Emphasizing Agency in Assisting Faculty to Improve Student Learning

A Janusian Duality with Student Learning
The Roman god Janus is often depicted with two faces—one looking to the past and one to the future. The dual-faced representation symbolizes his ability to preside over beginning, transitions, and doorways. In the 1970s, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Albert Rothenberg (1971) brought the ancient god to modernity by introducing the concept of Janusian thinking. Rothenberg was fascinated by how creatives (think Einstein, Van Goh, or Mozart) can seemingly imagine opposite or contradictory ideas or concepts existing simultaneously. Rather than forcing single categorizations, Janusian thinking involves embracing the tension between conflicting ideas to foster creativity and a more nuanced understanding of a situation. Since Rothenberg’s initial use of the term, we now find Janusian thinking and Janusian duality used in various contexts, at its root, it centers on allowing the consideration of multiple perspectives and the synthesis of seemingly contradictory elements. We can find a richer and more comprehensive understanding of complex issues by embracing this duality.

So, why are we discussing a Roman god in the context of accreditation and assessment in higher education? At its heart, for the average faculty member, assessment and accreditation-related activities will always feel like confronting a Janusian duality. While the duality may be apparent for individuals whose day-to-day lives focus on assessment and accreditation efforts, it is likely not as transparent for a typical faculty member focused on their teaching, research, and service and only episodically on other tasks like assessment. On the one hand, accreditation and assessment professionals routinely discuss the grand merits of faculty efforts. Yet, on the other hand, there is a constant reminder of required compliance with institutional and programmatic accreditors who enter the duality with their own needs and expectations. This aspect is significantly more emphasized in the lead-up to reaffirmation reporting, no matter how well-intentioned an assessment leader may be. It ultimately feels like a question of either compliance or betterment (Levy and Patel, 2023).

Continuous Improvement at the Heart of the Duality
On both ends of the duality sits a rooted interest in continuous improvement, which has long been the goal of assessment efforts. Whether phrased as closing the loop or the post-feeding weighing of the pig (Fulcher et al. 2014), this final phase of the assessment cycle is where true value emerges. As Jillian Kinzie, Pat Hutchings, and Natasha Jankowski (2015) put it, “completing the assessment cycle (gaining evidence of improved student learning) is assessment’s nirvana: Measuring the impact of the action taken to improve student learning” (2015, 69). From the side of assessing as a means of bettering our campus, continuous improvement is at the heart of our efforts. Solid assessment leads to continuous improvement, which helps ensure students are optimally positioned to succeed, which leads to increased retention and higher revenues and in turn trickles down to faculty in hopefully meaningful ways. On the other side, accrediting bodies in higher education typically view continuous improvement as a crucial aspect of ensuring quality and effectiveness in academic institutions.

The accreditation process involves assessing various aspects of an institution, such as curriculum, faculty qualifications, resources, and student outcomes. Continuous improvement is seen as a commitment to ongoing enhancement in these areas. Whether institutional or programmatic in nature, they often expect institutions to demonstrate a systematic and intentional approach to self-assessment and improvement. This may involve regular evaluations, data collection, and analysis to identify strengths and weaknesses. Institutions are encouraged to use feedback mechanisms, both internal and external, to inform their improvement efforts. In essence, the accreditation process serves as a mechanism to ensure that higher education institutions are not static but are actively engaged in a process of self-reflection and improvement to meet evolving educational standards and best practices.

While accrediting bodies have always strongly hinted at wanting to see continuous improvement, their standards have become more direct in recent revisions. Consider the following examples:

  • The standards support innovation as an essential part of continuous institutional improvement. (Middle States Commission on Higher Education Introduction)
  • The institution demonstrates improvement based on the results of inquiry, evidence, and evaluation. (Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission CFR4.5)
  • Effective institutions demonstrate a commitment to principles of continuous improvement based on a systematic and documented process of assessing institutional performance with respect to mission in all aspects of the institution. (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges Section 7)
  • The institution demonstrates responsibility for the quality of its educational programs, learning environments, and support services, and it evaluates their effectiveness for student learning through processes designed to promote continuous improvement. (Higher Learning Commission Criterion 4)
  • The provider maintains a quality assurance system that consists of valid data from multiple measures and supports continuous improvement that is sustained and evidence based. (Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation Standard 5)
  • The program must regularly use appropriate, documented processes for assessing and evaluating the extent to which the student outcomes are being attained. The results of these evaluations must be systematically utilized as input for the program’s continuous improvement actions. (ABET Criterion 4)

As these standards suggest, continuous improvement should be the end goal of our assessment efforts. But it should not take an external requirement to tell us that continuous improvement brings intrinsic value to our students, programs, or faculty.

