July 2012

What’s up with accreditation: a progress report

Are we there yet?
“When is it going to happen?” The wording varies, but the question of when the accreditation program is going to be launched comes up at every meeting and workshop I attend as well as in periodic emails and phone calls. I can assure you that the working group drawn from the ranks of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Education and Professional Development Committee and the Undergraduate Affiliate Network has worked hard to expedite the process. Since my last progress report in early 2011, the group has gathered together on three different occasions to learn about the complexities of student assessment, to discuss the goals and structure of the program, and to develop pilot versions of applications, assessment questions and so forth. The process has been fun, fulfilling and frustrating.

‘We will sell no wine before its time’
Those of you who were watching TV during the 1970s probably still recall the deep, sonorous voice of Orson Wells as he uttered that tagline for Paul Masson Wines. Simply put, translating our enthusiasm and ideas into an effective and workable program and developing a practical assessment instrument while keeping up with our day jobs has proved to be a time- and effort-intensive enterprise. We intend, however, to begin piloting programmatic and assessment materials during the year to come. The outcomes of these trial efforts will determine how quickly we can move forward.

Issues and answers
In the way of a progress report, I would like to present a few of the key questions we face and our recommended responses:

  1. 1. Do we accredit or certify degree programs or individual student diplomas? It has been decided that the primary focus of the program will be to certify student performance – not programmatic structure or curriculum. Our ultimate objective as educators is to train students to be critical thinkers who are equipped with a foundation of skills and knowledge to be lifelong learners. Emphasizing outcomes rather than prescribing a curriculum also avoids the inadvertent tendency of many accreditation programs to hinder progress by freezing content and methodology in time.
  2. 2. Should the program be aspirational or confirmatory in nature? A secondary goal of the accreditation program is to stimulate program improvement. Therefore, for students to participate, the degree-granting program will have to apply to the ASBMB for recognition. To qualify, provision will have to be made for select items deemed to be of high priority to the ASBMB, such as a) professional development opportunities for faculty members; b) research or internship opportunities for undergraduates; c) substantial (400 contact hours) experiential learning in science, technology, engineering and math subject areas; and d) proactive efforts to improve student communications skills, provide a background in ethics and so forth.
  3. 3. How can something this big be made practical? Every year the members of the ASBMB submit tens of thousands of manuscripts and grant applications to scores of journals and dozens of funding agencies that must evaluate them by a process of peer review by qualified experts. Where do these experts come from? Those same members of the research community. For every manuscript we submit, most of us review multiple papers. Those serving on a National Institutes of Health study section will perform in-depth reviews on 150 or more grant applications during their terms. If the members of the educational community are sufficiently desirous of establishing their own accreditation program, a similar spirit of volunteerism will be needed. I, for one, believe we are up to the challenge.

The accreditation program continues to evolve as it develops. Keep an eye on ASBMB Today for updates.


Peter J. KennellyPeter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Tech.

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