Practical Strategies for Site Visit Preparation
The Purpose of a Site Visit
Do we have to do this? What’s the point? Why do we need strangers coming to our “house” and make judgments about our programs?
The on-site program review is a critical step in the quality assurance process, with the overarching goal to perpetuate continual program review & improvement. Program review as a whole represents an analysis of the Self-Study Report (SSR), Formative Feedback Report (FFR), Addendum, annual reports, and on-site interviews and inspection of evidence. The purpose is to verify continuity between what you have stated in your written documents and evidence:
Are you doing what you have said you were doing? Do in-person interviews support what was presented in the SSR and evidence? Is continuous program improvement purposeful, mindful, and strategic?
The bottom line is this: A site visit, stressful as it may feel, is designed to support you and your colleagues in creating relevant, meaningful programs of high quality for your candidates.
The information I’m sharing is based on many years of experience in compliance & accreditation. I’ve learned over the years what works, and what doesn’t. The truth is, I’ve been on the other side of the table more times than I care to admit. I’ve had some successes, and a few I’d love to do-over. Site visits can be very stressful but there are things you can do to reduce that stress, and to make a site visit go as smoothly as possible. And, while each accrediting body has its unique nuances, standards, and procedures, many things remain constant and therefore steps taken to accredit a Nursing program are likely very similar to steps taken to accredit a business program, a teacher education program, and the like. For the sake of simplicity, this blog will focus on teacher education accreditation.
Who Conducts Site Visits?
The exact number can vary, but there are typically 3-6 site team members and a team lead for every site visit. It should be noted for most program review teams these are all volunteers—they don’t receive any compensation except for travel reimbursement. These are your colleagues and your peers from higher education institutions, P-12 practitioners, and others from across the nation. Sometimes there will be a representative of the state’s department of education; this can vary depending on the details of the state agreement with CAEP.
Specific to the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) program reviewers are selected by CAEP staff and:
- Typically have some experience with the type of institution (public, faith-based, online, for-profit, etc.)
- Were previously selected by CAEP for training through an application process
- Completed months of virtual training and accompanying assessments plus an intensive face-to-face (F2F) training (more for site team lead)
The Role of the Site Team
So, what exactly is the role of the program review team that will visit your campus? It’s to provide a thorough, robust, and rigorous review of your programs, but one that is also fair and just without bias. Their role ultimately is to help you continue to improve the quality of your programs by helping you to identify your strengths as well as areas that must be given more focused attention. Specifically, the team will:
- Review the narrative and evidence that you submitted in your self-study report (SSR)
- Provide initial feedback through a Formative Feedback Report (FFR), identifying items of concern and in need of additional clarification
- Review your Addendum, where you respond to their feedback
- Finalize a list of questions they want to ask on-site for further clarification
- Verify the information you’ve already given them by conducting multiple interviews & requesting additional evidence on-site
- Write a site visit report indicating their findings and recommendations
Are We Accredited???
You will NOT know if your program is accredited or not at the end of the site visit; this decision is not within the site team’s purview. The site visit itself typically lasts 2 ½ days, with a brief exit meeting on final day. That exit meeting usually lasts no more than 15-30 minutes, with the CAEP team, team lead, and program’s senior leadership present. The team will provide a summary of:
- Its methods for gathering information
- A general analysis about the accuracy & quality of the evidence
- What was verified and not verified
- Program strengths and perceived deficiencies
After the Site Visit
Within approximately 30 days after the site visit, the team will submit a final site visit report. The program’s leadership will then have 30 days to submit a Rejoinder to the site visit report. The site team lead can then submit a response to the Rejoinder if desired. The CAEP Accreditation Council meets 2x per year, where they carefully review the site visit reports submitted by the site teams. The AC will make the final decision regarding your program’s accreditation per CAEP policy, which can be found on the CAEP website.
Getting Ready for the Site Visit
Proper planning is essential for a successful site visit! Taking a road trip on the spur of the moment is fine, but this is not the approach you want to take with an accreditation site visit. In fact, I would submit that planning for your next accreditation site visit should be a CONTINUOUS process, as part of your program’s overall continuous improvement plan. However, relative to the site visit itself, I recommend that you start the planning process at least one year in advance, and ideally two, so that your institution can allocate necessary expenses related to the site visit itself as well as costs for hiring any additional staff, consultants, and so on.
Identify the Key Players
As soon as you begin the site visit planning process, you need to identify key staff who will play one or more important roles. There is no magical number, but it’s best to keep the team size nimble—probably no more than 10. This model can vary from institution to institution, depending on your size and departmental structure. Some examples:
- Program Administrator – Typically a dean or assessment coordinator; serves as the official point of contact between your institution, CAEP, and the site team lead
- Site Visit Coordinator – Takes care of project management & logistics; could be an accreditation manager, assistant dean, director of institutional effectiveness, or other similar position
- Other Faculty/Support Staff – Serve in various capacities, such as on the SSR writing team. The typical list includes: dean, associate dean, faculty chairs, assessment director, field experiences coordinator, key faculty, tech support liaison, institutional research liaison, etc.
