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In second year, continuous improvement planning working in LAS


After the first year of the new continuous improvement policy required at Iowa State and the other Regents universities, Amy Slagell likes what she sees from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Faculty are having new conversations with one another about teaching and learning across sections and even across courses,” Slagell, associate dean for academic programs, said. “That’s exciting.”

The course-level improvement policy began in fall 2013. Slagell said that while faculty have always looked for ways to improve teaching and learning, this initiative created opportunities for LAS staff to examine classroom outcomes and “look more systematically at how we can improve.” She said 100 percent of the LAS reports were completed after 2013-14. “It means every one of these courses had an opportunity to reflect on its outcomes, which is very good.”

The Iowa Board of Regents’ 2004 Strategic Plan established the continuous improvement policy by mandating that the universities use “continuing quality improvement processes for all academic programs.” ISU economics professor and state Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, supports the policy “because we owe our students the best education we can provide.” He said the basics of implementing continuous improvement are easy to state.

“First, identify learning goals: what we want students to know and be able to do. Second, measure students’ progress in achieving these goals. Third, cycle the information gathered back into improving teaching methods, course activities, sequencing of course content and other elements of the learning environment.”

Last year the policy included courses with annual enrollments of 300 or more students. This fall it’s courses with 200 or more students and by 2015 it’s any course with 100 or more.

The policy affects LAS more than any other college. In 2013, of the 166 ISU courses required to have continuous improvement plans, 103 were in LAS. This year, 144 of the 300 ISU courses impacted are in LAS, according to Lian Niu, program coordinator in the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost.

Slagell said the plans are building on many LAS processes already in place. “We’re documenting the practices that great LAS teachers have done all along. We’re continuing our mission to improve student learning in the college by ensuring course objectives fit the course, student success on those objectives is reviewed, and adjustments are made to improve the course for next time. It’s what engaged instructors do.”

The continuous improvement process is leading to modifications in many LAS courses, Slagell said. At the top of the list were changes in student experiences and activities in courses, in assessment strategies and in class assignment instructions. Many faculty also reported their students were meeting the learning objectives and no changes were planned this year.

An ISU report to the Regents on the continuous improvement initiative cited positive results from the Mathematics Department, which has a long history of conducting course-level improvement plans. Math 142 (trigonometry) in fall 2011 had a DFW (drop-fail-withdraw) rate of 58.6 percent. After implementing an improvement plan that included a new course placement plan and more face-to-face course sections, the rate fell to 34.5 percent in fall 2012.

English also was ahead of the state mandate with its improvement plans. ISUComm Foundation Courses have used portfolios and detailed rubrics for some time, “so we were well suited to collect these data from our students,” said Kathryn Jaekel, assistant director of ISUComm Foundation Courses. After analyzing data, she said, “We found our curriculum was preparing students well and our students were gaining the learning outcomes we set out in our courses.”

Work continues to assist LAS faculty to refine their reporting processes and to turn the results into published research, Slagell said.