In short, faculty are confronted with a model that simultaneously pushes for the intrinsic value of continuous improvement to motivate the work it takes to do it and the realization that the necessary work of continuous improvement must be extrinsically motivated. While Rothenberg would push for faculty to embrace the confrontation between these forces and design the most impactful ways to highlight both ends, faculty may not have the willingness or understanding to do so. Depending on which side of the duality they embrace, continuous improvement could mean either doing the bare minimum required to meet an external requirement or looking to improve without concerning themselves with ensuring their efforts also meet regulatory expectations or requirements.

Obstacles to Embracing the Duality
Regardless of their motivation, faculty tend to be more engaged, be more efficient and have greater impact when they have agency. In the context of higher education, agency refers to the capacity and autonomy of individual faculty members to act, make decisions, and exert influence within the academic environment. Faculty agency encompasses the ability of educators to shape curriculum, engage in research, participate in institutional governance, and contribute to the overall academic mission of the institution (Levesque-Bristol 2023).

Agency matters when asking faculty to confront the Janusian duality of the value of continuous improvement anchored by internal desires and external requirements. Agency involves the exercise of professional judgment, creativity, and academic freedom in teaching, research, and service (Gonzalez 2015). It recognizes the role of faculty in driving educational innovation, pursuing scholarly endeavors, and contributing to the intellectual community of the institution. In essence, faculty agency in higher education is about empowering educators to play an active and influential role in shaping the academic landscape, fostering a culture of intellectual growth, and contributing to the overall success of the educational institution.

Nevertheless, intentionally or unintentionally, institutions can impede faculty agency in impactful ways. It starts with bureaucratic constraints. By increasing administrative demands, adopting rigid policies, and utilizing cumbersome bureaucratic processes, individual decision-making can be severely curbed. Likewise, insufficient resources, whether in terms of time, funding, or support, can restrict faculty members from pursuing innovative teaching methods, research projects, or professional development opportunities that could benefit students in myriad ways. Even the technology we use can impact agency as rapid changes in educational technology can pose challenges for faculty who may struggle to keep pace.

Threats to academic freedom, whether from internal or external sources, can stifle faculty members’ willingness to explore controversial or unconventional ideas in teaching and research. In the same vein, a broader organizational culture that does not prioritize shared governance or collaborative decision-making may limit faculty members’ involvement in shaping institutional policies and priorities. Heavy teaching loads, administrative responsibilities, and increasing expectations for research productivity can leave faculty with limited time and energy to engage in meaningful agency-driven activities. External factors, such as accreditation requirements, standardized testing, and external funding priorities, may influence the direction of academic programs, sometimes constraining faculty’s ability to shape their courses or research agenda. While accrediting bodies may not directly reduce agency, campus administrations oftentimes interpret accreditation in ways that do.

Faculty face various obstacles in influencing student learning, sharing commonalities in their challenges (Dee and Daly 2009). Tensions seemingly always erupt around assessment in some pocket of a campus each year. While faculty, on the whole, are willing to assist in efforts focused on helping students succeed, garnering useful pedagogical feedback, designing or re-designing curriculum, or improving the operations of their department or college, they still face challenges around what many perceive as compliance tactics, unclear expectations, concerns on how data will be used, and duplication of efforts for no return. Cooperation teeters on the brink of frustration at a moment’s notice.

Teaching loads, release time, administrative tasks, and research demands restrict the time available for faculty to enhance teaching methods and focus on student learning outcomes. Grading, advising, and committee responsibilities further diminish the time and energy for refining teaching approaches. Assessment can become an afterthought—especially if it is not recognized as meaningful work within the institution. Inadequate opportunities for ongoing professional development in pedagogy and educational technology may prevent faculty from staying informed about effective teaching practices. The absence of access to teaching resources, technology, and support staff hampers the implementation of innovative teaching strategies. Even if you have access to these things, if your program has many adjunct or part-time faculty, getting assessment buy-in may be more difficult. Meeting diverse student needs requires additional efforts to create inclusive learning environments.