Create a Site Visit Project Map
For a successful site visit, you must consider all aspects of the event and plan every detail. I recommend creating a project map for this purpose. Your logistical coordinator should be responsible for building this map, with input from other key staff and leadership.
There’s no one way to approach a project map—some institutions use something simple like Excel, while others are much more elaborate by creating their own pages in SharePoint, Dropbox, OneNote, Confluence, and the like. Regardless of your method, a project map should include such things as:
- A list of every task, even if it seems silly or redundant. It’s those little foxes that spoil the vine. Some examples might include:
- Identify & reserve each room needed for interviews during the site visit.
- Assign a room host for each interview room.
- Arrange for the team’s transportation to and from the hotel each day.
- Test the Internet speeds at the hotel.
- Order thank-you gifts to candidates and alums who participate in interviews.
- Print name tags for team members & for all internal staff.
- Identify a person to be responsible for each task.
- Plug in deadlines/milestones for each task.
The Prep Kick-Off
An important part of your project management map will be to build a schedule of meetings (scrums). You will want to start with a kickoff meeting, which really needs to be conducted F2F in the form of a 1-2 day workshop. To back up a bit, one kickoff meeting should be conducted before you even write the self-study report. Then, when you turn your focus over to getting ready for the actual site visit, you will want to have a site visit prep kickoff meeting. You will want to bring together the entire team of key players for this event, where you will want to cover a variety of topics and really set the stage for the site visit. For example, you will want to:
- Review the purpose of accreditation & the CAEP process.
- Review CAEP standards, components, rubrics, etc. (if needed).
- Review narrative & evidence submitted in SSR and Formative Feedback Response.
- Go over onsite visit process.
- Introduce the project management mapping/tracking process.
- Establish schedule of future meetings, assignments, deadlines, etc.
A Basic Project Management Roadmap
- I’ve provided a very basic graphic of what a project map might look like—yours could easily be a bit different from this.
- A suggestion would be to meet every 2 weeks up to 8 weeks before the site visit, then move it up to 1x per week up to 4 weeks prior. Then 2 weeks prior to the site visit, plan on meeting with your team daily, even if it’s just a brief 15-minute check-in scrum.
- Make sure everyone leaves each meeting knowing exactly what has already been completed; what work remains; what their particular responsibility is; and when it’s due.
- The main thing is to have a well-defined plan, and then carry out that plan.
The Communication Protocol
One of the most important parts of preparing for your site visit will be communication. I’ve learned over the years that effective communication can certainly go a long way toward a program feeling prepared for a site visit. Likewise, I’ve also seen where things can go very wrong when there is either a lack of communication, or if communiques are not messaged properly.
Sometimes we simply have too many cooks in the kitchen—when multiple staff, well intentioned as they may be, are sending out emails, or are hosting their own workshop sessions, and the like. Facts can get mixed up; we quickly don’t know who to listen to; and it doesn’t take long for people to start feeling frustrated about the process.
Sometimes we haven’t planned ahead and designated someone to develop and facilitate a communication protocol. That should be included on your project management map. Some quick examples found in a communication protocol might be things like:
- Create a 3-minute video designed to provide an overview of the accreditation site visit.
- Draft and send out an initial email to all internal stakeholders and P-12 partners that includes a link to that video.
- Send out monthly reminders with key tips for success or “Did you know?” information about CAEP accreditation.
- One month prior to the site visit, start sending out brief weekly reminders. Include items such as dress expectations, a reminder to tidy up offices and classrooms; and a finalized schedule of the visit.
It will be crucial to have a user-friendly tech support person on site and on call throughout the site visit to assist team members if needed.
Decide in advance how much tech “bling” you plan to use – discuss this with your team lead. While some institutions choose to purchase all new iPads or Surface tablets for the team to use while on site, this can sometimes backfire when you have team members who aren’t terribly tech adventurous, and who prefer to use their own laptop that they feel comfortable with.
Consider hosting a technology overview prior to the site visit, or at the very beginning of the site visit, if the team lead agrees. This is particularly useful if your program is offered primarily online or is otherwise very heavily dependent upon technology that team members may not be familiar with.
Work with your tech support liaison to set up some login credentials with a temporary shelf-life. Then link those credentials to specific portals, dashboards, and the like that team members have expressed an interest in seeing.
