Liberal Education

The Degree Qualifications Profile 2.0: Defining US Degrees through Demonstration and Documentation of College Learning

Editor’s note: The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) is a postsecondary learning outcomes framework that specifies what students should be expected to know and be able to do at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. Since the DQP was first introduced at AAC&U’s 2011 annual meeting, over four hundred colleges and universities have used the framework to guide curricular revisions, retool assessment approaches, support student success efforts, and organize quality improvements in line with accreditation standards. Based on data and feedback from campuses and national associations, the authors of the Degree Qualifications Profile have prepared a new draft version, the DQP 2.0, which was previewed at AAC&U’s 2014 annual meeting and posted for public comment and response by Lumina Foundation. Following final revisions, the second edition of the DQP will be published by Lumina Foundation later this year. Following is an excerpt from the DQP 2.0; the full text is available at www.luminafoundation.org/dqp.

Preface

Since its publication in January 2011, the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) has proved its usefulness to higher education institutions and associations from coast to coast. About 400 colleges and universities have used the DQP, and its applications have been as diverse as the copious variety of missions in higher education.1 A few examples will indicate the range.

  • Many institutions have used the DQP to review and strengthen their general education curricula and to enhance the connections between general education and the major.
  • One institution has implemented a reorientation of its mission and curriculum in light of the DQP.
  • Some institutions with existing statements of learning outcomes have used the DQP in a "gap analysis" to determine their statements' inclusiveness, sufficiency and distinctive strengths.
  • Some institutions have used the DQP as a platform for discussions with employers and other stakeholders about their needs and expectations.
  • Two- and four-year institutions in nine states have worked together on ways to assess DQP proficiencies in the context of transfer.

While this second iteration of the DQP improves on the first in several ways, it represents less a revision than an enhancement. The fundamental strength of the DQP—succinct, active definitions of what degree recipients should know and be able to do at each degree level—remains essentially unchanged. Those engaged in implementation or adaptation of the DQP may be confident that its structure and contents have not been substantially altered.

What has changed since January 2011? In addition to colleges and universities, four of the seven regional accrediting associations and constituency organizations such as the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) have found the DQP a stimulus to creative and innovative projects. Some institutions are encouraging students’ independent attainment of competencies documented by direct assessment. The range of higher education providers has expanded. And concrete efforts to enhance the preparedness of high school graduates, such as the Common Core State Standards, are gaining traction.

Informed by feedback, this iteration thus includes new proficiencies concerning ethical reasoning and global learning, strengthened statements on quantitative reasoning, and more explicit attention to research. It highlights analytical and cooperative approaches to learning that transcend specific fields of study. It provides guidance on integrating the development of students’ intellectual skills with their broad, specialized, applied, and civic learning. And in response to requests, it points to resources that support the assessment of DQP proficiencies.

DQP 2.0 is meant to build on its successful predecessor so as to offer an even more useful, flexible, and practical “tool that can help transform U.S. higher education.”

Executive summary

With the assistance of the original authors and many expert reviewers, Lumina Foundation offers the second iteration of its Degree Qualifications Profile for U.S. higher education: DQP 2.0. Reflecting nearly three years of wide and diverse application, the DQP continues to provide a baseline set of reference points for what students should know and be able to do to merit the award of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, regardless of their field of study.2

Although the DQP stands on the shoulders of many in its effort to describe what postsecondary degrees should mean in terms of learning outcomes, it sets a new direction for U.S. higher education in the following ways:

  • The student, not the institution, is the primary reference point. The DQP describes what students should know and be able to do as they progress through progressively higher levels of postsecondary study.
  • The DQP presents outcomes for three levels of degrees by articulating increasing levels of challenge for student performance for each of the learning outcomes it frames.
  • The degree, not the field of study, is its emphasis. The DQP is presented as a "profile," in the expectation that faculty responsible for fields of study and programs will provide the field-specific expectations for student accomplishment in their particular areas of specialized knowledge. Accrediting associations in many fields of study have established such expectations, and explicit field-level outcomes are being developed also through the allied "Tuning" process.
  • The DQP's learning outcomes are written using active verbs—e.g., "identifies," "categorizes," "prioritizes," "evaluates"—because such verbs describe what students actually do when they demonstrate proficiency through assignments (papers, performances, projects, examinations, exhibits, etc.). Nouns such as "ability," "awareness," and "appreciation" are avoided because they do not lead to assessments of proficiency.
  • The DQP is transformational in that it provides a qualitative set of important learning outcomes—not quantitative measures such as number of credits and grade point averages—as the basis for awarding degrees.
  • The process of developing this second iteration involved many stakeholders testing many potential applications over a three-year period—a non-governmental process undertaken voluntarily by nearly 400 institutions engaged in sponsored and independent projects.
  • DQP proficiencies are intended not as statements of aspiration for some, but as descriptions of what every graduate at a given level ought to know and be able to do.

