Even though psychology is a very popular major on U.S. college campuses-with more than 85,000 baccalaureate degrees awarded annually- until recently, undergraduate psychology departments didn't have benchmarks for evaluating program quality.

Now departments can assess their programs by examining eight broad educational dimensions, including curriculum and administrative support. Thanks to a set of "quality benchmarks" developed by a committee of psychologists over the past four years, undergraduate psychology programs have a rubric created within a developmental framework to assess their programs, allowing departments to evaluate their effectiveness along a continuum from underdeveloped to distinguished.

"We wanted to come up with a system that would allow departments to look at themselves with a cold eye but a warm heart, to try to identify what it is they're doing well, where they're average and where some substantial improvements might be made," says Dana Dunn, PhD.

A psychology professor at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa., Dunn helped develop the benchmarks and co-authored an article about them printed in the October issue of American Psychologist (Vol. 62, No. 7).

Dunn worked with Jane Halonen, PhD, Maureen McCarthy, PhD, Suzanne Baker, PhD, and G. William Hill IV, PhD, to write the benchmarks. APA's Education Directorate also supported the work, helping bring the participants together.

Creating a scorecard

As envisioned by Dunn and his fellow authors, psychology departments can either bring in outside evaluators or assess themselves across eight domains of their programs: curriculum, assessment issues, student learning outcomes, program resources, student development, faculty characteristics, program climate and administrative support.

For each domain, the authors identify program elements that departments should consider. Looking at curricular structure and sequence, for example, an "underdeveloped" program might offer students only a list of courses on an advising sheet. But a "distinguished" program could show that it had determined not only what its students needed to know but a specific sequence of courses students should take to gain that knowledge, culminating in a capstone course.

The effort to develop the quality benchmarks is also linked to an earlier initiative to develop guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major, which listed the basic knowledge, skills and values bachelor's degree students should have by the time they graduate.

Spearheaded by the APA's Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies, the guidelines were approved by APA's Council of Representatives at APA's 2006 Annual Convention.

The quality benchmark framework was developed because departments needed an organized way to examine their efforts, says Halonen, a psychology professor who also serves as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida. Halonen also chaired the earlier task force.

To develop the benchmarks, Halonen and her committee members drew on two sources. The first was their personal experiences during visits to psychology departments as departmental reviewers, sponsored by APA and Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology). The second was the body of work published by experts in undergraduate education in psychology, who attended earlier teaching conferences, such as the 1991 St. Mary's Conference on Enhancing the Quality of Undergraduate Education in Psychology.

Throughout the process, committee members gathered input from colleagues in their home departments and reviewed their work with experienced consultants such as Charles Brewer, PhD, and Diane Halpern, PhD, to make sure that their recommendations would be useful, Halonen says.

"We vetted them a lot, and got lots of feedback from people," she says.

"The biggest benefactor of these benchmarks will be undergraduate psychology programs, because of the increasing need to demonstrate accountability, and be engaged in ongoing program assessment and review," says Robin Hailstorks, PhD, APA's associate executive director and director of precollege and undergraduate programs.

Once more departments start using the benchmarks, committee members hope that students will benefit.

"With this information departments can evaluate and strengthen their programs, and that ultimately benefits students," says Kennesaw State University's Maureen McCarthy, a volunteer reviewer.