Make sure you provide some essential equipment for the team, both on campus and in their hotel workroom. Your team lead will let you know exactly what the preference is, but a few examples often include:
- Laptops or flash drives pre-loaded with requested documents such as the self-study, evidence, Addendum, and so on
- A printer
- A shredder
- A projection screen/large monitor
- Cables necessary for connecting laptops to printers or monitors
- Basic office supplies
Travel, Lodging, Food
Some other items you will want to be sure to include on your project management map will be travel, lodging, and food. There will be many details to this piece – again, it’s those little foxes that can spoil the vine, so make sure you have more than one person building the map so nothing gets overlooked. I’ve called out a few of the basics here on the slide deck.
Just like when we go on a job interview, or when we go on a first date, we want to make a good impression. The same holds true for a site visit. First and foremost, you want team members to feel welcome on your campus. Remember, even though this is a stressful time for you and your team, these are volunteers who are taking time away from their own jobs and their own families to help you improve your programs.
We’ve talked about preparations related to communication, to technology, to travel, lodging, and food – now let’s talk about the physical arrangements that will require your attention. Things such as the hotel workroom and the on-campus workroom:
- Both should be large enough to comfortably accommodate the entire team and their belongings.
- It’s best to provide large tables so they can review multiple documents.
- Something really important: comfortable chairs! Team members will be sitting often for hours at a time and providing them with comfortable seating is so helpful.
- Both workrooms should be stocked with a variety of soft drinks, healthy snacks, possibly a coffee maker.
- Both workrooms should be lockable, private, and no one from your program should enter without the permission of the team lead.
Part of your planning also involves selecting and reserving rooms suitable for conducting interviews. Depending on the size of the group being interviewed, you may need to use a combination of classrooms and conference rooms.
Interview guides or hosts should be identified ahead of time as part of the planning process. These individuals are staff members who make sure team members and guests find the correct room for their interview. They also make sure that sign-in sheets are completed for each interview, and they collect those sheets before leaving the room. There are certainly more things you need to prepare for relative to physical arrangements, but these are a few of the basics.
Field Placement Visits:
- Team members may or may not want to visit local schools where you may have student teachers. The team lead will let you know if this is something the team wants to include on the agenda.
- If field visits are requested, you must remember to communicate with your school partners to coordinate those logistics.
- Also, you will want to provide a guide or a host.
- Typically, this is often a faculty member who can speak to the relationship with the school.
- This person would likely serve as a driver to the site and remain with the team members throughout their tour.
- To keep team members on schedule, school visits typically do not last more than one hour and need to be within easy driving distance of the campus.
Receptions – Gifts:
- Per CAEP policy, you should not plan on hosting any formal receptions, cocktail hours, poster sessions, dinners with staff, etc.
- Also, while certainly not necessary, it is permissible to present team members with a small, inexpensive swag bag—such as university pens, notepads, perhaps a coffee mug, etc.
Mock Site Visits
When the stakes are high, it’s important to give yourself every advantage. For example, a few short years ago, when we were so anxious to get our driver’s license in our quest for personal freedom and independence, we didn’t just wake up one day and decide, “I think I’ll go down to the DMV and get my license today.” No, you spent a lot of time preparing, both for the written exam and for the driving exam. You probably practiced parallel parking over and over, and you may have even gotten a coach of some kind to help you prepare for the big day.
It’s the same kind of thing relative to preparing for a site visit—you want your program to shine, and to be at its very best. You want everyone to feel comfortable and confident. You want your team to come out stronger on the other side as a result of this experience.
That’s where a mock site visit can come in handy. Not all institutions choose to go through a mock visit, and it’s certainly not required by CAEP. However, I’ve honestly never received feedback from any institution that went through a mock exercise to complain and say it was a waste of time.
A mock site visit can vary from institution to institution. It can be an abbreviated version of the site visit, or it can be a full-blown 2 ½ day event with multiple mock reviewers and even a mock site visit report.
Part of a mock review could include interviewing faculty, candidates, alums, school partners, and so on, with feedback offered regarding what the program’s strengths are and what it may need to shore up. It really just depends on the needs of the institution, and how experienced faculty and staff members are with the process. Some programs have a lot of new faculty who have never had any experience with accreditation, and in a case like that a mock visit would be extremely helpful. But regardless of whether your school chooses this path or not, it is essential to start preparing for your site visit well in advance in order to increase your chances for success.
Still have more questions? Need more guidance? I can help you! Pease reach out to me and we can customize a plan based on your program’s needs.
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education, P-12 schools, and educational agencies in areas such as competency-based education, teacher preparation, distance learning, leadership, outcomes-based performance, making data-driven decisions, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She also writes about various issues related to academic excellence through her blog site (www.robertarossfisher.com). Roberta can be reached through Twitter (@RRossFisher), LinkedIn (Roberta Ross-Fisher), Facebook (Roberta Ross-Fisher) and email at: firstname.lastname@example.org