Compared to other approaches to accountability in U.S. higher education, the DQP differs in important ways.

  • Current accountability markers are principally limited to degree-completion data based on numbers of courses or credit hours; these measures fail to describe what degrees mean in terms of demonstrated student performance.
  • Many emerging state or system-level accountability strategies feature simplistic measurements based on a small set of standardized test scores or on retrospective opinions captured through surveys. In contrast, the DQP offers qualitative guidance both to students and to a society that asks, "So, you hold this degree; what did you really do to earn it?"
  • Current assessment practice often rests on learning goals developed by each institution in isolation. Their attainment is then usually investigated on average, by examining the performance of samples of students using various methods — summative examinations (standardized or developed by the institution's faculty), portfolios, capstone exercises, etc. These methods are added on to the teaching and learning process to verify its effectiveness. The DQP proposes a more integrated approach, one focused on the expected and performed accomplishments of individual students in the course of multiple teaching and learning experiences.

The DQP addresses specific current issues:

  • In response to questions about higher education's effectiveness, academic administrators and faculty have few adequate answers. The DQP invites—and prepares pathways for—the documentation of student learning in broadly understood and easily appreciated terms.
  • Facing the complexity of contemporary curricula in higher education and the many locations and technologies through which curricula are delivered, few students receive adequate guidance on the structure and cumulative force of their learning. The DQP invites them to make choices informed by a shared awareness of degree-level outcomes.
  • Recognizing that faculty members are more likely to work within their departments or fields of study than to work collaboratively with peers in other fields, the DQP calls for meaningful collaboration among faculty that enables students to achieve expected proficiencies across the entirety of their studies.
  • Acknowledging a proliferation of higher education providers and modes of delivery, the DQP offers a perspective on proficiencies that transcends providers and learning contexts. It is as applicable to learning that is assessed outside the framework of courses as it is to traditional course-based degree programs.

Proficiencies are organized in the DQP according to five broad categories:

  1. Specialized Knowledge. Beyond the vocabularies, theories, and skills of fields of study, this category addresses what students in any specialization should demonstrate with respect to the specialization.
  2. Broad and Integrative Knowledge. This category asks students at all degree levels covered in the DQP to consolidate learning from different broad fields of study—the humanities, arts, sciences, and social sciences—and to discover and explore concepts and questions that bridge these essential areas of learning.
  3. Intellectual Skills. Both traditional and non-traditional cognitive operations are included in these skills: analytic inquiry, use of information resources, engaging diverse perspectives, ethical reasoning, quantitative fluency, and communicative fluency. There appears throughout an emphasis on the capacity to make, engage, and interpret ideas and arguments from different points of reference (cultural, technological, political, etc.).
  4. Applied and Collaborative Learning. This element of the DQP emphasizes what students can do with what they know, demonstrated by innovation and fluency in addressing unscripted problems in scholarly inquiry, at work and in other settings outside the classroom. This category includes research and creative activities involving both individual and group effort.
  5. Civic and Global Learning. Recognizing higher education's responsibilities both to democracy and to the global community, this fifth area of learning addresses the integration of knowledge and skills in applications that facilitate student engagement with and response to civic, social, environmental and economic challenges at local, national and global levels.

Notes

1. References to “colleges and universities” are meant to include community colleges, junior colleges, and non-traditional providers.

2. By Fall 2014, the DQP is also expected to incorporate postsecondary certificates (credentials recognizing knowledge and skill below the degree level). Academic doctorates (i.e., Ph.D.s) are not included at this time because of their emphasis on advanced research skills specific to individual disciplines. Qualifications profiles for professional doctorates in medicine, law, physical therapy, audiology and other fields may be proposed later.


Clifford Adelman is senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Peter T. Ewell is vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Paul L. Gaston is Trustees Professor at Kent State University. Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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