Master’s Degrees and Student Learning Outcomes
Master’s Degrees and Student Learning Outcomes
Fresno Pacific University is a master’s level comprehensive university, with a total enrollment this spring of just over 3500 students, about 1000 of these being master’s level students. The majority of our master’s level degrees are in education, but we also offer programs in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling, and theology and divinity in our Seminary, in leadership and the MBA in the school of business, and in kinesiology, and soon we hope in nursing in the school of natural sciences. We continue to reflect our roots and foundation in the liberal arts tradition and our professional degrees (BA and MA level) and teaching reflect this core. It is a big definition, and perhaps unwieldy. As institutions grow from primarily undergraduate, liberal arts or teaching institutions to universities engaging more regularly in research and offer higher degrees they must make the effort to articulate what distinguishes one degree level from another and how the lower leads to the higher, or how the higher builds upon the lower.
We also offer an Individualized Master’s of Arts degree program (IMAP), through which students can design their own program, work intensively with instructors individually or in small groups as well as take specialized courses in a variety of fields. Each individual program must be approved by an interdisciplinary committee of faculty members. The student must demonstrate the coherence of their desired program, the major areas of study and the desired intellectual and professional outcome or results.
The current movement in higher education that focuses on demonstrated learning, or learning outcomes demonstrated by students, has recently come to our aid as we attempt these definitions, describe the what kind of learning degrees should reflect and what levels of learning students should demonstrate at each level. The Lumina Foundation, in association with The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (our accrediting agency) and the Council of Independent Colleges (of which we are a member) and the Higher Learning Commission, has recently released a degree profile which both defines and illustrates the levels of learning that might be considered characteristic of our various degrees. The profile symbolizes the types of learning as a web and lists them under five general headings: Intellectual Skills, Broad Integrated Learning, Civic Learning, Specialized Knowledge, and Applied Learning. The illustration is helpful to grasp how it works (you will find it on page 8). Each degree and very kind of school will balance these five areas of learning differently, but each degree should reflect all five.
What seems to me to be practically helpful for students and faculty members beyond the broad conceptualization is the definitions of what we should be seeking to “master” at the Master’s level, though the same could be said for the Associate’s and Bachelor’s level as well. This has been helpful to me as I have thought about the work I have been doing with students over the last years in master’s programs in business (ethics courses) and in history (medieval and early modern). Here are a few to illustrate.
Under “specialized knowledge:”
Elucidates the major theories, research methods and approaches to inquiry and/or schools of practice in his or her field; articulates their sources; and illustrates both their applications and their relationships to allied fields.
Assesses the contributions of major figures (and/or organizations, if applicable) in his or her field, describes the major methodologies and/or practices in his or her field; and implements at least two of them through projects, papers, exhibits or performances.
Articulates a full range of challenges involved in practicing the field; elucidates the leading edges of the field; and delineates the current limits of theory, knowledge and/or practice in the field by independently initiating, assembling, arranging and reformulating ideas, concepts, designs and/or techniques in carrying out a project directed at a challenge in his or her field that lies outside conventional boundaries.
Disaggregates, adapts, reformulates and employs principal ideas, techniques or methods at the forefront of his or her field of study in the context of an essay or project.
And under “broad integrated knowledge:”
Articulates and defends the significance and implications of his or her own specialized work in terms of challenges, trends and/or developments in a social or global context.
These are large goals. If you are thinking about beginning, or completing or about what you learned in a Master’s degree, here is something to reflect upon about what you have done or will do as a student. For those of us to who teach and learn these are examples of the goals (or learning outcomes) we might hold before us.
The Lumina Foundation’s big goal is to see larger number of adults possessing bachelors and master’s degrees and the levels of learning associated with them. We at FPU also see this as part of our mission.