One of the things that I love about working in higher education is the balancing act between cultivating creativity and innovation while still reinforcing tradition and history. Our students are every day grappling with the past in order to push into the future. As educators, we try to get our students to take the moment to reflect on their learning by building reflection into the curriculum via coursework and capstone projects. It is an important skill to have, and though many of us take the time to reflect as we work, a good assessment plan creates well-timed and structured spaces to reflect on our programs, services, and impact on community and learning.
While smaller moments of reflection allow your department and division to be dynamic, they often happen in isolation and their impact can be limited. Taking the time out to gather people across your department or division to engage in a process of collaborative reflection creates an opportunity to make that impact much larger. This is where a self-study cycle can be a huge benefit to your work.
From the CAS Standards and programmatic accreditation bodies to internally created templates, there are many resources out there to guide you through the structure of setting up a self-study process on your campus. The first place to start, though, should be cultivating an understanding amongst your staff as to why this process is so valuable while debunking worries and misunderstandings before they happen. Here are a few reasons why implementing a self-study process in your department or division is so beneficial:
- It is an opportunity to reinforce or redesign your guiding documents
Your mission or vision is a foundational but dynamic document that should not change drastically every year without some serious thought. Having a self-study cycle, say every five to seven years, is an opportunity to look at data collected over time to see if that mission should be altered to better align with the mission of your division or university. A good process will also force you to think about how resources outside of just programming are aligned (or not aligned) with this core purpose.
- It creates the space for strategic change (or not)
One of the big fears I hear about self-study is the worry that it will always result in drastic, seismic changes. This is simply not the truth. A good self-study will highlight areas for improvement, should they exist, but also give evidence to those things you do that should not be messed with. A self-study will gather all the materials necessary to make any kind of decision about the future of your department or division. If your department is up for self-study, don’t worry. The ax man is not coming to cut programs or staffing, but you will have all the information you need holistically understand your department and to align its resources and processes in the best way to accomplish its goals.
- It breaks the university bubble
Sometimes you have been doing something for so long that you just cannot imagine any other way of doing it. When engaged in a self-study, through conversation with peers across the university and the landscape of higher education, a department can integrate new techniques that might not yet found their way to your university. Bringing an external review team onto your campus after engaging in this self-reflection provides valuable insights from individuals who are not awash in your university’s culture on the day-to-day. It is also a great way to share the work you are doing with respected peers.
- It is a national thing
Self-Study templates like the CAS Standards or individual accreditation templates for areas like Counseling and Health Services add an additional layer of benefit by holding the work you do to a national standard within that particular field. It is important to note, though, that unless you are using your self-study for accreditation purposes, there are no sacred cows when it comes to these pre-designed templates. There could be standards that do not apply to your institution because of funding sources, populations served, or institution type. You can always adjust the template you use, but make sure you have an understanding of why that expectation doesn’t apply. “We just don’t do that,” is not an answer. And if your division does not have a regular self-study process in place, these templates can still be useful in adding a standard structure to conversations around strategic planning within your department.
Self-Studies are time consuming, but their beneficial impact makes it well-worth the effort. It fosters collaboration and understanding, breaking down silos and opening communication. It is a tool for change and a tool to reassure the path you are already on. Most importantly, though, implementing a cyclical self-study process within your department or division creates that space to learn, reflect, and push into the future. A skill we learned long ago from those formative educators whose place we now occupy in the university.
Daniel Kaczmarek, University at Buffalo