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This January, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges unsurprisingly reaffirmed Brown's status as an accredited institution. The team of NEASC evaluators praised Brown as "one of the premiere educational institutions in the United States," but NEASC's Jan. 8 letter informing President Simmons of the reaccreditation did contain several reminders of areas for improvement. In particular, the letter encouraged the University to implement a "systematic and broad-based approach to the assessment of student learning."

Measuring student learning outcomes is undoubtedly an essential task for any institution whose primary mission is education. Yet, in responding to NEASC's call for enhanced tracking of student learning, Brown faces two distinct challenges. First, the notion of a learning outcome is somewhat vague. Does it imply that students have acquired a knowledge base, skill set or some combination of the two? Second, in the absence of academic requirements, Brown cannot point to a universal standard of learning that applies to the entire student body. 

In spite of these challenges, we believe that the University's efforts to improve tracking of student learning have been laudable. In an interview with the editorial page board, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron highlighted several new measures, many of which were initially suggested by the 2008 Task Force on Undergraduate Education.
In the absence of a mandatory writing requirement — a hallmark at some other universities — the administration is placing added emphasis on students' written work.

In 2008, the University developed 24 new first-year seminars, which will give freshmen additional opportunities to work closely with professors on adjusting to college-level writing. Starting next fall, all writing-intensive courses will be labeled in the course catalogue with a "W," which will which will offer additional guidance to students looking to improve as writers. The "W" designation effectively emphasizes written work without infringing on students' curricular freedom.

The College Curriculum Council is also in the process of undertaking a department-by-department review of undergraduate programs. As part of the review, departments will be asked to define what knowledge and skills students are expected to obtain by graduation, and in turn justify their concentration requirements. Because of Brown's open curriculum, focusing the review at the department level seems to be the most effective way to get a detailed idea of students' learning experiences.

The University has also introduced the Advising SideKick, an online system that will provide space for students to upload work, concentration forms and other written exchanges with advisors. The online portfolio will track students' intellectual progression and create a more cogent academic narrative in the context of the open curriculum.

We applaud the University's newest efforts to understand student achievement, but we also have some suggestions to add. An emphasis on writing is important, but quantitative skills should not be overlooked. Many concentrations, including sociology, political science and psychology, have statistics requirements. The University should evaluate the effectiveness of statistics classes and ensure that students are being equipped with the tools they need to conduct independent research and analysis.

In addition, we are curious how learning at Brown carries over to graduate studies. The University should establish a formal mechanism to solicit feedback from alums who have gone on to pursue advanced degrees elsewhere. This feedback will provide an additional view on the effectiveness of Brown's undergraduate curriculum.

The NEASC report makes clear that Brown has a lot to be proud of. We are especially glad that the University is not resting on its laurels and is addressing NEASC's suggestions head-on.

Editorials are written by The Herald's editorial page board. Send comments to



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