Planning on Quality: Re-accreditation Efforts Strengthen Mission, VisionFeb. 5, 2007
By Randy Fiedler
"After much discussion and deliberation, we have decided that University 1100 will not be a part of the QEP this year. Thanks to the wise council given by the University Curriculum Committee, we are not including University 1100 in the QEP because its broader impact on departments and schools as a university-wide requirement has yet to be resolved. Though there is broad support on campus for the concept of University 1100, the extremely exigent timeline for the implementation of the QEP would rush the process of adapting University 1100 to majors and minors across the campus. Because broad-based faculty support is vital to the success of University 1100, the decision has been made to remove it from the QEP. We are hopeful that the University 1100 initiative will move forward when administrative details can be worked out across campus to the satisfaction of all the faculty, administrators and students who would be affected by this new class.")
Baylor has worked almost two years to produce its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) to meet the reaffirmation of accreditation requirements of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS now requires a QEP component to address student learning, produce measurable improvement and involve significant academic community participation, and Baylor's QEP must be submitted to SACS by March 1.
To understand more about the University's QEP, BaylorNews spoke to four members of the QEP Task Force: Tiffany Hogue, assistant vice provost; Dr. Frank Shushok, dean for student learning and engagement; Jan Nimmo, assistant vice provost for research; and Dr. Glen Blalock, assistant professor of English.
BaylorNews: What is the Quality Enhancement Plan?
Tiffany Hogue: The Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP for short, is a new initiative required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS. It's in essence the second part of our reaffirmation of accreditation process. We cannot be reaffirmed by SACS unless our QEP is approved. In the past when we created a self-study, we simply took a snapshot of where we were in terms of faculty resources, library holdings, financial stability and other criteria. The QEP, meanwhile, requires us to look forward and create a new initiative, designed to create measurable improvement in student learning. Student learning is broadly defined, and it's part of our collective responsibility to identify specific areas of student learning that we seek to improve. We've identified two areas, and we have to prove to SACS that we are committed to improving those over the next five years.
BN: What are the two QEP areas that were finally identified?
Hogue: The Engaged Learning Group and undergraduate research.
BN: How were those areas decided on?
Frank Shushok: One very important piece of data that has emerged in the last couple years is related to the National Survey for Student Engagement. It's gained a lot of attention nationally for its ability to measure some things that are very important for undergraduate education. Specifically, what it does is it compares Baylor student responses and outcomes with those of students from other similar institutions. The results suggest that there are some things we can improve at Baylor. One of them is faculty-student interaction, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years.
BN: What's been done to lay the groundwork for implementing changes in these three areas?
Jan Nimmo: This past fall we reached the culmination of what was a two-year process to decide what specific measures Baylor wanted to address and how we wanted to address them. We had a large amount of engagement with faculty and administrators over that period to help make the best decisions, and this past fall we took those decisions and began implementing them.
BN: The first new area of student learning that you've identified is something called the Engaged Learning Group. What is this?
Shushok: The creation of Engaged Learning Groups (ELGs) is a coordinated effort to embed students and apply community in a meaningful way early on for the first and second years. From a faculty perspective, it's an opportunity to work together on a topic of mutual interest where they might not naturally work together because they're in different schools, colleges or departments. When faculty decide to join together in an ELG, this gives them an opportunity to recognize that they have a mutual interest in a discipline, and that they can inform that interest in different ways. In effect, they say, "Why don't we work together on this mutual interest, and give our students the opportunity to think about this with us as we mentor those students along the way?"
BN: How exactly will students benefit from these new collaborations?
Shushok: From a student's perspective, participating in an ELG will allow them to be exposed to a major or discipline that they might not have already encountered. It also will allow them to perhaps connect with others having the same passions that they may have. For example, a group of students might be interested in social justice issues, and they might join three or four faculty members in an ELG to explore those issues over a two-year period. Again, it's longitudinal, and faculty will be working with a group of students over four semesters, which will make it very difficult for those students not to be known to that group of faculty and to participate in the discovery process together. That's great for learning. Our hope is that one day every student is in one of these kinds of groups. Some already are if they're in one of the University's living-learning centers. When we introduce ELGs in fall 2007 we'll have about 240 students in these kinds of groups.
BN: Baylor students begin joining together fairly early on in a variety of clubs where they can explore common interests, but those clubs are typically extracurricular in nature with no grades given. Will the ELGs be more like these informal clubs, or more like traditional classes?
