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BYU degree programs being overhauled

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 29 2007 12:21 a.m. MDT

PROVO — A massive overhaul of Brigham Young University's 415 degree programs is under way, in response to both a national trend and specific requirements imposed by the agency that accredits BYU.

For the past 12 months, a university task force has scrambled to evaluate every degree, and results are available at a new Web site — learningoutcomes.byu.edu — President Cecil Samuelson announced Tuesday during the annual University Conference.

The Web site describes exactly what BYU expects students to learn in each degree program, and how BYU will measure whether graduates leave with the intended skills, knowledge and experiences.

The emphasis on "student learning outcomes" — evaluating what graduates know or are able to do — is a national trend embraced by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The NWCCU reaffirmed BYU's accreditation last year but strongly recommended that the school react to the trend before a commission representative returned to campus this fall.

The administration considered the recommendation a mandate and created a university task force.

"BYU seeks to demonstrate students have achieved the stated outcomes of these degree programs," Samuelson told faculty and staff during a 40-minute speech Tuesday at the Marriott Center.

The university created a new Center for Teaching and Learning (ctl.byu.edu) to help faculty improve teaching and learning. The center offers professors confidential, individual consultations that can include classroom observations and course planning.

Additionally, the university has hired consultants to help departments close any gaps between their stated learning goals and actual student performance.

Many professors found the process difficult as departments identified the learning outcomes of every degree program and created methods to evaluate how well they educate their students. Some see the trend as an intrusion into the classroom.

"I think some humanities professors initially resisted these ideas," said Kerry Soper, a humanities professor honored Tuesday by Samuelson as one of 10 Alcuin Fellows, or outstanding teacher-scholars. "We're notoriously independent in structuring our courses and coming up with our own measurements for student performance."

Soper, director of BYU's American Studies program, described an intense process for administrators through a number of department and college meetings.

"We found we weren't tracking very well how our students were doing as they left our programs," he said.

In response, the Department of Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature added a junior-year course on theory and methods to make sure every student learned the necessary research techniques and documentation skills. It also added exit interviews and portfolio reviews.

"Those are an opportunity to see the sum of their work, to allow them to reflect on their experience and to get feedback," Soper said.

They aren't a new hurdle to graduation. The learning-outcomes movement has led to basic requirement tests for Utah high school students, who must pass them before they earn their diploma. Such tests were not requested by the NWCCU and are not a part of BYU's new process.

Just how will BYU measure student mastery?

The Web site suggested degree programs could use assignments in core courses, capstone courses, national exams, juried performances, exhibits or projects, publications or presentations, GRE scores, portfolios and scores on licensure, certification or subject-area tests.

Many professors who balked at what some considered a fad have now embraced the changes, Soper said.

"They've seen this has real merits. It's getting us to tighten up our practices and helping us ask, what are my objectives in teaching this course? Of course, for us in humanities, everything is subjective and abstract, so there's still that trick."

Part of the national movement is a growing belief that students are consumers to whom colleges and universities must answer.

BYU academic vice president John Tanner spearheaded the review of the university's degrees. He unearthed a 40-year-old statement about education at BYU by a former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that appeared to foretell the age of learning outcomes.

"We must be certain that the lessons are not only taught, but are also absorbed and learned," President Spencer W. Kimball said.

But Tanner also stopped short of fully embracing the commercial model of higher education.

"Education is not just a commodity," he told faculty Tuesday, "nor are our students merely consumers."

"Our students," he added, "deserve quality teaching in every class."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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