Program Review 101

Why Program Review?

Despite the myriad differences in colleges and universities across the globe, the focus on improving student learning is universal. The more we learn about the power of assessment to help us achieve that goal, the more refined our practices have become. Decades ago, setting up annual assessment plans to assess student learning outcomes was the focus of much of our work. As we move forward, we recognize the potential value of stepping back from that annual cycle to take a broader look at program effectiveness. It’s the view from 10,000 feet so to speak, and it allows us to take a less iterative look at how programs contribute to the overall mission of the school, as well as how students learn both inside and outside of the classroom.


How to Approach the Work

The principles of good assessment that are highlighted in our Assessment 101 guide still apply to program review, but the template and process may look a little different. Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Determine your purpose

There are a lot of good reasons to institute a program review. Among them: meet accreditors guidelines, foster innovation in teaching, acknowledge past accomplishments, identify weak or strong programs, create a case for resource allocation, and monitor alignment with institutional mission. This list is not exhaustive and the varying purposes are not mutually exclusive. Creation of a program review process should begin with determining which purposes the initiative will serve so that purpose can be transparent for all stakeholders, and the appropriate information can be gathered in the program self-study.

2. Create a process and template that will help you achieve your purpose

  • Each institution is unique and therefore the process and template for program review will be unique. All assessment efforts should support the institution’s mission and program review is no different.
  • Work collaboratively to determine what the template should look like. Measure what matters to your institution and use what you measure.

3. But don’t reinvent the wheel

So many schools and offices have gone through this process already. Reach out in the assessment community and look at the good work that has already been done by others to help you build your process and/or template. Many templates are an amalgam of others’ work.

4. Identify programs to pilot the review

Most campuses have people with varying levels of interest in and readiness for tackling the next assessment initiative.  Find your assessment champions and work with them to complete the first cycle of program reviews. Also consider that some programs may need this project to help them achieve their accreditation goals. Recognizing this may prevent duplication of work.

5. Feel empowered to make revisions

We’ve seen an increase in the number of schools who are looking to revamp their program review process.  Assessment is a journey, not a destination. The idea that we might realize our previous attempts at program review didn’t get at the right information is still a really valuable part of the assessment journey. Use past experiences to help you make good decisions about what to measure and report on in the future!


What Does the PR Process and Template Include?

1. Internal Self-Study

  • Faculty-driven process
  • Templated format and structure (see list below)
  • Clear schedule for process (see calendar above)
  • Institutional resources available

Templates Often Include:

  • Trend data analysis from last 5-7 years
  • Curriculum
  • Assessment Summary
  • Faculty development/activity
  • Student activity and satisfaction
  • Support services
  • Demand for program
  • Facilities
  • Resource allocation
  • SWOT
  • Improvements since last review
  • Summary and planned improvements

2. External Peer Review

  • The external review will be the most valuable if the reviewers are chosen with care (not just those who already know and love your program) and given the opportunity to review the previously prepared internal self-study.  
  • Reviewers should be given clear expectations for their role and how their feedback should be provided to the team. Providing a template or format for your expected response will provide guidance to the external team in writing up their report.

3. External Peer Site Visit

Treat this site visit like you would an accreditation site visit.  Make sure to arrange for:

  • Lodging
  • Transportation
  • Meals
  • Schedule
  • Technology

You want the reviewer to be able to spend his/her time talking with stakeholders and seeing the program in action, not worrying about where he/she will sit, or how to log on to the wi-fi.

4. Summary and Follow Through

Once the external review is complete, program faculty need time to evaluate the findings and integrate them into their improvement plans. The most effective program improvements also include feedback from administrators, and a shared understanding that the information gained will be put to use in improving student learning and furthering the mission of the institution. We want to see programs follow – through on their action plans.



For more detailed information on this topic, watch the The Why, How, and What of Designing an Effective Program Review webinar recording.




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