Shushok: An ELG will essentially follow a class structure over four semesters as students take a one-hour seminar each semester. Students in an ELG are going to take it as their first semester credit. They will then continue for two more semesters taking the one-hour seminars addressing their particular topic. For the fourth seminar, students can opt to take it and engage in a research project with the faculty in the ELG.
BN: Will the ELGs be required courses?
Shushok: If you're in an ELG, three of the four hours are required. The fourth hour, the research one, is optional but you can't be recognized as a graduate of an ELG unless you complete the fourth one-hour seminar. What we're going to advocate for is a transcript certification and encourage students to complete all four hours.
Hogue: Only 240 incoming students will be selected for an ELG next fall, comprising four groups of 60 students each, so they're not required. Students will apply for them and the faculty will chose the students in their ELGs. We have to start this relatively small for all kinds of good reasons, and we hope to grow them over time. Baylor is putting a lot of fiscal and human resources toward establishing ELGs, but we want to make sure we work out the kinks before we roll this out in a more wide-scale effort. So, only 240 freshmen next year will be chosen.
BN: To get those ELGs established and ready to go in the fall, what will be happening this spring?
Hogue: Faculty proposals to establish ELGs are due January 8, and the four winning ELG programs will be chosen by January 29. After that, the groups of faculty who are part of those four winning support groups will be working together to prepare the groups for the fall.
BN: What will professors teaching ELGs receive for the hours they will put into the groups?
Hogue: We've spent a lot of time talking to a wide range of faculty about what things would be appealing incentives to get involved with ELGs. What we heard over and over again is flexibility. The ELGs can be led by no fewer than two but no more than four faculty members, and they get to choose how to spend the money they're given for that. Because they are teaching a one-hour class each fall they can simply add that to their load, and use some of the ELG money for a stipend or extra travel money. We know that's a great need for many faculty. They could also use the money to buy another piece of equipment, or they could use that money to help hire a person to teach another course of the professor's while they spend that time with the ELG. So, there is money available and the faculty will tell us how that would be best spent.
BN: That sounds like an attractive incentive. Because of that, do you think there will be a lot of competition?
Hogue: We hope so. That's our goal. We know that a lot of our faculty are interested in collaborating on areas of mutual interest, but there is not necessarily a great vehicle available or an incentive guaranteed for doing that. We hope that ELGs can help with that need.
Nimmo: Even before we issued requests for proposals we had initial inquires from faculty who were already interested in the incentive proposals.
Shushok: There was no dearth of great, innovative ideas coming from the faculty. We've been intrigued to see what's coming forward.
BN: In the long run are these groups going to be recruiting tools?
Shushok: Yes. Baylor is going to be able to say that if you choose us, from the very first day you start classes, or even before that, you are going to be a member of a very unique learning community. At the same time, I think an important point to emphasize is that we're not trying to double up students. We don't want a student who is in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core to also be an engaged learning student, or a student who's in the engineering and computer science living-learning center to also be in an ELG. This is an effort to expand the percentage of students who are involved in a learning community. Our goal is to get every student involved in something, and that's what is unique about the Baylor experience.
BN: Doesn't research show that when university students are involved in smaller groups like this there is more of a chance that they'll stay in school and, in particular, stay at that university?
Shushok: The data on that is definitive. When students stay at a university they feel a part of something and they're also learning. We know that as our retention rate goes up, students are learning in a more substantive and significant way. The data suggests that students in learning communities retain at 10 to 20 percent higher rates than students who aren't in communities. When they are in intimate groups where they're known, and they know others, and when they are connected to Baylor's mission in substantive ways, students stay.
Glen Blalock: This is where the National Survey of Student Engagement has been valuable. The NSSE measure of college students at their senior year gives us some qualitative measures of how they felt about their experience. Participation in learning communities increases student satisfaction across any number of measures. That's important because when our students leave here they are no longer exposed to the Baylor mission, but they leave here significantly changed. They've grown.
BN: The second section of the Quality Enhancement Plan deals with undergraduate research. What is the overall goal?
Nimmo: There is a lot of undergraduate research already being done on campus, but there is not a good way for incoming students to get a handle on that and to quickly become a part of it. That's primarily what our research initiative is designed to do for our freshmen. Research is a required part of the ELG. This research initiative is a way to extend those opportunities by providing specific new opportunities for students and expanding the ones that already exist.
BN: How will students find out about these opportunities?
