Module Three – Developing an Effective Self-Study Design

MSCHE Self-Study Institute

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Purpose of the Self-Study Design (Module 3, Section 1)

The Self -Study Design is a document developed by the institution to serve as a guide for the self-study process. It serves several purposes, including the following:

  • Serves as a blueprint for the self-study process, including the final Self-Study Report. A well-developed Design identifies the process utilized by the institution to select the institutional priorities to be evaluated and how it plans to ensure that the Self-Study Report will address the Commission’s expectations, including standards for accreditation, requirements of affiliation, policies and procedures, and federal compliance requirements.
  • Enables the Steering Committee and its Working Groups to conceptualize and organize tasks relevant to self-study. An effective Design states up front what, for the institution, are the intended outcomes of the self-study; defines the approach the institution will take to engage in self-study; outlines the organizational structure of the Steering Committee and its Working Groups and how they will interact with each other; defines common formats for reporting; and addresses how the Evidence Inventory will ensure that all the applicable Criteria of each Standard are sufficiently addressed.
  • After completion and acceptance of the Design by the Commission staff liaison, members of the Steering Committee and Working Groups can refer to it to gauge progress and to ensure that the objectives contained in the Design are being met. As they engage in the self-study process, required elements found in the Design, such as a Communications Plan, Self-Study Timetable, and Guidelines for Reporting, can also serve as reminders of what tasks must be accomplished and when, how and when status should be communicated, and how the Self-Study Report should be organized.

The Self-Study Design communicates important information to three audiences prior to the On-Site Evaluation Visit by peer evaluators. First, the Design serves the purposes described above for the institution’s Steering Committee, Working Groups, and campus community. Second, the Design apprises the Commission about the qualities and background the institution would like to see in a Team Chair and team members and communicates potential conflicts of interest. The Commission staff liaison uses the Design during the Self-Study Preparation Visit and during the development of the team roster. Third, the institution sends a copy of the final Design to the Team Chair once she or he is appointed so the chair can understand process and priorities the campus engaged in during self-study.

Institutions should give thoughtful attention to the development of the Design. While a good Design cannot guarantee an effective self-study process or an excellent Self-Study Report, a poorly developed Design will significantly reduce the possibility of producing a useful and meaningful final document.

The Design is prepared after the institution’s representatives have attended the Self-Study Institute. A remote meeting can be scheduled with the Commission staff liaison to provide additional guidance early in the Design development phase. The draft Design is submitted at least two weeks in advance of the on-campus Self-Study Preparation Visit by the institution’s Commission staff liaison. The Design is the primary focus of the liaison’s discussions with the Steering Committee and other constituencies during that visit; therefore, it is important that the Steering Committee start developing the Design early. After the Self-Study Preparation Visit, the Steering Committee will revise the Design, as appropriate, based on the feedback received during the visit and submit it to the Commission staff liaison for acceptance.

Sections of the Self-Study Design (Module 3, Section 2)

In as concise and clear a manner as possible, the Design should include all the sections described below. The Self-Study Design should be organized in such a way that it helps the Steering Committee and Working Groups conceptualize and organize the tasks before them to facilitate the self-study process.

The Design should contain the following sections:

Institutional Overview—The Design should begin with a brief description of the institution, its mission (and where applicable, vision), key programs, important recent developments, anticipated directions based on planning and assessment processes, student achievement trend information, and steps taken to date to prepare for self-study. This section creates a context for the shared understanding of institutional needs and priorities and is helpful to new members of the campus community, the Commission staff liaison, and the Team Chair.

Institutional Priorities to be Addressed in the Self-StudyProvide a brief narrative about the three to five institutional priorities that will be evaluated through self-study including:

  1. Processes that were used to identify the priorities;
  2. How the institution has ensured that the selected priorities align with the institution’s mission; and
  3. How the institution has ensured that the selected priorities align with Commission Standards.

This information can be provided in narrative form only or both narrative and tables providing a “cross-walk” between elements of mission and the selected priorities, and between Commission Standards and the priorities.

The Commission staff liaison reviews this section to determine if the institution has engaged in an inclusive process and has chosen priorities that appear to be well-aligned with the institution’s mission and Commission Standards. The Team Chair uses this section to shape the work of the Evaluation Team.

You may use the sample tables below to identify which elements of the mission are aligned with the selected institutional priorities and how the priorities connect with the Standards.

Table 1: Sample Alignment of Mission with Institutional Priorities: How Well Are Elements of the Institution’s Mission Aligned with Our Selected Institutional Priorities?

Table 1: Sample Alignment of Mission with Institutional Priorities: How Well Are Elements of the Institution’s Mission Aligned with Our Selected Institutional Priorities?

Table 2: Aligning Institutional Priorities with Commission Standards: How Well Do Institutional Priorities Align with the Commission Standards?

Table 2: Aligning Institutional Priorities with Commission Standards: How Well Do Institutional Priorities Align with the Commission Standards?

