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Accreditation Standards and Student Learning: The Case of the Business Schools


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California

Beatriz Rivera, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
Maribel Huertas, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras

This article1 will focus on how accreditation processes promote student success. The link between accreditation standards, particularly those related to assessment of student learning, and student behavior is presented. The impact of school policies and program content on student success at the University of Puerto Rico is also discussed.

The theme for the 2008 FRN National Symposium was especially provocative. Promoting student success is what we believe is the main responsibility of academic institutions. However, the evidence of such success is mixed at best. Universities try to demonstrate success through ranking competitions, alumni support, and statistics on their placement and salary levels. Institutions understand the importance of school policies and program content as key mediating variables in student success. What is student success and how we achieve it and demonstrate it is not as clear. Discussion of the topic provides a great potential for improvement in a system that brings together faculty, students, and administrators for success.

In the following pages, we will present a definition of student success, discuss the connection between accreditation and learning, distinguish the assessment requirements of the different accreditations, relate our business school experience with assessment and accreditation, and identify the milestones of the assessment process that promote student success.

Defining student success
There are several perspectives on student success. It is often promoted by colleges and universities through special programs directed to at risk students. In order to ensure student success, schools create retention plans with early alert programs. These programs are developed to deal with student deficiencies: situational problems, adaptation problems, learning disabilities and emotional problems, among other situations. Providing the support system for students to complete their degree program and graduate is one level of possible programs to ensure student success.

Moreover, student success is the natural consequence of student learning. Student learning as a process might be the most effective way of ensuring student success. Authentic student learning goes beyond a student’s academic career and into their professional lives. The degree in which our graduates become competent professionals in the market place is the ultimate measure of student success.

Let’s focus our attention in this article on student success as it refers to the student’s academic performance in terms of learning.

The importance of learning in success
Learning provides students with opportunities; it helps them develop critical thinking as well as the knowledge, professional skills, competencies, and values that make them capable performers in school and the workplace. It provides a sense of accomplishment and worth as they develop and face the challenges posed by their environment, the decisions of others, and their own decisions. Learning promotes insights and the creation of new possibilities that, in turn, inspire creativity and innovation. Learning is an engine for the future. Of all the skills related to learning we want to focus our attention on what is meant by “learning to learn.” Learning to learn is the most important skill students need to succeed as students and as professionals. This is true learning, or authentic learning, and it ultimately ensures student success.

Promoting student success thru accreditation2
Accreditation boards promote student success through a number of requirements: retention plans, improved physical facilities, better library resources, and a mission statement that provides a sense of direction. Accreditation standards imply an organizational intervention for change. Though articulating their requirements in different ways, accreditation boards have focused their attention on similar issues. They require schools to be accountable for the results of their programs’ claims, particularly in terms of the impact on students. During the last ten years, accreditation agencies’ have developed a main focus on assessment of student learning3 , making assessment requirements that directly shed light into student performance with respect to the program of study. Assessment of student learning is characterized by a unique feature: student and faculty involvement.

Accreditation requirements for student learning
Some accreditation standards related to student learning are very specific, some are more prescriptive than others, but all require a direct measure of what students learn and the competencies they develop through the instructional objectives that faculty set for the curriculum. Regional accreditation bodies like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and Middle States, although taking different approaches, require the development of a process to document student learning and gather data for continuous improvement. In addition to that, professional accreditation boards help validate the competencies students need to develop for their particular discipline of study; this focus helps integrate curriculum content, course delivery, and pedagogical strategies. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) promotes a systemic approach to management of curricula for each one of the program levels (undergrad, masters, doctoral) of a business school. This system is known as assurance of learning. ABET and the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) are more concerned with particular outcomes related to the curriculum for each discipline. The bottom line is that schools have to demonstrate that students are acquiring necessary skills and knowledge.