Nimmo: Under the direction of a faculty undergraduate research director, we'll have a centralized place where students can come for information about research -- Baylor research opportunities, external research opportunities, information about people who fund scholarships and fellowships, and what other universities are doing in their undergraduate research programs. The large number of our students who want to go on to graduate and professional schools need to understand that this will be a way to help them do that. If they want to be competitive for good graduate scholarships and fellowships, they can't wait until they are seniors to start doing research.
BN: So, if a freshman comes to Baylor and knows they want to do some sort of research, but they don't know what's available here, they would go to this one location.
Nimmo: Right. One of the beauties of this we hope is that it will primarily be a student-run center, supported by faculty and staff. For example, the students will design the website and do the newsletter, the students will maintain the roster of fellowships, and those kinds of things. This is going to be a great opportunity for our faculty, students and alumni. As an extension of the center, we will specifically recognize undergraduate research activities each year with a Scholars Day. In the past we have done that with faculty scholarship and will continue to do so, but the change that we'll be making as a result of our QEP plan is to ask faculty and others who work with undergraduates to participate in Scholars Day. Those faculty who will be presenting will be talking about how they've engaged undergraduates in their research. They'll be talking about how the research that they've been doing might create additional professional opportunities for students. We'll use those activities to recruit other Baylor students.
BN: Will this central research clearinghouse be a physical space inside a building, or are we talking about a website?
Nimmo: Both. There will be a physical space. It will not be huge or elaborate, but it will have enough space for students and those staff and faculty who are assisting them. I think it's important you have a physical location where you can drop by, hang out and talk research.
BN: Will the research component contain any other features?
Nimmo: Another feature is the summer research college. There are a lot of students who would like to have the more intensive experience of a summer research program where you basically spend all day doing research. We already do a number of those things on campus, such as the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grants. They all are extremely successful in terms of not only introducing students to research but also recruiting good students to Baylor. They also engage our faculty in ways that they can then take the results into their curriculum the following semester, so there are all kinds of spin-off benefits. We want to do more of that, and that's where the summer research college initiative comes in.
BN: Will there be money set aside for new student research?
Nimmo: Yes, and our current plan is to use the research center to put out a similar call for proposals just like we're putting out to faculty now for ELGs. We'll put out a similar call for proposals for undergraduate research projects. Faculty will propose specific research projects, and explain in those proposals exactly how they'll engage undergraduates in a research project, and we will fund those.
Hogue: Faculty don't have to complete these proposals to do research, but if they would like to be considered for some of this new money that we have allocated for undergraduate research through the QEP, they'll need to complete one.
BN: So to get money, these new research projects must be initiated by faculty?
Nimmo: For the time being, yes. Just like the website is going to be student-based and the center is going to be student-based, we would like to get to the point where undergraduates could initiate this. But for now, it will be the undergraduate student's responsibility to go find the faculty members who can make this work. That becomes a part of the learning process.
BN: What will be happening this spring in regard to the summer research college component?
Nimmo: We will be holding open forums this spring for the research sector just like we held forums last November and December for the ELG. In January or February we will be selecting the faculty director. We'll be involving faculty to work with us to develop the Scholars Day and the summer colleges, and then we'll put out two requests for proposals. The first will be for small grants. We'll invite faculty to submit applications for small grants that we will fund so that they can develop research projects and bring undergraduates into those. The second request will be for proposals for summer research college activities.
BN: When will we first see the new Scholar's Day and the summer research college?
Hogue: Scholar's Day will debut in the spring of 2008, while the first summer research college will be in the summer of 2008.
BN: Let's discuss the QEP timetable. What will take place with that this spring?
Hogue: The QEP is a SACS mandate, and therefore we have to compress all of our ideas into one 75-page document. We will then submit that to SACS on March 1, after which a team of SACS reviewers will visit Baylor April 17-19. They'll discuss the QEP with all the folks here at Baylor that are involved. They will meet with some of the ELG faculty members and with other folks. They will meet with President Lilley and others to make sure that the QEP has support from the administration, and then the team will write a report about our QEP. We hope that we can benefit from their good insight, since the QEP is a part of our reaffirmation and SACS accreditation, which will be announced in December 2007.
BN: Is there anything about the QEP or this whole process I haven't asked?
Nimmo: What I find best about the QEP, and why we're all so optimistic about it, is that it truly does play to the strengths of our faculty and allow them avenues to do what they do best. It's not something that's been administratively imposed. It's grown out of faculty interest and faculty involvement, and that's the way it's going to succeed. Because of that, we're confident that it is going to succeed.