Higher Learning Commission

Toward a “True Graduate Experience” in Professional Master’s Degree Programs

John Stone, Carolyn Morgan and Seth Meisel

This paper presents the results of a two-year-long project to develop new graduate learning outcomes and clear criteria for what the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UW-Whitewater or UW-W) regards as the standards for master’s-level coursework. The paper offers a brief narrative of the rationale for this project and the research and deliberative process by which the new documents were formulated and approved by graduate faculty members and the governing body, the Graduate Council.
In 2013, the School of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education commissioned Dr. Carolyn Morgan to conduct a study that addressed the following questions:

  • How does master’s-level learning differ from undergraduate learning at UW-Whitewater, both in terms of its intent and in how master’s students are educated?
  • What are the comprehensive learning outcomes of master’s-level education at the UW-Whitewater?

The study was motivated by three factors. The first was the observation of the visiting Higher Learning Commission (HLC) peer review team in its 2006 report that “[t]he Graduate Council needs to have a discussion about what really constitutes the difference between a graduate level program and a corresponding undergraduate program and how it should ensure that such a difference exists and is maintained.” The second factor was the influence of the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education for America’s Promise (AAC&U LEAP) essential learning outcomes on the UW-W campus. UW-W embraced LEAP learning outcomes in 2010 and has worked diligently to align program assessments with those outcomes. Given the prominence of that initiative on the UW-W campus, however, some graduate programs conflated those undergraduate learning objectives in their own program assessments. Finally, although the Graduate Council had approved Graduate Global Learning Outcomes in 1997, and, in 2004, had distinguished differences between graduate and undergraduate education in terms of content, intensity and self-direction, relatively little had been done in the last decade to revisit these understandings and examine how well they guided curriculum, pedagogy, student experiences and program evaluation.

The foundation for this project was the study UW-W selected to fulfill its Quality Initiative requirement of the Open Pathway for reaffirmation of accreditation. This ambitious project evaluated the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualification Profile (DQP) in which comparisons of undergraduate and graduate education were conducted in four UW-W academic departments in four broad interrelated categories: specialized knowledge, broad and integrative knowledge, intellectual skills and applied and collaborative learning. The four academic departments involved in the DQP evaluation project represented the four UW-W colleges (Accounting from the College of Business and Economics, Special Education from the College of Education and Professional Studies, Communications from the College of Arts and Communications, and School Psychology from the College of Letters and Sciences). These specific departments were included because each had both an undergraduate and a graduate program, making comparisons of the two levels of education comparable within their areas of study. Teams of three to five faculty members from each of the departments developed and implemented a plan to evaluate the DQP’s ability to differentiate learning outcomes at the undergraduate and graduate levels in their respective programs. These plans involved conducting content analyses of course syllabi and writing samples as well as interviewing students and faculty members regarding their perceptions of the DQP’s usefulness. In addition, assessments of current undergraduate and graduate students’ critical thinking skills, writing and basic knowledge were obtained from samples of students in the programs under review.

Although the DQP study’s primary objective was to evaluate the usefulness of the DQP itself rather than specifically identifying differences in undergraduate and graduate education at UW-W, the DQP results did suggest some program differences warranting additional study. For example, examination of writing assignments in the Psychology program indicated that graduate assignments were much more likely to address the DQP applied learning and collaborative competencies than were undergraduate writing assignments, suggesting that the application of discipline-specific knowledge and skills is a relatively greater focus of concern in the School Psychology graduate program than in the undergraduate psychology major. The Special Education team’s DQP assessment identified the reality that many of its graduate students are seeking initial special education teaching certification in order to become licensed special education teachers. These graduate students come from a variety of backgrounds other than teaching fields, and their goal is to meet Wisconsin Department of Instruction requirements.

