Holding Ourselves Accountable: The Value of Standards in Higher Education

Last year, I attended a five-day professional development session in Los Angeles with the Standards Institute to learn best practices in curriculum and instruction. The Standards Institute is designed by UnboundEd, an organization dedicated to student equity and outcomes with an emphasis on standards-based instruction; as part of their mission, they provide free curriculum, such as lesson plans and year-long curriculum maps, for K-12 teachers in math and ELA. Their goal is to remove the burden of curriculum planning from teachers, thereby removing a significant barrier to student equity. In K-12 educational communities, standards are hugely important for student success and I am a strong believer in using standards as the driver for student equity. In higher education communities, particularly in educational communities with nontraditional students, distant learning students, and students from underserved backgrounds, the use of standards could greatly impact student equity and success.

“In higher education communities, particularly in educational communities with nontraditional students, distant learning students, and students from underserved backgrounds, the use of standards could greatly impact student equity and success.”

Many educators and educational leaders bristle when they think about content or curriculum standards, convinced they are “one-size-fits-all” or that they set unreasonable expectations or, at the very least, stifle instructors’ creativity. However, like any useful guide or roadmap, standards make clear for both students and instructors the goals for learning and the skills and knowledge necessary for mastery. That alone creates equity for students by making the course content transparent and ensuring that content is pursued with fidelity. In addition, standards, whether they are disaggregated by skill, content, or process, provide many layered opportunities for both teacher and student, including but not limited to:

  • Transparent course content and skill development, which may help students who are commuters, distant learners, or part-time students quickly evaluate whether this course moves them farther down the appropriate path for their education goals

  • Asking instructors to align their texts and tasks accurately so students rarely feel that the content or a task is a “waste of time”

  • Providing students with criteria for evaluating their own success and progress, which means they can self-assess without having to meet instructors in person

  • Providing both instructors and students with common language to discuss grading, feedback, and next steps, making the process more collaborative and efficient

  • Giving students multiple steps, and maybe even a grander vision, for their goals because they not only see where they are now and what comes next, but also what complete mastery looks like when they are finished

The reason standards are so hugely important to student equity is because of one crucial commodity: time. Instructors spend a great deal of time creating content while limiting, or perhaps even ignoring, pedagogy and student support. In higher education, content is king, yet we know that increasing numbers of students are coming into higher education with academic and behavioral gaps (see Education Dive’s A closer look at college and career readiness). The reality is that higher education instructors need to prioritize student support in their instruction. Rather than changing the content of their courses (and thereby the expectations), instructors can–and should–set clear standards for their courses, and they should do so in collaboration within their department and in cross-curricular settings where applicable. The process of defining these standards and defining them with their colleagues helps create a more cohesive academic experience for students and, essentially, holds instructors accountable for their instruction. While the workload upfront is great, the resulting benefits is that instructors can spend more time on the way they teach their students and addressing students’ academic needs to ensure mastery. Course standards also give instructors the criteria to reflect on their teaching and make adjustments when something isn’t working.

Enacting Standards in Higher Education Courses

Instructors can create standards for their courses from multiple angles and can communicate them in a variety of ways, even if these aren’t “standards” the way we traditionally think of them. They can create traditional standards in terms of content, skill, or process, building on current K-12 standards or creating them within their field; clearly define expectations for a specific task or proficiency in the form of a rubric or other gradated description; use the Cognitive Apprenticeship Model to showcase and model for students what experts in their field know and do; and/or annotate their syllabi to explain not only what but also why students are engaging in certain tasks. Any of these approaches make the expectations and the means for achieving them clearer for students.

Ideally, instructors across a department would spend time together to identify their goals for students and then define in which courses those skills and knowledge will be addressed. Overlap is good, and so is making sure that as courses move from introductory to advanced, the standards become more complex and advanced as well. Ideally, a student could see where and when they will develop specific proficiencies and in which courses they might garner additional support or pursue advanced study. If collaboration is a barrier to creating standards, instructors can at a minimum define them for their courses and make sure they are accessible to students throughout their instruction.

The Role of Standards in Student Support Departments

Standards in higher education need not only apply to content courses. Student service departments could also create student equity by creating standards for themselves. One example of this form of accountability is at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where the Student Affairs Division has created self-assessment rubrics for student outcomes in each of their departments: see their Six-Column Model Unit Goals. In these models, which is expected of every single department, Weber has outlined the goals for its services, how it will achieve those goals, the intended outcome, and how they will measure their progress. They also have their recent results and some reflection or rationale for their progress (which I would argue should be housed and addressed separately, but I certainly applaud them for making it transparent and easily accessible). All student service departments should follow this kind of strategic planning and monitoring so that within their campuses, they share understanding of what they have and hope to accomplish. I would also strongly encourage these departments to gather input from students, particularly underrepresented students, as they develop their goals and strategies and to design them for their specific student population; each institution has their own vision, mission, and communities, and this should be reflected in their service standards.

The creation and fidelity to standards, by creating the space to shift our focus from curriculum to students, is a significant opportunity for closing the college readiness gap and making higher education more equitable. They are the roadmap for all of our goals. For many educators and students, fear of not reaching a goal can be debilitating. Instructors care deeply about their students and want to impart their passion for a topic while students want to expand themselves and their opportunities. Higher education is, understandably, very personal. As we pursue equity through standards, recognizing progress is vitally important. Not meeting a standard doesn’t mean the process was a failure. Developing and enacting standards is a learning opportunity, so just as we do for our students, we need to recognize in ourselves when there is positive movement, even if we are not yet proficient.