Challenges in measuring and assessing student outcomes arise, especially when clear assessment tools, methodologies, or institutional support are lacking. A dearth of institutional emphasis on teaching excellence or a culture prioritizing research over teaching can discourage faculty from prioritizing improvements in student learning. Resistance to adopting new teaching methods, technologies, or curriculum changes by faculty or the institution can hinder efforts to enhance student learning. Overcoming these barriers often involves a combination of institutional support, professional development opportunities, a culture that values teaching, and a commitment to fostering an environment where faculty can actively engage in continuous improvement of student learning experiences.

Focusing specifically on faculty agency in assessment, there are significant ways faculty can positively impact student learning with high agency. First and foremost, faculty typically have full ownership of their personal pedagogical practices. Within the classroom, faculty are free to choose how to deliver material to students in ways they believe will maximize the potential for success. Likewise, they have high agency when it comes to designing and implementing assessment strategies and techniques. Agency should permeate internal conversations that result even if programs use some form of shared assessment. Faculty also are best positioned to help students see connections between outcomes, courses, and assignments. Whether through syllabus design, intentionality when discussing materials, or focused assessment on outcomes, faculty can be consistent reminders of how everything connects for students. Additionally, faculty own the curriculum. Designing new programs, revising existing ones, or even mapping courses to outcomes all demonstrate high faculty agency.

Other areas of impact come with less faculty agency. Retention and enrollment efforts, for example, tend to come from above without much consideration for the potential impact of an enrollment increase, elevated discount rates, or an emphasis on retaining every student may have on pedagogy. Similarly, while there are cost benefits to large classes, there is mixed evidence at best of the impact on student learning or pedagogical design. Faculty influence on course scheduling (both semester offerings and weekly meeting times) typically varies by institution; and even policies that impact assessment can be made at an administrative level without faculty input. Imagine for example if your institution has historically had a policy in place requiring students to submit all work to pass a course. The institution then removes this requirement. Now students may choose to stop submitting work once they have earned enough to earn the grade they desire. Beyond not providing students practice and feedback on that foundational work they elect to opt out, it might lead to fewer artifacts available for assessment for program improvement.

While there are numerous impactful examples of areas where faculty have much agency and the potential to impact student learning significantly, many of these focus on a more micro-level than assessment or accreditation may need. Changes made to individual pedagogy or alignments impact courses; and curriculum redesigns can directly or indirectly impact learning. However, faculty often rely on these types of measures to show improvement because they exist directly within their nexus of control.

Empowering Faculty to Embrace the Duality through a Focus on Agency
So, what is the path to finding meaningful avenues to maximize faculty agency? How can we help faculty approach the Janusian duality of assessment and accreditation the way Rothenberg would want? How do we make it easier to embrace both compliance and continuous improvement for inspirational, internally motivated reasons? Maximizing faculty agency to improve student learning involves creating an environment that supports academic freedom, professional development, and collaboration. And it involves reexamining with intentionality, how many of the things campuses already do can be presented as providing the agency faculty need to confront the duality.

It’s crucial to initiate open discussions addressing both the duality and the significant impact of faculty agency on enhancing student learning. If we neglect these conversations, faculty may find themselves navigating around both real and perceived constraints, ultimately limiting positive outcomes. All stakeholders, including faculty, teaching and learning centers, adjuncts, and students, should actively engage in dialogues focused on learning. Additionally, dedicated spaces should be established to facilitate faculty collaboration, encouraging them to explore ways to maximize their agency. Campuses should promote a culture of collaboration among faculty members, fostering an environment where they can share best practices, address teaching challenges, and mutually learn. This could involve creating interdisciplinary teams or communities of practice, providing a platform for faculty to collaborate on innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

As a crucial element of fostering faculty empowerment, institutions can promote academic freedom by granting faculty the autonomy to craft and execute their courses in accordance with their expertise and the program’s learning objectives. In essence, administrators can respect faculty agency within their classrooms. Going beyond, they can actively support experimentation with various teaching methods and assessment strategies, enabling instructors to discover what suits them and their students best. Faculty members should be not only permitted but also encouraged to explore innovative ideas that have the potential to enhance student learning, rather than being constrained in doing so.

Faculty need to be empowered and championed. Campuses should offer regular workshops, seminars, and training sessions focused on effective teaching strategies, assessment techniques, and the integration of new technologies in the classroom; they should provide resources for faculty to attend conferences, participate in webinars, and engage in ongoing learning within their disciplines. They can go solidify and reaffirm encouraging and supporting faculty in conducting research on effective teaching practices and student learning outcomes and even establishing incentives for faculty to publish pedagogical research and share findings with the broader academic community.