As evidenced by the above examples, certain results from the DQP study suggested that UW-W master’s-level learning differs from undergraduate learning, both in terms of its intent and in how master’s students are educated. The next step was to gather information to explicitly illuminate the program goals and educational processes that make UW-W graduate programs distinct from UW-W undergraduate education. In carrying out this two-year study, Dr. Morgan conducted a content analysis of graduate course syllabi, interviewed program coordinators, examined exit surveys of graduates for the years from 2007 to 2013, and completed a comprehensive survey of current graduate faculty members and students. This intense, multi-modal examination of UW-W graduate programs brought into focus the marked professional and applied orientation of the university’s graduate programs.

For instance, analysis of graduate program syllabi consistently demonstrated learning outcomes with elements such as understanding of core disciplinary theories and practices, demonstrated fluency with tools and technologies of the field, and application of major theories and methods. Conversely, none of the syllabi were consistent with standards more relevant to programs leading to a traditional thesis (such as “elucidates the leading edges of the field” or “delineates the current limits of theory, knowledge or practice in the field by independently initiating, assembling and reformulating concepts, designs or techniques in carrying out a project directed at a challenge in the field that lies outside of conventional boundaries”). Similarly, there was greatest consistency in the syllabi with the School of Graduate Studies Mission Statement component “Comprehend and discuss advanced theoretical questions and current issues,” and there was least consistency with the component “Collect, analyze and interpret data applicable to complex questions and problems.”  

Perhaps the most revealing insights into the conception and practice of graduate education at UW-W came from the interviews with graduate program coordinators and faculty and student surveys. For coordinators, the most common descriptions of UW-W graduate programs they employed were to characterize their master’s programs as focused on applied skill development, including applied research, requiring a capstone experience, leading to certification and/or licensure and focused on a specific profession. Coordinators also distinguished their graduate programs from undergraduate education as having more of a focus on communication skills and leadership, applied skill development, and problem solving, and requiring critical thinking that involves more depth, integration and dealing with complexity. These results were largely replicated in a faculty survey that asked graduate faculty members to choose from a list of 68 characteristics and highlight those that better described graduate than undergraduate programs. At least two-thirds of graduate faculty members selected the following outcomes as most indicative of master’s programs:

  • Provides students with advanced learning in a specialized discipline or sub-discipline (80%)
  • Gives an in-depth understanding such that the student becomes something of an expert in the topic of study (87%)
  • Teaches students how to conduct independent research (74%)
  • Involves a careful selection of students for admission to the program (70%)
  • Involves extensive writing, research and intellectual discussion (83%)
  • Prepares scholars and researchers to master the content and method of their special subjects (82%)
  • Develops students who will claim professional standing in their chosen fields (68%)
  • Emphasize learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently (66%)
  • Focuses on students’ abilities to generate new knowledge and new ideas (68%)
  • Provides students with advanced educational preparation for careers (71%)
  • Provides advanced knowledge in a field of study, including specialized training in the discipline’s theory, research methodology, and critical analysis (86%)
  • Is designed to prepare students for scholarly careers that emphasize the acquisition, organization, utilization and dissemination of knowledge (70%)
  • Courses operate as discussion forums where professors serve more as facilitators and mentors (72%)
  • Assumes entering students have a basic, working knowledge of their area of study (83%)
  • Students are required to demonstrate competence in conceptualizing, implementing and evaluating solutions to complex problems (73%)
  • Students are required to engage in research that contributes to new knowledge in the field (77%)
  • Students must be self-directed, intellectually curious, hard-working, flexible and committed (74%)

Overall, student surveys confirmed these attributions, but there were some significant differences. In student exit surveys, graduating students clearly perceived the value of the educational objectives of UW-W graduate education and believed their programs had improved their intellectual skills in a number of related domains. They consistently noted “opportunities for hands-on and real-life experience” and “high faculty expectations” as strengths of their programs. However, when students were asked to respond to the list of 68 items and attribute them as more characteristic of undergraduate or graduate education, students saw much less relevance in those items related to creating new scholarship than did faculty members who teach graduate courses. Indeed, students were significantly less likely to rate the following items as more characteristic of graduate than undergraduate education:

  • Teaches students how to conduct independent research
  • Prepares scholars and researchers to master the content and method of their special subjects
  • Focuses on students’ abilities to generate new knowledge and new ideas
  • Is designed to prepare students for scholarly careers that emphasize the acquisition, organization, utilization and dissemination of knowledge
  • Students are required to engage in research that contributes to new knowledge in the field

The survey results suggest that, in general, faculty members perceive greater distinction between undergraduate and graduate programs than graduate students do, and the distinction seems to be strongest on items that are consistent with the traditional goal of graduate work (e.g., training scholars and researchers). Overall, Dr. Morgan’s study revealed the need for graduate faculty members to further articulate the distinctions between expectations for graduate and undergraduate work as well as the processes through which the applied skills and knowledge that constitute UW-W graduate student success in specific professional programs are developed. At the conclusion of her report, Dr. Morgan articulated these unique qualities distinguishing UW-W graduate programs as professional master’s degree programs in the “Criteria for Master’s-Level Coursework” and the “UW-Whitewater Institutional Learning Outcomes for Master’s-Level Education” documents based on the study’s results.  

Dean John Stone shared the report with members of the Graduate Council, the graduate governance group on campus. He also asked them to discuss the results with their departments and programs and solicit additional feedback regarding the principal differences they perceived between undergraduate and graduate education. Council members reported back from their programs and devoted two additional meetings of the Council to brainstorm regarding the descriptors used to compile these criteria and to closely examine the proposed global learning outcomes that emerged from these discussions. The final documents were approved in February 2015.

Next steps will be to work with graduate coordinators to ensure that the new learning objectives are fully articulated in the documents and practices that guide UW-W graduate programs. It is expected that this will entail, at initial states, more explicit statements regarding course objectives in syllabi and program descriptions to better communicate the rigor for the programs. This may be particularly important in the case of capstone projects to explain how these experiences embody the applied and professional nature of graduate coursework and thus better help students develop a professional identity.

Criteria for Master’s-Level Coursework

What distinguishes the graduate experience from the undergraduate experience at UW-Whitewater?

Original Criteria (1985)

  1. Graduate coursework requires greater depth of study than does UW-Whitewater undergraduate coursework.
  2. Graduate coursework involves more intense study than UW-Whitewater undergraduate work.
  3. Graduate coursework is more specialized than UW-Whitewater coursework.
  4. Graduate coursework has a higher level of academic/intellectual rigor than that in UW-Whitewater undergraduate coursework.
  5. Graduate coursework involves both theory and practice. While some courses within a master’s program may place more emphasis on theory and some may place more emphasis on practice, the total program must emphasize both.
  6. The methods of instruction in graduate courses reflect a high level of personal interaction between the instructor and the individual students. This requires small graduate course sections, regular and personalized advising, and interactive teaching methods.
  7. Graduate coursework requires more self-directed learning on the part of students than found in UW-Whitewater undergraduate work.
  8. Graduate coursework requires extensive use of campus learning resources, including, but not limited to library resources. Other campus learning resources include laboratories and computer facilities.
  9. Graduate coursework focuses on advanced disciplinary content, usually as an extension of disciplinary content presented at the undergraduate level. When graduate work serves an introductory function, it typically introduces disciplinary content that is not offered at the undergraduate level. However, introductory graduate coursework may also be accelerated to create a basic background for an individual with an undergraduate degree in another field or who lacks background from undergraduate preparation.
  10. All graduate coursework should contribute to degree program goals.
  11. Grades assigned in graduate courses serve to distinguish between levels of student achievement at the graduate level.
  12. Graduate courses (all course numbers 500 and above) shall only be taught by graduate faculty or those with similar qualifications on an exceptional basis, as determined by the graduate faculty within a department.
  13. Graduate courses shall be taught in formats that allow for reflection and integration of learning, including meeting the following UW System requirements: 1) no more than one credit per week (7 consecutive days), 2) at least 800 contact minutes per credit, and 3) at least 1600 minutes of out-of-class work per credit.

