Quality Assurance System: The Drivetrain of Institutional Effectiveness

Quality Assurance System

If you spend much time at all within the accreditation space, you’ll undoubtedly hear someone in higher education say, “Oh, we have a Quality Assurance System (QAS); we use _________.” They’ll proudly point to a license agreement they have with a company, where student work or assessment results are uploaded and stored. Some use that service to run data reports and are thrilled to share that it even “does data analysis.” Unfortunately, those well-intentioned individuals are missing the mark when it comes to a QAS.

A Quality Assurance System is really like the drivetrain of our car—without it we’d get nowhere, stuck along the side of the road. We’d know we had a problem, but without that drivetrain we may not know how to resolve our issue. We’d be wondering what to do next.

What a Quality Assurance System Isn’t

It’s important to remember that a Quality Assurance System isn’t a software program or a subscription-based website. It’s a well-planned and executed system by which institutions and individual programs monitor quality on key performance indicators. They then use insights gleaned from trendlines to make data-informed programmatic decisions.

Essential Components of a Healthy QAS

A healthy, solid quality assurance system requires a well-defined schema that involves looking at multiple data sources and being able to triangulate those data over time to look for patterns, trends, strengths, and weaknesses. And it shouldn’t just be one or two people reviewing data—there should be groups and advisory boards assigned to this task. Why? So steps can be taken to make improvements when the need arises.

High Quality Assessments


A well-functioning QAS requires using a blend of both proprietary and internally created high quality assessments. We know that data are only as good as the assessments themselves. Great care must be taken when creating key assessments to ensure that each measure what they are intended to measure (content validity) and that they see consistency in assessment results over multiple administrations (reliability). Surveys need to be created with a manageable number of questions, and items should be worded clearly. New assessments need to be piloted according to widely accepted protocols.

Real-Life Assessment Examples

Some examples of proprietary assessments that colleges and universities often use include the SAT, ACT, GRE, edTPA, Praxis, NCLEX, and so on. In other words, these are standardized high-stakes assessments that have been developed and road-tested by assessment development companies.

Internally created assessments, on the other hand, are those institutions create “in-house” for a variety of purposes. For example, it’s common for colleges to survey their students at the end of each semester to determine their satisfaction with their instructors, the quality of the food in the cafeteria, advising services, and so on. Faculty within programs also develop what they consider to be key assessments–perhaps 5-7 that are required by all students to monitor their skills development as they progress in a particular licensure track program. These are often cornerstone assessments in a select group of courses, and they can provide valuable insight regarding student performance as well as the quality of the program itself.

Stakeholder Input

A solid QAS depends on stakeholder input, both internal and external stakeholders. Faculty, student support staff, current students, graduates, and members of the community or business and industry should serve in advisory capacities. Each individual brings a unique set of experiences and perspectives to the table, and diversity of thought can enrich programs.

Real Life Stakeholder Examples

Internal stakeholders include current and past students, faculty members, academic advisors, and so on. External stakeholders are those on the outside of the college or university. They include employers, individuals who have graduated more than a year ago, members of relevant civic groups, and so on. It’s really important to garner the perspective of those who are from within the institution as well as those who are on the outside looking in.

The Ultimate Goal: Continuous Program Improvement

And finally, a well-functioning Quality Assurance System must enable institutions to make data-informed decisions with confidence, for the purpose of continuous program improvement. Staff must be able to identify specific areas of strength, as well as specific areas for growth and improvement. They need to know if an approach or a policy is working or not. And they need a leg to stand on when it comes to making programmatic changes. That leg needs to be grounded in high quality data. Having well-functioning Quality Assurance Systems will support colleges and universities in their accreditation efforts, state program approvals, and growth. They truly are the drivetrain of institutional effectiveness.


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 

Top Photo Credit: Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash 


Creating a Quality Assurance System

Quality Assurance

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

Top Photo Credit:  rawpixel.com