To view a comparison of Accreditation Assessment Requirements, please click here

A student-centered focus
The student-centered focus is an important aspect of the design to promote student learning success. Accreditation standards require the development of learning objectives or outcomes that have to be specific, realistic, and measurable. These objectives must be assessed in order to document the outcomes of the students’ program of study.

McCombs & Whisler (1997)4 state that the learner-centered model reflects the necessity of a focus on both learners and learning. Some of the characteristics in student-centered learning include:

  1. The nature of the learning process
  2. Goals of the learning process
  3. The construction of knowledge
  4. Higher-order thinking
  5. Motivational influences on learning
  6. Intrinsic motivation to learn
  7. Characteristics of motivation-enhancing learning tasks
  8. Developmental constraints and opportunities
  9. Social and cultural diversity
  10. Social acceptance, self-esteem, and learning
  11. Individual differences in learning
  12. Cognitive filters

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions developed a framework within which institutions focus on student learning as a demonstration of institutional quality.

Principles of student learning5

  1. The role of student learning in accreditation – The institution defines educational quality as one of its core purposes by how well it fulfills its declared mission on student learning.
  2. Documentation of student learning – The institution demonstrates that student learning is appropriate for the certificate or degree awarded and is consistent with the institution’s own standards of academic performance.
  3. Compilation of evidence – The institution derives evidence of student learning from multiple sources, such as courses, curricula and co-curricular programming and includes effects of both intentional an unintentional learning experiences. Evidence collected from these sources is complementary and demonstrates the impact of the institution as a whole on the student.
  4. Stakeholder involvement – The collection, interpretation and use of student learning evidence is a collective endeavor and is not viewed as the sole responsibility of a single office or position. Those in the institution with a stake in decisions of educational quality participate in the process.
  5. Capacity building – The institution uses broad participation in reflecting about student learning outcomes as a means of building a commitment to educational improvement.

The American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) lists 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning and I would say, for promoting student success

  • Educational values
  • Learning as multidimensional, integrated, and revealed in performance
  • Programs with clear, explicitly stated purposes
  • Attention to outcomes and the co-curricular experiences as well as the process
  • Ongoing, not episodic learning
  • Involvement of the entire educational community
  • Using assessment to illuminate questions
  • Conditions that promote change
  • Accountability through assessment

Through assessment, educators meet their responsibilities to students and to the public.

Assessment and student success
The assessment process promotes student success by:

  • 1. Putting students in the driver’s seat– Assessment has an individual focus. Information about the learning performance of individual students has to be recorded at some point of an assessment plan. If assessment is embedded in courses, there will be more opportunity to engage in one on one direct assessment where students will have the opportunity to make sense of their personal learning process and not only of the content to be learned. “Students have opportunities and increased responsibility to identify their own learning needs, locate learning resources, and construct their own knowledge based on those needs” (McCombs and Whisler, 1997).
  • 2. Requiring the development of student-centered objectives– Assessment of student learning requires the development of student-centered objectives. Since the focus is on direct student learning, faculty is required to think in terms of what the students must learn and do as a result of the learning experience. Such focus places a new level of responsibility on students. In fact, some accrediting boards have standards on students’ responsibilities concerning their own learning process.6
  • 3. Promoting continuous improvement – Faculty, administration, and students interact while administering the educational process. As part of this process they are also part of the continuous improvement process in which the academic program demonstrates a continuous inquiry into itself. Continuous improvement means better academic programs, support systems for students, faculty, and employees, creation of new knowledge and the use of research to improve content, teaching and learning, and a sense of direction that includes a “stakeholders” approach.
  • 4. Promoting a competency approach to learning— Assessment of student learning is primarily based on what students can develop in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Although not specifically required, assessment of student learning promotes continuous learning. Such attitude is the natural result of a continuous improvement process. Continuous learning is possible as a result of students understanding their own learning processes. Continuous learning promotes student success while developing their academic careers and beyond. When students learn how to learn, a number of skills and competencies are included: information competencies, research competencies, use of technology, communication competencies, and an entrepreneurial spirit about their own lives and careers. These skills give students a better foundation for success.

