Lean Academic Processes

We must face the fact that most undergraduate students, after taking 40 courses, will a few years after graduation say something like: “Yeah, I had 3 or 4 good professors, and I still remember what they taught me. The rest I can’t really remember.” This is a terrible outcome. We know the processes [currently used for teaching] lead to this result. If such a statement does not suggest that there are enormous opportunities for improvement in higher education, then what does?1

Bob Emiliani, a pioneer in the application of LHE to the core educational processes at universities, refers to this as the “10% problem,” which he has verified across hundreds of university graduates from around the world.

The next time you speak with graduates of your university, ask them, “Of the 40 or so professors you had as an undergraduate, how many were really good?” or “Looking back on your undergraduate studies, which professors had a real impact on you?” and you will likely get similar results.2 If this is a robust finding of graduates reflecting back on their university studies (i.e., 10% of my professors were above average to exceptional, and the remaining 90% were unremarkable), should it be any surprise that stakeholders outside the academy (e.g., parents of prospective students, legislators, employers) may question the value of higher education and its cost? And if these findings are at least in part typical of many universities, shouldn’t faculty members and university leaders serious about teaching and learning look to new evidence-based approaches shown to be effective for identifying and resolving problems with current academic processes in higher education?3

Earlier chapters by necessity discussed nonacademic processes (e.g., position approval and hiring processes for nonfaculty, student counseling services, IT support services, gift processing and acknowledgment, facilities work order process) and academic support processes (e.g., faculty activity reporting, student advising, course registration, exam scheduling, grade change process) because the application of Lean Higher Education (LHE) generally has been limited to these areas. However, LHE is a proven problem-solving framework that applies equally well to improving academic processes. This chapter is about the application of LHE to the central academic processes of higher education: teaching and curriculum, research (scholarly and creative activities) and its application/transfer, and service/outreach (institutional, professional, and civic and community outreach and engagement). In line with the practice and research studies located, the primary focus is on the core academic processes related to the educational mission of the university: teaching and curriculum.4 Academic processes related to scholarly/creative activities and service/outreach will be discussed later in the chapter.

Academic Processes and Opportunities for the Application of LHE

Figure 7.1 depicts three levels of academic processes related to teaching and curriculum at the university.5 The circles (with hatched fill) throughout represent the academic processes most directly associated with teaching and generally under the control of each individual faculty member (i.e., Faculty A, Faculty B, and Faculty C):

■ Processes related to course design (e.g., learning outcomes, content, syllabus)

■ Processes related to course delivery (e.g., pedagogy, individual or group activities, supplemental activities and experiences)

■ Processes related to course assessment (e.g., assignments and projects, testing, grading)

■ Processes related to course support (e.g., diagnosing and resolving student performance issues, additional activities for students seeking deeper understanding/application, career/personal advising).

Faculty members, for example, apply some process to determine what readings will be assigned for a course to ensure that they are up to date,

Figure 7.1 Levels of academic processes.

relevant, not excessive, etc. They may follow a regular process for modifying the readings or use a different process each time a course is updated. They may talk to other faculty about how they determine course readings or go it alone. They may apply the process frequently or infrequently.

At the next level, represented by the light circles, are those academic processes most directly associated with the design and delivery of an academic program or degree curriculum and generally under the control of a group of faculty members (i.e., Academic Departments 1 through 5):

■ Processes related to curriculum content (e.g., essential knowledge and skills within the discipline, expectations of employers and graduate programs, expectations of accreditors)

■ Processes related to curriculum organization and delivery (e.g., organization of content into courses, sequencing of course in the curriculum, establishing prerequisites)

■ Processes related to curriculum relevance/impact (e.g., integrating recent research, currency with profession, internship requirement)

■ Processes related to curriculum application/assessment (e.g., student success on program/degree learning outcomes, alignment with accreditation requirements, appeals for course waivers).

Groups of faculty members, for example, would apply some process (perhaps reached by consensus) to determine how to organize curriculum content into a manageable set of academic courses for the major, appropriate for a 15-week course, attractive to prospective majors, and within the expertise of the faculty members. They may follow a regular process for revisiting the curriculum content or use a different process each time the curriculum is updated. They may talk to faculty at other universities about how they determine the curriculum or go it alone. They may apply the process frequently or infrequently.

The final level is the academic processes most directly associated with the rigor and quality of academic offerings within and across colleges and generally under the control of a broader group of faculty members (e.g., college-wide council, university-wide academic senate):

■ Processes related to development and maintenance of academic offerings (e.g., new academic degrees, major course modifications, closure of academic programs)

■ Processes related to the assessment of academic offerings (e.g., recommendations on academic and curricular priorities, cyclical schedule for program reviews, modes and methods of instructional delivery)

■ Processes related to university-wide academic concerns (e.g., general education requirements, academic integrity, grading policies).

A representative group of university faculty members, for example, would apply some process for making recommendations on adding a new graduate specialization based on evidence of student demand, program quality, available resources, and impact on existing academic offerings. They may follow an established or ad hoc process. They may consult other universities or external bodies or go it alone. They may apply these processes frequently or infrequently.

Overall, there are a large number of academic processes that are the individual or joint responsibility of the faculty, and many of these processes may fall short of delivering the value they (as providers of the processes) and students, graduates, employers, and faculty colleagues (as potential beneficiaries of the various processes) expect. Waste and impediments to flow that affect the value of individual, academic unit, and college/university academic processes are highlighted below.

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