July 16th, 2008

Student Learning Outcomes Initiative


In 1989 the administration at Central Arizona College made a decision to move toward a competency-based curriculum for all of its courses and certificate and degree programs—a wise decision given all the changes taking place within the community college’s district and within higher education in general, says Linda Heiland, CAC’s associate vice president for institutional effectiveness and chief academic officer.

The college serves Pinal County, an area larger than the size of Connecticut, with a population of approximately 300,000 that is projected to reach 1.3 million by 2025. CAC’s three campuses currently serve approximately 14,000 students in an increasingly diverse economy. “CAC started out as a very small rural community college, and we’re growing extremely rapidly, but the whole culture of the community is in flux. Within the county we have some areas that are still extremely rural, with most of the income coming from mining and agriculture, and the rest of the county is experiencing industry growth in other areas,” Heiland says.

In addition to the rapid growth, CAC, like other institutions, has had to meet the demands for accountability from government and accrediting groups. To meet these challenges, the college has established specific student learning outcomes and proficiency standards for all courses and programs and is working on developing those for nonacademic units as well.

“When we started this, the only evidence we had was anecdotal. We really didn’t do a lot of assessing to see where we were. We had very weak numerical data at that point, which was insufficient for us to make quality, informed decisions,” Heiland says.

In 1991, the college implemented its learning outcomes assessment program. “The focus of that was to really step back and look at the process and where we needed to go, and empower our faculty to take a lead role in that process,” Heiland says. “It helps us address a lot of those accountability issues because it allows us to begin to collect some very specific data around what our students need to learn and how well they are learning, what they are going to do with that learning once they get into the community. It really is the key to beginning the whole process of becoming a data-driven institution—using the data to make informed decisions, not only on scheduling how to serve our students but how we can best support the growth of the community,” Heiland says.

To support this effort, the college created its CLASS Office (Curriculum, Learning, and Assessment Support Services). The mission of the CLASS Office is to provide faculty with training, help them with research, provide resources, and create an assessment process. Its role has evolved to include curriculum development, course articulation, quality initiatives, strategic planning, and governing board updates. “There were so many different tendrils that came into it that the office couldn’t focus on just one thing. It has grown exponentially. It’s very different from where it started,” Heiland says.

After establishing learning outcomes and proficiency standards for all courses and programs, the college revamped its academic program review process and became an AQIP (Academic Quality Improvement Program) institution. AQIP (www.aqip.org) is an alternative accreditation program that focuses on continuous quality improvement.

The program review process includes a five-year summative review cycle; an annual cycle for reviewing data and updating processes; and a three-year curriculum review for courses, certificates, and degree programs. There is also a purge cycle to eliminate courses that have not been offered in four years. (Courses that have been purged need to go through a complete evaluation in order to be reintroduced into the curriculum.)

To help the review process, CAC uses ACRES (Academic Curriculum Review and Evaluation System), an Oracle- and Web-based system developed by a consortium of Arizona community colleges and universities that is used for developing, modifying, or deleting courses and programs. ACRES

  • replaces many paper-based processes
  • allows for easy routing and tracking of documents
  • provides an archive of all curriculum actions and a backup of institutional data in a secure environment
  • enables customizable routing chains
  • facilitates routing across distances
  • eliminates information silos
  • is compatible with any student information system
  • allows the college to export course information into the state articulation review system

Strict guidelines and faculty leadership help keep the review process on track. If a deadline is missed, that course might be removed from the schedule. Consequences for missed deadlines were implemented with faculty backing. “These are all faculty-led, faculty-empowered committees. That made the decisions of going the route of continuous quality improvement in our academic program, that we need to be assured that the product we’re putting out for our students is not only a quality product but it’s current, and faculty involvement has really helped,” Heiland says. “We put our faculty in those leadership capacities through intense training sessions, and they became faculty mentors, which addressed some of the issues we had because we are so geographically scattered. We needed to have those faculty leaders on each campus so that someone was there to answer questions whenever needed.”

Heiland and Cathy Switzer (who wrote her doctoral dissertation on CAC’s assessment of student learning outcomes) looked at the factors that influence the success of this initiative from the faculty and administration perspectives. A focus group and affinity production of administrators indicate that the main driving forces behind this effort are as follows:

  • Supportive leadership—This initiative would not have succeeded if the leaders did not believe in the purpose of this effort or provide funding and staff for it. “The other part of that supportive leadership is having leaders who give faculty the guidance they need and also empowerment to make decisions, which helped develop a quality initiative program they could buy into. If it’s a top-down initiative, you’re not going to have faculty buy-in,” Heiland says.
  • Evolution of the CLASS Office—The CLASS Office was originally intended to provide support services to faculty to write student learning outcomes. “As we got into the process, this initiative tapped into so many areas and the role of that office changed. It was still a support office, but it got more involved in working with the faculty leaders. It became a place to get answers,” Heiland says.

The faculty noted that supportive leadership was the main driving force behind this initiative, but also that student needs were also a strong driving force. Based on analysis of these outcomes, Switzer came up with a theory of motivational tension: Supportive leadership drove improved student learning, which drove the “growing pains” of the faculty, which encouraged supportive leadership.

To help faculty gain a better understanding of the whole review process, CAC will begin to rotate faculty in and out of the various committees—learning outcomes, curriculum, academic, and policy and procedures—every two or three years. “Instead of struggling to fill academic committees, we now have a waiting list,” Heiland says.

Before Heiland came to CAC in 1998, there was little faculty involvement in curriculum review. “We had one course in our course bank that had not been looked at since 1972. There was no one to guide any kind of consistent curriculum review process. Through the development of a very distinctive quality initiative curriculum review process, all of our faculty are forced to become more involved if they are going to continue to teach the courses they need to teach. There’s a needs assessment component to this process that forces faculty members from all of our campuses to come together and have these discussions. Because we have gone to a district-wide curriculum base, a student taking English 101 will get the same content in that class on any campus,” Heiland says.


Heiland credits the outcomes initiative with improving student learning and engagement, as indicated in results from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (www.ccsse.org), which show that CAC scored significantly higher than the national average and peer institutions in active and collaborative learning, academic challenge, support for learners, student impact, and student-faculty interaction. In addition, CAC students who transfer to four-year institutions do better than other community college students who transfer and students who originally enrolled in four-year institutions do.

Contact Linda Heiland at Linda.Heiland@centralaz.edu.