A well-conceived, functioning quality assurance system (QAS) helps colleges and universities continuously improve their programs through data-informed decision-making. When comparing it to a ship, the QAS can be considered the steering wheel; it directs the ship’s path as it treads through water on its journey. While a software program is often used to store, track, and analyze data, that’s not a quality assurance system. But what exactly does a QAS consist of? And specifically, how can a quality assurance system be effectively implemented in order to facilitate continuous program improvement?
What is a Quality Assurance System?
A quality assurance system (QAS) in higher education typically involves a set of processes, policies, and procedures that are put in place to ensure that programs and services meet or exceed established quality standards. It includes a range of activities designed to monitor, evaluate, and improve the quality of academic programs, student services, and administrative functions.
To effectively implement a QAS, it’s important to start by identifying the key components that you will need. These components typically include the following:
Components of a Solid Quality Assurance System
Purpose: It may sound simplistic, but when developing quality assurance system higher education institutions need to take the time to articulate its purpose. Consider starting with providing a clear vision and mission statement that define the purpose and direction of the institution and its programs. The more well-defined an institution’s (or a program’s) vision and mission are, the easier it is to create a solid QAS.
Quality standards: Clearly defined quality standards should be established for all aspects of the program, including teaching and learning, assessment, student services, and administrative processes. These standards should be based on industry expectations as well as best practices. These standards should be measurable, so that you can align specific key assessments with them in order to gauge the effectiveness of your programs. Using relevant standards serves as a foundation for building learning outcomes that specify what students should know and be able to do upon completion of their program. From there, a natural progression is to create curriculum map that aligns the courses and activities with the learning outcomes and shows how they are assessed.
Assessment and evaluation: A comprehensive assessment and evaluation process should be established to measure program outcomes against your standards. This should include both internal and external assessments and evaluations. External assessments are also known as proprietary assessments, which are created by an assessment development company. These are often required for licensure-based programs. The nice thing about proprietary assessments is that they’re already standardized and have been closely examined for quality indicators such as content validity and reliability. If you opt to use internally created assessments, you must do this legwork yourself.
Data collection and analysis: A robust data collection and analysis system should be put in place to capture relevant information related to program quality. This system should be designed to generate regular reports that can be used for monitoring, evaluation, and decision-making. A well-defined data analysis plan describes how the data will be interpreted, compared, and reported. Most institutions handle data collection and analysis on an annual basis, but it can also be done at the end of each semester. I recommend creating a master cadence or a master periodicity chart to track all key assessments, how they are used, when they’re administered, when and by whom the data are collected, when and by whom the data are reviewed and analyzed, and other relevant information. Keep this chart up to date and handy in preparation for regulatory reviews such as state program approval renewals and accreditation site visits.
Communication and collaboration: Effective communication and collaboration among both internal and external stakeholders are essential to the success of a QAS. This includes regular reporting and feedback loops to ensure that all stakeholders are informed and engaged in the process. The feedback loop also provides a formal mechanism for stakeholders to make recommendations for improvement. Examples of internal stakeholders are faculty, administrators, and interdepartmental staff. Examples of external stakeholders include business and industry representatives, school district teachers and administrators, and faith-based staff (if applicable).
Dynamic, not static: A QAS is not a one-time project or a static document. It is a dynamic system that evolves with the changing needs and demands of the institution and its programs. For this reason, I recommend that institutions revisit their QAS annually, with a comprehensive review taking place at least once every five years.
Continuous improvement: In order for a quality assurance system to truly be effective, a culture of continuous improvement should be fostered within the institution, with a focus on using data and feedback to identify areas for improvement and make necessary changes. If this is presented from the perspective of supporting everyone’s efforts at providing exceptional student learning experiences, most faculty and staff receive it well and embrace the model. However, if having a QAS simply for the purpose of accreditation is communicated, then in nearly all instances personnel will not receive it well, simply viewing it as “yet another thing they have to do” in order to “check the boxes” and “get through” the next accreditation site visit. As in the case with most initiatives, how we communicate something to others makes a huge difference in its success.
Ensuring High Quality, Continuous Improvement
Successfully implementing a QAS requires a commitment from leadership and a willingness to invest time, resources, and effort into the process. It also necessitates an action plan that outlines the steps and resources needed to implement the recommendations and monitor their impact.
A well-conceived, functioning quality assurance system can help colleges and universities ensure that their programs are of high quality and continuously improving over time. It facilitates the accountability and transparency of the institution and its programs and demonstrating their effectiveness and impact.
By providing a framework for data-informed decision-making, a QAS can help institutions make evidence-based decisions that lead to better outcomes for students and the broader community—which is our collective mission.
About the Author: A former public school teacher and college administrator, Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher provides consultative support to colleges and universities in quality assurance, accreditation, educator preparation and competency-based education. Specialty: Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). She can be reached at: Roberta@globaleducationalconsulting.com
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