Equally important, we need to make visible course structures that reinforce our work. It starts with reminding everyone how a curriculum nests together. Each activity in a course ties into course outcomes, which similarly tie into program outcomes. Holistically it all comes together to fit into a student’s picture of success—both during their time in college and after. Beyond this intentionality, higher education needs to allow for flexibility in course design, such as incorporating online components, flipped classroom models, or project-based learning, to cater to different learning styles and preferences. And it needs to provide support for the integration of technology in teaching to enhance the learning experience. Efforts can be undertaken to make better use of student feedback as it pertains to pedagogy and instruction, too. Campuses should be looking to expand mechanisms for recognizing and rewarding outstanding teaching, such as teaching awards, honors, or promotions. They should also be working with faculty to identify ways to better consider student evaluations alongside other evidence of effective teaching when evaluating faculty performance.

In a final bucket, we can consider cultural changes that can empower faculty to help improve student learning. Paramount to this is acknowledging the reality that faculty are stretched thin in all aspects. Supporting a healthy work-life balance for faculty members can directly impact their ability to focus on teaching and student engagement. In more bureaucratic realms, we should be establishing transparent and fair policies and procedures related to academic governance, tenure, and promotion, ensuring that faculty understand how decisions are made and how they can contribute to these processes. Then we should work to minimize unnecessary administrative tasks and paperwork to free up faculty time for teaching, research, and professional development. Lastly, it’s essential we remember that some barriers may not even be able to be solved or moved. The simple act of acknowledging these constraints can go far to show understanding and commitment to enhancing agency.

In the realm of higher education assessment and accreditation, faculty grapple with a Janusian duality—a tension between internal aspirations for improvement and external compliance requirements. This dual nature underscores the delicate balance faculty must strike. Continuous improvement emerges as common ground between accreditation bodies and faculty, representing the synthesis of internal aspirations and external expectations for enhanced student learning experiences. The linchpin for success in this endeavor lies in faculty agency—their capacity to shape curriculum, engage in research, and contribute to the academic mission.

Maximizing faculty agency necessitates a shift toward an environment fostering academic freedom, professional development, and collaboration. Open conversations engaging all stakeholders, from faculty to teaching centers and students, create spaces for collective determination of ways to enhance agency. Cultivating a culture of collaboration among faculty members, interdisciplinary teams, and communities of practice further facilitates the sharing of best practices and innovative approaches.
Administrators play a pivotal role in empowering faculty by honoring their agency within the classroom, supporting experimentation, and providing resources for ongoing learning. Structures reinforcing curriculum cohesion, flexibility in course design, and efforts to recognize outstanding teaching contribute to an enriched learning experience.

As higher education tackles the complexities of assessment and accreditation, empowering faculty agency becomes imperative. Embracing the Janusian duality and creating a conducive environment can propel faculty toward continuous improvement, ensuring a nuanced understanding of the dynamic landscape of student learning in the ever-evolving realm of higher education.


Dr. Will Miller, with a Doctor of Philosophy in Urban Studies and Public Affairs from The University of Akron, is the Associate Vice President for Continuous Improvement and Institutional Performance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio, his rich career spans roles as a faculty member, accreditation liaison, director of institutional research, and strategic enrollment management advisor. Miller combines his expertise in behavioral economics, organizational behavior, and political psychology to drive institutional effectiveness and student success. He has a proven track record of breaking down data silos, fostering authentic analytics cultures, and overseeing rigorous assessments and accreditations. Beyond his administrative roles, Miller’s background includes analyzing public opinion data for the U.S. Department of State, extensive work in accreditation, assessment, analytics, political science, and serving as a strategic advisor and prolific author within the higher education sector.


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Gonzales, L. D. (2015). Faculty agency in striving university contexts: Mundane yet powerful acts of agency. British Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 303-323.

Kinzie, J., Hutchings, P., & Jankowski, N. A. (2015). Fostering greater use of assessment results. Using evidence of student learning to improve higher education, 51-91.

Levesque-Bristol, C. (2023). Student-centered pedagogy and course transformation at scale: Facilitating faculty agency to IMPACT institutional change. Taylor & Francis.

Levy, J. & Patel, M. (2023). Combating a compliance mindset by advocating for betterment. The Assessment Review, 3(2).

Rothenberg, A. (1971). The process of Janusian thinking in creativity. Archives of general psychiatry, 24(3), 195-205.

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