Intended Outcomes of the Self-StudyThe intended outcomes of the self-study should be based on a clear understanding of what the institution plans to achieve through self-analysis and should result from conversations with institutional stakeholders.

For example, outcomes could focus on ways to integrate the self-study process with other institutional planning and renewal processes, thereby ensuring that the self-study will be as useful and meaningful as possible. At a minimum, this section of the Design should include the following three outcomes:

  • Demonstrating how the institution currently meets the Commission’s Standards for Accreditation and Requirements of Affiliation
  • Focus on continuous improvement in the attainment of the institution’s mission and its institutional priorities
  • Engage the institutional community in an inclusive and transparent self-appraisal process that actively and deliberately seeks to involve members from all areas of the institutional community

Other examples include:

  • Capitalizing on overlapping efforts of the institution’s new Strategic Plan and the self-study to advance our strategic priorities, identify gaps in the University’s readiness to implement such priorities, and recommend opportunities to achieve institutional mission and goals.
  • Helping to further embed educational effectiveness and overall assessment into the institution’s culture, and to continue to link assessment with planning and improvements in student learning and achievement.
  • Examining how the increase in alternative course delivery (on-line, hybrid, satellite sites) has affected the university’s mission and resource allocation.

Stating a limited number of outcomes, in explicit and observable terms, establishes a clear direction for the self-study and will allow the institution to assess its own progress. In addition, as the self-study progresses, Steering Committee and Working Group members can periodically refer to the intended outcomes to ensure that the process is focused enough to achieve the outcomes. Additionally, the Self-Study Evaluation Team Chair can review the outcomes to understand some of the institution’s goals and expectations of the Self-Study Report.

Self-Study ApproachThis section of the Design should contain a brief explanation of, and rationale for, which of the two approaches the institution will utilize to organize its Self-Study Report and Working Groups: a standards-based or priorities-based approach.

Organizational Structure of the Steering Committee and Working Groups—The Design should include a charge for the Steering Committee and for each Working Group consistent with the self-study approach. Within the framework of the approach chosen by the institution, each Working Group is expected to engage in a process of active, open, and evidence-based inquiry, to identify institutional strengths, challenges, and opportunities for improvement and innovation.

For the Steering Committee, this section of the Design should include:

  • Names and titles of members of the Steering Committee with their positions of responsibility at the institution.
  • Information about strategies the Steering Committee will use to encourage Working Groups to interact with one another in the interest of engaging in common areas of inquiry and reducing undue duplication of effort.
  • A description of how the Steering Committee will provide oversight to the Working Groups.
  • An initial description for how the Steering Committee will ensure that institutional mission, the 3 to 5 selected priorities, and the Commission’s standards for accreditation, requirements of affiliation, policies and procedures, and federal compliance requirements will be addressed in the Self-Study Report utilizing the institution’s existing evaluation and assessment information.

For each of the Working Groups, this section of the Design should include:

  • Names and titles of chairperson and members of each Working Group with their positions of responsibility.
  • A description of which institutional priorities will be addressed (if it is a standards-based approach); or, a description of which standards will be addressed by each Working Group (in the case of a priorities-based approach).
  • The Working Group’s charge and specific lines of inquiry.
  • Relevant assessment information, institutional processes, documents, and procedures that will be gathered, reviewed, summarized, and used by the Working Group to support assertions and conclusions in the Self-Study Report.
  • Anticipated collaborations among the Working Groups and with key offices to address the lines of inquiry.

It is important that institutions take the time necessary to carefully consider the information contained in this section because it represents the institution’s initial strategies for engaging in self-study. The section addresses connections between Working Groups and the Steering Committee and among the Working Groups themselves.

Guidelines for Reporting — To guide the efforts of the Working Groups, the Design should include:

  • A list/description of all products to be completed by the Working Groups and Steering Committee, such as outlines, preliminary drafts, and final reports
  • Deadlines for the submission of various draft documents and reports
  • A template for the preparation of Working Group Reports

Organization of the Final Self-Study Report — The Design should include an annotated outline of the organization and structure of the final Self-Study Report. At the very least, the outline should include the following elements:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Chapter for each Standard or institutional priority
  • Conclusion
  • A sample outline for each chapter can be found in Module Five.

Verification of Compliance StrategyEach institution is required to complete a Verification of Compliance with Accreditation-Relevant Federal Regulations process. The Design should include a description of what strategy(ies) the institution will employ to successfully complete this process, including:

  • What groups, offices or individuals will be responsible for the process. In cases where a separate Working Group has been organized to lead the institution through this process, the Design should contain a listing of the group members’ names and titles.
  • How those responsible for the Verification of Compliance process will communicate with the Working Groups and Steering Committee.

A template for submission of the Verification of Compliance is available at here. This report will be uploaded to the MSCHE portal at the same time as the Self-Study Report and will be reviewed as part of the On-Site Evaluation Visit.

