

Rigor    in education, refers both to a challenging curriculum and to the consistency or stringency with which high standards for student learning and performance are upheld.

Rubric    1. a tool for scoring student work or performances, typically in the form of a table or matrix, with criteria that describe the dimensions of the outcome down the left-hand vertical axis, and levels of performance across the horizontal axis. The work or performance may be given an overall score (holistic scoring), or criteria may be scored individually (analytic scoring). Rubrics are also used to communicate expectations to students. 2. WASC has developed a number of rubrics to assist teams and institutions in evaluating various aspects of their curriculum and assessment processes.

Scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL)    research on teaching and learning, for example, through assessment; based on the assumption that teaching and learning are legitimate subjects for scholarly activity.

Signature assignment    an embedded assessment method using an assignment—either the identical assignment or multiple assignments all constructed according to a common template—across multiple courses or sections of courses. A sample of students’ work products is then examined using a rubric to arrive at judgments about the quality of student learning across the course, program, or institution. Alternatively, a signature question may be embedded, for example, in final exams.

Student success    a phrase often used as shorthand for retention and degree completion. For WASC, student success includes quality of learning and rigor as well as retention and completion.

Summative assessment    1. assessment that occurs at the conclusion or end point of a course, program, or college experience to determine whether student learning outcomes have been achieved; 2. applied organizationally, the use of certain methods to evaluate the overall effectiveness of a program, an institution, or some element of the course of study. See also “formative assessment.”

Sustainability    ability of an educational institution to maintain effective functioning and improve over the long term. Assumes financial viability, but also availability of human capital and other resources, as well as institutional vision, planning, and flexibility.

Syllabus    a document prepared by the instructor and distributed to students at the beginning of a course. The syllabus generally includes learning outcomes, grading standards, a reading list, assignments, dates of tests, the plagiarism policy, and other information.

Transparency    disclosure by postsecondary institutions of information that may be sought by or of interest to policymakers, stakeholders, or the public. Such information may include financial data, retention and graduation rates, and various indicators of educational quality. Transparency and accountability are assumed to be mutually reinforcing.

Triangulation    the use of multiple methods to generate more robust evidence and to see whether results converge or diverge.

Validation    occurs when a person, group, or instrument confirms that something has been accurately documented.

Validity    in psychometrics and assessment of student learning, refers to how well a particular assessment method actually measures what it is intended to measure. Considerations include construct validity, content validity, and face validity. May also refer to consequences, i.e., whether an assessment has “consequential validity” and will support subsequent actions to improve learning. See also “reliability.”

VALUE rubrics    Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education. A set of 15 rubrics developed by AAC&U in collaboration with hundreds of faculty to assess learning outcomes defined by the LEAP project. Institutions may download the rubrics at no cost and are encouraged to modify them to suit local needs.

Value-added    1. in higher education, the contribution that institutions make to their students’ learning and development, documented from students’ entry to exit; 2. a WASC value, namely to promote an accreditation process that adds value to institutions and helps them to achieve their own goals.

Written communication    communication by means of written language for informational, persuasive, and expressive purposes. Written communication may appear in many forms, or genres. Successful written communication depends on mastery of the conventions of the written language, facility with culturally accepted structures for presentation and argument, awareness of audience, and other situation-specific factors.