Accountability is the key
In assessment, everybody is expected to perform, to do something. This action or behavioral orientation is the key to promoting student success. We have shown how different accrediting agencies have similar assessment standards or requirements for evidencing student learning outcomes. What varies in terms of assessment is where it is applied.

Our assessment experience at the University of Puerto Rico has helped promote the improvement of courses, inquire a more in depth picture of how students learn, focus on specific competencies to be developed, and generated a renewed interest in pedagogical research7. As part of a professional degree program, many of the learning processes in the business school depend on theory application. This has helped identify a number of specific competencies and skills business students need to develop in order to perform successfully after they graduate.

However, the effectiveness of business schools in developing the necessary competencies and skills of their future graduates has been questioned8 by the employers who hire them. Additionally, implementing assessment of student learning is often more difficult within a business school, because faculty perceive their responsibility is to teach about business. The business of education is, for them, the purview of other academic programs. Today, accreditation boards, government agencies, parents, and employers are telling us that it is our business to educate about business in a way that leads to demonstrable outcomes of student success, both in school and beyond. Thus, the educational process is as important as the content of learning about business.

The School of Business at the University of Puerto Rico is currently pursuing three professional accreditations and two institutional accreditations. Their interactions need to be harmonized to promote student success every step of the way. These accreditations are predicated on the principles of strategic management and continuous improvement. They are very similar in their assessment standards. The standards related to student learning promote student success in a comprehensive and holistic way.

The regional accreditation agencies state that an institution defines educational quality by how well it fulfills its declared mission on student learning. As we created a new curriculum, faculty values on student learning were explicitly revealed as well as the complexity of the learning process. The discoveries led to an analysis of course sequence, the development of instructional objectives in specific core courses, and areas of emphasis for the achievement of particular outcomes, all of it using the declared mission as a guide.

The process included:

  1. Defining learning goals by program
  2. Crafting goals using a taxonomy of cognitive abilities in order to guide the development of knowledge and abilities among students
  3. Gathering relevant data
  4. Integrating findings into the curriculum for improvement

Our experience is not unique. As a fellow business professor once said: “The examination of student learning outcomes provides business schools with the data to assess the quality of their programs and offers educators the opportunity to truly practice what they teach.” We have learned that this is a process that requires lots of contributors, much discussion, a great deal of reflection, and commitment. It consequently provides a great context for student, faculty, and organizational learning.


1This article is the result of a presentation at the FRN National Symposium session entitled “A Behavioral Approach to Student Learning: Assessment and Policies.” Presenters at the session were: Dr. Maribel Huertas and Dr. Beatriz Rivera, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and Dr. Audrey Wolfson Latourette, The Richard Stockton College of N.J.

2Mentkowski, M. & Associates. Learning that Lasts: Integrating Learning, Development, and Performance in COllege and Beyond. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

3As an example, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), integrated the requirement of formal direct assessment of student learning in a system called “Assurance of learning” in 2003. Seven of its 21 standards are involved. The focus shifted from what teachers taught to what students learned (Martell, 2007).

4McCombs, B.L. & Whisler, J.S. (1997). The learner-centered classroom and school. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

5“Regional accreditation and student learning: A guide for institutions and evaluators.” Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions. Retrieved from http://www.sacscoc.org/pdf/handbooks/PreparingTeams%28blue%29.pdf November 2, 2008.

6AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. (2008) “Eligibility Procedures and Accreditation Standards for Business Accreditation.” Standard 14.

7Peggy Maki in “Moving from Paperwork to Pedagogy”, states that engaging faculty in assessment from the research perspective promotes their involvement and understanding in which to help students learn.

8Porter, L.W. & McKibbin, L.E. (1988). Management Education and Development: Drift of Thrust in the 21st Century. McGraw-Hill.




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