Approved Revision (2015)

  1. Graduate students at UW-Whitewater enter post-baccalaureate programs prepared to function as self-motivated and independent learners. Graduate students draw upon their foundational knowledge, maturity and greater self-understanding of their professional goals.
  2. Graduate study at UW-Whitewater is designed to meet appropriate professional learning outcomes. Coursework integrates advanced content, an examination of professional practice, and reflection upon experiences derived in practicum, clinical and/or field settings.
  3. Graduate students at UW-Whitewater engage in more complex ways with disciplinary content through analysis, synthesis, evaluation, reflection and application than at the undergraduate level. When graduate work serves an introductory function, the work will be more extensive and covered at an accelerated pace in comparison to undergraduate work in order to facilitate full engagement with more advanced theory and practice.
  4. Graduate students at UW-Whitewater are expected to understand and apply abstract concepts and integrate new information into a broader and, in particular, a deeper knowledge base. They have a greater ability to synthesize concepts and skills taught in a single course as well as across the program curriculum.
  5. Graduate coursework at UW-Whitewater requires greater depth of engagement with more specialized disciplinary content, which in turn requires higher expectations for academic and intellectual attainment.
  6. Graduate study at UW-Whitewater engages students more frequently and more fully with the scholarly and professional research of the discipline, and focuses on primary source materials and graduate-level texts where appropriate.
  7. Graduate faculty at UW-Whitewater often have more frequent and personal contact with graduate students, entering into mentor relationships which support a transition into professional practice and/or career advancement. 
  8. Graduate study at UW-Whitewater draws more frequently on students’ experiences.  As a result, course discussions and projects often foster collaborative approaches to advanced understanding of professional challenges and/or contexts.
  9. Graduate study at UW-Whitewater requires more intense and sustained evaluative experiences, including self-reflection, frequent peer feedback, and detailed formative and summative assessment associated with specific professional or accreditation standards and/or capstone experiences. 

UW-Whitewater Institutional Learning Outcomes for Master’s-Level Education

Original Criteria (1997)

Upon completion of a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, master’s level graduates will be sufficiently trained in the current literature and professional practices of their discipline to be able to:

  • Comprehend and discuss advanced issues and topics;
  • Collect, analyze and interpret data to address complex questions and problems;
  • Conceptualize, evaluate, and implement solutions to complex problems;
  • Apply appropriate technologies as needed; and
  • Synthesize and articulate multiple concepts in a clear, concise and persuasive manner.

Approved Revision (2015)

Upon completion of a UW-Whitewater master’s degree program, graduates will have demonstrated the following skills and dispositions.

  1. Advanced abilities in gathering, investigating, documenting, analyzing, interpreting, evaluating, and synthesizing complex information from the discipline and its practice.
  2. Ability to apply discipline-specific skills (e.g., procedures, techniques, craft, technology and tool use) and knowledge (e.g., ideas, problems, concepts, vocabulary, history and theory of the discipline) to real-world contexts.  
  3. Highly developed functional skills and behaviors necessary for maturing professionals including self-direction, problem solving, decision making, collaboration, and the capacity for networking and leadership.
  4. Writing skills that reflect advanced practice in professional contexts.
  5. Effective oral communication and interpersonal skills that support successful interaction with colleagues and professionally relevant constituents.
  6. A capacity to recognize ethical challenges relevant to disciplinary practice and the ability to articulate and justify a professional response.
  7. The ability to understand and respond effectively to the diverse interests and needs of domestic and global colleagues and constituents served by the discipline and its practice. 
  8. Recognition of the need for continuous professional development through self-directed learning and ongoing engagement with colleagues and other professionals.

About the Authors

John Stone is Interim Provost, Carolyn Morgan is Professor and Chair, Psychology Department, and Seth Meisel is Interim Dean, School of Graduate Studies and Continuing Education, at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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