Self-Study Timetable To keep the Steering Committee and Working Groups on track, the Design should include a timeline for every major step in the process, beginning with the early stages of on-campus planning activities and culminating with the Commission’s action approximately 2 to 2 ½ years later. In this section, the institution requests either a fall or spring evaluation visit. Institutions may use the overall project timeline as a starting point and make appropriate modifications to match the needs of their own campus community. The Commission staff liaison reviews this section to confirm that the timeline is reasonable and that major milestones are achievable. In the Resource Toolbox at the end of this module are sample timelines for a fall evaluation visit and a spring evaluation visit.

Communications PlanThe Steering Committee should develop an initial Communications Plan which will be used to regularly update institutional stakeholders about progress made during the self-study process, gather input and feedback, and ensure an inclusive process. The Communications Plan to be included in the Design identifies the purpose of the communication (e.g. gather input, update on progress, request feedback, etc.), the audiences with whom the Steering Committee will communicate, the methods to be used to communicate to these audiences, and the time(s) when information will be conveyed. At the institution’s discretion, the Communications Plan may be integrated into the Timetable described above. A sample of such a plan can be found in the Resource Toolbox at the end of this module.

Evaluation Team ProfileThe Evaluation Team Profile apprises the Commission about the preferred qualities, specific expertise, and backgrounds for consideration when selecting the team chair and team members. Commission staff use this information during the development of the team roster.

  • Team Chair: Indicate the specific expertise desired in the Team Chair, such as experience at similar institutions, experience with the identified institutional priorities, or expertise in a program or process. The Team Chairs are usually chief executive officers, presidents, or chief academic officers.  A preference for any of these will be helpful in identifying the appropriate person.
  • Peer Evaluators: The team usually includes evaluators that have expertise/experience with academic affairs, assessment, student affairs, faculty issues, and financial issues. As with the Team Chair, outlining specific expertise desired in the peer evaluators, such as expertise in a discipline or process, or a background working with a certain type of institution, will be helpful in identifying appropriate potential team members. If the institution has distance education programs, a team member will be identified with that expertise.
  • Institutions that are considered comparable peers, preferably within the Middle States region;
  • Institutions that are considered aspirational peers, preferably within the Middle States region; and,
  • If necessary, institutions whose representatives might present conflicts of interest, as outlined in the Commission’s policy Conflict of Interest: Commission Representatives.
  • A listing of the institution’s top programs by enrollment would be helpful.
  • Although the institution’s expressed preferences will be given careful consideration, the final decision about team membership remains with the Commission and its staff.

Evidence InventoryThe Evidence Inventory is a helpful, organizational tool that allows an institution to arrange existing institutional documentation gathered for use during self-study by Standard, Criterion, and Requirement of Affiliation. This section will contain the institution’s strategies for populating and managing the Evidence Inventory within the MSCHE portal. Institutions utilize various strategies to initially populate and then refine the Evidence Inventory. One strategy is to assign a member of the Steering Committee to liaise with key personnel on campus who can help with the documentation process. Another strategy is to organize a specific Working Group for this task. More detailed information on the Evidence Inventory is found in Module Six.

Acceptance of the Self-Study Design (Module 3, Section 2)

This module has provided details about how an institution can develop a meaningful self-study Design, which should serve as an effective blueprint for the Steering Committee and its Working Groups. After the Commission staff liaison’s Self-Study Preparation Visit, the institution submits a final draft of the Design. The Commission staff liaison reviews it and, if it meets the Commission’s expectations, communicates with the institution’s president to accept the Design and, where appropriate, offer general feedback to assist the institution as it moves forward with the self-study process.

Keys to Success (Module 3, Section 4)

SSI light bulb

  • Use the Self-Study Design template to assure all sections of the Design have been addressed
  • Develop clear charges and expectations for the Steering Committee and Working Groups
  • Develop a strategy for populating the Evidence Inventory
  • Keep a close watch on timelines

Resource Toolbox - Self-Study Design Template (Module 3, Section 5)

Click here to download the Self-Study Design Template (doc)

Sample Schedules

Sample Timetable for Fall Evaluation Visits

Sample Timetable for Fall Evaluation Visits

Sample Timetable for Spring Evaluation Visits

Sample Timetable for Spring Evaluation Visits

Sample Communication Plan

Communication Plan Part 1

Communication Plan Part 1

Communication Plan Part 2

Communication Plan Part 2


Disclaimer: The material provided in this guide was developed to provide clarity for the self-study process. Commission Policy and Procedures will govern in the case of a conflict with this material. For any questions about an institution’s accreditation status or for additional information about MSCHE’s standards for accreditation, requirements of affiliation, policies, and procedures, you should contact MSCHE staff. This material is not intended as a substitute for professional advice from MSCHE staff and use of the material does not guarantee any specific accreditation outcome.