Institutions of higher education (IHE) take self-study documents seriously, and they should, because the self–study is one of the most important parts of the accreditation process. Across the past several years I’ve had the privilege to be involved in a number of self-study processes for initial and re-affirmation of accreditation, at the regional, national, and programmatic levels. I have served on and chaired self-study committees and have also been on several site visit teams. In short, I’ve read quite a few self study documents and here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Don’t lie.
The accreditation and self-study process is often stressful for the host institution or department. The outcome of an accreditation visit may mean the difference between a dean or department head receiving kudos or condemnation. In extreme cases, someone may even lose their position. Nevertheless, avoid the temptation to cover up programmatic or institutional weakness with dishonesty. Most writers are honest and ethical people and so this is rare. However, it does happen and when it does it can jeopardize the credibility of an entire program or institution. Better to acknowledge a program or departmental weakness than cast doubt on your entire university and jeopardize your career.
2. Write to the standard, the whole standard, and nothing but the standard.
The best way to approach a standard is to break it into its constituent parts and ensure that each part is correctly assessed and answered. Simple and straightforward writing to the standard is the best way to clearly communicate a program or institution’s strengths to a visiting team member.
3. The most parsimonious answer is probably the best answer.
Resist the temptation to “fluff up” portions of the self-study with extraneous detail or jargon. Folks who are reading your self-study will thank you. I’ve never been a part of a peer review team that wishes to do anything other than correctly validate the self study’s findings and make recommendations that adhere to the standards. Self-study documents that are fluffed up with acronyms, irrelevant data, useless details, and/or jargon make the team reviewer’s job needlessly difficult.
By way of example:
Just for the sake of discussion let’s say that a particular standard demands that “at least 75% of program X’s most recent graduates demonstrate the ability to count from 1 to 4.”
“Nearly all of our program graduates know how to count from 1 to 25, and many can count even higher. For example, a recent alum demonstrated that she could count from 1 through 1,000. We are so very proud to count her among our alumni family. In a recent counting demonstration, 25% of our students could count from 1 to 4 in less than 30 seconds…”
“Recent testing shows that 89.3% of the most recent graduating class in program X demonstrate the ability to count from 1 to 4 (Citations for Assessment Measure 1; Assessment Measure 2; Assessment Measure 3).”