Case Study

Through the Ages: Evolving a Culture of Assessment


Founded in 1914, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) is a private, nonprofit, accredited institution serving approximately 15,000 graduate, undergraduate, and online students across its four campuses in Rhode Island, Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina. An innovative educational leader, the University offers degree programs in arts and sciences, business, culinary arts, education, nutrition, hospitality, physician assistant studies, engineering, and design. Its unique model integrates arts and sciences and industry-focused education with work experience and leadership opportunities—inspiring students to achieve professional success and lifelong personal growth.

The Challenge

Johnson & Wales University (JWU) embarked on their assessment journey in 2013—a time that Jennifer Galipeau, Director of Outcomes Assessment, describes as “the era of bubblegum and toothpicks.” JWU’s culture of assessment was in its early developmental stage with program- and College-level assessment activities taking place in silos and minimally aligned with other efforts on campus. While Institution-level outcomes had been revised in 2012, steps had not been taken to consider the alignment of existing program-level outcomes with these revised outcomes. In short, assessment activities were happening at JWU, but the efforts were fragmented and disparate.

To address these gaps, institutional leadership created a Provost Office-level position of Director of Outcomes Assessment, recruiting the former faculty chair of its University Outcomes Assessment Committee (UOAC) to fill the positon. Charged with developing a more structured, standardized approach to assessment, the new Director of Outcomes Assessment began by interviewing faculty members of UOAC to learn how programs and departments were managing assessment at that time. A consistent theme emerged from these interviews: While most programs had figured out how to do something in terms of assessment, there was a lack of consistency in how outcomes were being assessed and reviewed across the institution’s four campuses.

As a result of this fragmentation, faculty had no way to see a holistic picture of student learning—despite the annual discussions and mountains of spreadsheets created for that purpose. Two things became clear during this early investigation: (1) JWU needed a unified approach to establish consistent terminology for assessment activities, and (2) assessment data needed to be centralized for visibility and access from campus stakeholders.

The Solution

Appreciating the need to respect the legacy of independent practices, the institution developed a four-year plan to answer the following question:

“What do you know about your student learning and what are you trying to do to improve it?”

  • Year one:  Described by Galipeau as the “duct tape era,” they would standardize the language of assessment across campuses with a clear distinction between program outcomes and course objectives.
  • Year two:  They planned to re-establish and document an academic program map to include those program outcomes and course objectives, and map all programs to University outcomes to ensure alignment across the curriculum and illustrate how learning was introduced, reinforced, and ultimately assessed for each discrete program outcome.
  • Year three:  The UOAC would support faculty as they began to collect data on those program outcomes.
  • Year four: They would have their first opportunity to ‘close the loop’ and begin answering critical questions about student learning and program improvement.

Outlining the details of their plan shed light on the full scope of work and the resources required. The University decided to leverage assessment management technology to expedite the process and streamline their efforts. After establishing two criteria for selecting the right solution, they searched for a system that had (1) strong storytelling components and (2) robust data gathering and analysis capabilities.

After considering several platforms, the UOAC selected Taskstream by Watermark™. It was the only option that allowed them to move beyond assessment for compliance to advance assessment for learning with a central home for managing all institutional improvement processes. From one location, they could easily track outcomes assessment, evaluate program quality, and document institutional effectiveness for accreditation.

Taskstream by Watermark’s clear structures for aligning objectives with evidence and action plans, coupled with powerful reporting capabilities, enabled the University to effectively tell its story to key external stakeholders. The platform’s customizable workspaces and streamlined processes allowed for the efficient gathering of data from all programs to inform decision-making and drive improvements.

The Win

By defining who was responsible for using Taskstream by Watermark and detailing how it was to be used, faculty were given the resources they needed to confidently engage in a culture of assessment.

Implementing Taskstream by Watermark enabled JWU to leave their outdated processes in the past and evolve toward a new “data-driven era” focused on continuous improvement throughout the institution. Starting small and having programs begin data collection by focusing on a single outcome helped to foster faculty engagement and investment with assessment initiatives.

Additionally, the platform’s robust reporting capabilities saved faculty from the time-consuming process of manually creating custom reports. Instead, faculty use the system’s built-in reporting system to fuel meaningful analysis and guide potential adjustments for improvement. Galipeau described this paradigm shift as a “game changer.”

Looking Ahead

With the successful implementation of Taskstream by Watermark across the institution’s four campuses, JWU plans to develop a more holistic view of student learning by expanding the use of the system to non-academic departments. The UOAC will explore how learning activities in both academic and non-academic units support student achievement.

The University also plans to expand its use of Watermark systems as a way to engage stakeholders in every corner of campus and support their initiatives by reviewing outcomes together. Ultimately, JWU hopes to capture all aspects of learning—wherever they occur on campus—to enable the institution to tell a compelling story and fulfill their promise to students.