Looking Out, Looking In: Structure for Student Success

School of Architecture

-The School of Architecture was established in 1980.
-Thirteen faculty members.
-The architecture program consists of a seven-year, 212-credit first professional Architecture Doctorate (Arch.D.) degree program (as of 2010).
-In 2008-09, 22 architecture students graduated with an Arch.D.

Thirty-four mandatory student outcomes assessed by a third party might be seen as an onerous burden, but Spencer Leineweber, Professor of Architecture and Graduate Chair, sees it as “a good system [that] absolutely strengthens the program.” The Architecture program structures its curriculum around student outcomes—termed “Student Performance Criteria” by the National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB)—and relies on that structure to ensure there are no gaps in the students’ knowledge. “[Students] know the Criteria are issues that they need to learn to be future architects,” Spencer said. “We’re definitely dealing with a certain knowledge base that’s needed to graduate to become an architect.” However that knowledge base and mandatory Criteria do not force too rigid a structure upon teaching; faculty still have the freedom to be creative. “It’s remarkable how the exact same Criteria are met in different ways,” she said. Spencer sees this creativity within her own department and in other schools that she reviews as part of her work on NAAB’s visiting accreditation teams.

One of the primary methods Architecture uses to assess its students’ learning is a portfolio of student work that each student is required to submit as a culminating product of their first three years of study. “You can see the holes of what’s supposed to be taught. You can see it very clearly in the portfolio review,” Spencer said. The portfolio consists of student work primarily from the design sequence, which is a major credit sequence in the Architecture program. Thus it serves both as a comprehensive review of the program and also a review of the student’s individual learning. Students are also asked to submit a written statement evaluating their personal development and the school’s approach to architectural education. “They are asked to think about their learning and reflect on their learning and what their strengths are,” Spencer said.

The portfolio review brings faculty and students together in a robust dialogue. “All the faculty is involved in the portfolio review,” Spencer said. “The student is reviewed by three faculty members. . . . There’s a guideline and [students] are given a grading sheet as well to see how they’re being evaluated.” After the review, students are encouraged to meet with their reviewing faculty to discuss their performance. For the visiting NAAB team, the faculty are required to choose examples of a high and a low pass from these portfolios. “Low passes for the NAAB are important,” Spencer noted, “because they want to know that all students coming through the program are meeting the Criteria, not just the really good students.” The portfolio serves three roles: it gathers together student studio work that NAAB needs to see for the accreditation visit; it is used by students as they enter the job market; and it is a vital tool for program review.

Assessment in Architecture is highly product-oriented and where there are gaps in the product, Spencer approaches them from a program perspective. She counsels faculty to view criticism from a program level. “The piece that you have to take out of it is criticism of the instructor,” she said. “Because you get a ‘met’ or a ‘not met’ in the evaluation process, if you’re teaching the course that suddenly becomes ‘not met’ it can be demoralizing.” “You have to take it out of the personal—[from] ‘you didn’t do this, you better do it next time or you’re in trouble’ [to] you know, we’re missing this piece, where’s the best place to do it?” In order to avoid missing anything in her own classes, Spencer asks her students mid-semester to write an anonymous card detailing what they’ve learned that they thought was instructive and what they didn’t yet learn that they thought they should be learning. “I like it because it gives great feedback and it’s remarkable how the classes are different from year to year,” she said. “The [classroom] assessment is the correction tool in terms of getting feedback on how to improve, because we have very specific things we’re supposed to be teaching, if [students] are not getting them you definitely have to adjust.”

Architecture distributes the work of assessment around the school to ensure everyone is involved in the process. “It’s a good system,” Spencer said. “We have to make sure that the faculty understand what they have to be teaching and the students understand what they have to be learning . . . it’s a minimum standard.” For programs not bound by strict accreditation requirements as Architecture is, Spencer remains emphatic that assessment is “a great tool . . . That’s the way you get feedback on whether what you thought you were teaching is actually what they’re getting,” she said. “And that’s essential I think.”

Keys to Success

  • Give students guidelines and grading sheets to ensure transparency of evaluation.
  • Encourage faculty to view assessment from a program perspective.

Methods to Collect Evidence

  • Portfolio of creative work reviewed by three faculty.

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