Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


A degree or program is more than a collection of courses

Posted on January 15, 2014 at 8:10 AM

I was struck by a statement in an article by Mark Salisbury last month in Inside Higher Ed: "a college experience should approach learning as a process -- one that is cumulative, iterative, multidimensional and, most importantly, self-sustaining long beyond graduation." Many accreditors echo this thought.  SACS-COC, for example, requires accredited colleges to offer "degree programs that embody a coherent course of study," while NEASC stipulates that "Each educational program demonstrates coherence through its goals, structure, and content."

The way I put this is, "A degree or program is more than a collection of courses."  In a true program, or a truly meaningful degree, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A program expects students to develop key skills and competencies in multiple courses or experiences throughout their studies, with students developing more advanced skills as the program progresses and pulling the pieces together into a coherent whole by the time they graduate. 

Am I saying that curricula should be limited to traditional fields of study or that programs should be tightly prescribed? Not at all. My undergraduate major was an amorphous interdisciplinary entity called Quantitative Studies, and it has served me extremely well. I like the idea of individualized majors, and I'm intrigued by competency-based programs that allow students to progress toward a degree by demonstrating competency rather than sitting in a classroom for so many hours.

But I worry about colleges that let students cobble together an assortment of unrelated courses or experiences into a degree. I worry about associate degrees that can be earned by enrolling only in 100-level courses. I worry about degrees that let students choose their courses without approved goals or plans, because without guidance some students will inevitably choose courses that fit their schedule or whose professor they like rather than courses that help them move ahead purposefully.

Categories: Curriculum & teaching