The quality of business education standards in higher education has been a matter of much recent discontent and debate. Martell and Calderon (2009) cite growing public dissatisfaction with the quality of higher education in the US, and the U.K. Government White Paper, ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (2011), set out the quality challenges of a changing higher education environment, recognising the need to strengthen the processes and to adapt and reinforce systems to improve practice. In Australia, responding to the Bradley Review (2009), the government announced a landmark reform package for higher education that committed to ensuring that growth in the higher education system will be underpinned by a robust quality assurance and regulatory framework, this places a renewed emphasis on student outcomes and the quality of the student experience. Assurance of learningis therefore a process that is of high importance in educational settings for both individual institutional developments, as well as to provide valid evidence to external constituents such as potential students, public officials, and accreditors, to demonstrate that the organisation is meeting its goals and has built-in strategies for improvement.
However, assuring learning against standards is a complex task for academics and program administrators. Indeed, Coates (2010) not only acknowledges the complexity of assessing, monitoring and enhancing academic standards, but also stresses the need for cultural change in order to better facilitate the process. Taylor et al. (2009) noted that while all Australian universities make claims in policy and curriculum documentation about developing graduate attributes, the effective integration into programs has been somewhat intangible, resulting in students not fully engaging with the expectations of degree programs. In addition the B Factor Project (2009) found that academic staff beliefs about graduate attributes and their low levels of confidence and willingness to teach and assess them must be acknowledged if universities are to progress in ensuring that graduates are equipped for the world of work. In light of this Oliver (2011) has concluded that there is an urgent need for “new, efficient and effective ways of judging and warranting” graduate attributes (p.3).
This fellowship builds on the work of a previous OLT funded Strategic Project: Hunters & Gatherers The project concentrated on two elements of the assurance of learning process, i) Mapping learning objectives that relate to graduate attributes, ii) Collecting data on student performance in relation to each learning objective. The emphasis was on informing strategy in a way that supports efficient and manageable assurance mechanisms for academic staff. Based upon the project findings a range of good practice strategies were developed for curriculum mapping and data collection in assuring graduate attributes, which included:
- Holistic – a whole of program approach;
- Integrated – assurance embedded into the curriculum, and linked to assessment;
- Collaborative – developed in conjunction with the academic teaching staff;
- Maintainable – sustainable and not reliant on individuals or resources.
Progressing from this project, this fellowship concentrates on supporting two areas of business education, i) developing a curriculum and assessments that are conducive to developing graduate attributes and assuring learning; and ii) working with academic leaders to foster cultural change in adopting assurance of learning curriculum. These are two areas that strongly support both the OLT and National priorities. This process of curriculum design is a current issue with Prosser (2012) during a keynote at the HERSLEB Conference discussing how curriculum design is the focus higher education must take for the future. It is also a focus for AACSB who have asked, “Are undergraduate business programs providing students with the knowledge, skills, and values that will prepare them to be effective and innovative managers and leaders as well as responsible global citizens?”, and “How can business schools redesign their undergraduate curriculum to better educate students for increasingly complex organizations and careers?”
Given the fact that undergraduate business degree programs are charged with educating about 20% of the world’s undergraduate students, there is an obvious need to support the design of business education to help business schools deliver on their important mission of educating future managers, leaders, and global citizens. This fellowship would address the need to design and deliver curriculum to develop and assure graduate attributes needed in today’s society.
The support for curriculum design stems from a constructively aligned (Biggs, 2000) whole of program approach (Lawson, Freeman & Thompson, 2012). Using the words of Boud (2012) this design approach would consider “designing our courses such that students could not exit from participation in them without necessarily having met the learning outcomes”. The design method (See Fig 1) proposes that the initial stage of developing graduate attributes in students is to engage them, this is a continual task but it is vital that the students engage at the start of the learning experience if they are to fully benefit from it. This engagement can be promoted by making clear, explicit criteria and standards transparent to the learners so that they can see what is expected of them both for an individual task but also on completion of the degree program. In addition to this providing exemplars of the standards help aid this understanding as does modelling the desired skills. This engagement should be an interactive process whereby students are allowed opportunities to discuss, question, practice and even experience marking example work in order to gain a deeper understanding of what the criteria mean. It is during this engagement that teachers can start to provide feedforward to students to help them in the learning activity.
Fig 1: Model to foster understanding of standards
Following this engagement stage is the learning activity which has to be designed to capture an authentic, relevant task, in this way students can position their work in relation to industry/professional standards which helps them make judgements about their current performance level. The highest level of learning, that is the skills expected on completion of the degree program, should be set in these tasks but they are made progressive by increasing the complexity of the task and the standards needed to pass.The last stage of the process is to provide feedback on the learning activity so that students can continue to improve their competency level over time. This feedback needs to provide information on the performance in relation to the current stage of learning but also in relation to the end of degree standards. By providing this information learners can then also use cues for future learning tasks. In addition comparing their own self-assessments with experts helps student to become more accurate in their judgements about the standards for the graduate attributes.This is just one loop of the cycle which is repeated throughout the degree program until completion where the student is assessed to make sure they have reached the final standard expected of a graduate (See Fig 2).
Figure 2: Model to show ongoing process for fostering understanding of standards.
 Assurance of learning is a phrase used by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business to refer to the assessment and documentation of program level learning outcomes/graduate attributes.