Volunteer Week – The NAACLS Site Visit: Tricks-of-the-Trade

(Last Updated On: September 24, 2019)

[Editor’s note – September is a busy month here for the NAACLS staff. We are days away from our annual face to face Board of Directors, we are starting a busy time for site visits, all the while receiving self-studies and beginning another new cycle. Not only is it a busy time for NAACLS staff, but it is an especially busy time for NAACLS volunteer reviewers. With this in mind, we are offering a week of content focused on our volunteer reviewers. If you wish to become a NAACLS volunteer, you can find more information here.]

As the Chair of the Site Visit Process review committee from 2015-2018, I had the pleasure of working with an excellent team of professionals and have reviewed hundreds of site visit related evaluations.  For the past 20 years, I myself have been on more than 40 site visits covering 4 disciplines(CLS, DMS, CG, and PA). These experiences have been mostly very positive, but there were also some lessons that I had to learn along the way.  In the next few paragraphs, I will try to share some of the tricks-of-the-trade with you.  

Over those three years, we looked at the data presented from our post site visit surveys and used the feedback from those surveys to hone in on areas to improve. Allow me to digress briefly and advocate for the evaluations you receive from NAACLS as a reviewer and a program director. Our processes are under constant assessment, relying heavily on the feedback we get from our volunteers and program directors. It is crucial that all evaluations be completed thoughtfully and thoroughly for our processes to improve. 

The data we receive initiates an extensive review of NAACLS documents to improve the functionality of the self-study and site visit review forms. The NAACLS review process is multi-layered, but the foundation of those layers is the self-study review.  A well written and organized self-study review makes it easier for the program director to address the concerns in their review response, but also informs the site visitor on the specific additional items on which to focus. If concerns in the self-study review don’t appear on the final summary page or are unclear, this can lead to confusion by the program director, or inadequate preparation by the site visitor.

Overall, process changes and educational activities made by NAACLS such as various review articles on do’s and don’ts during site visits have improved many of the areas of concern we saw in our evaluations three to four years ago.   The professionalism of NAACLS volunteer reviewers, though usually evaluated positively, remains an area for which NAACLS strives to perform even better . Greater than 15% of recent evaluations of site visits indicated that discussion of religion, politics, opinions, and other inappropriate behaviors were observed during the site visits.  During the fall board meeting, the question was raised as to whether these comments were made during dining events whereby people are in a more relaxed environment and might temporarily take off the “site visitor hat.” This triggered another question about whether it is appropriate to eat with the program officials at all during the site visit.  There is a range of opinions about that topic, but no clear consensus amongst the Board members. My two cents is that while one is conducting a site visit, one is a representative of NAACLS for the entire time. And while those lines may blur in more social settings, it is worth remembering the role during that visit. Therefore, professional etiquette must be exercised throughout.  

Personally, I have encountered all of the above mentioned in the past.  But over time, I have taken additional steps of my own to ensure a good experience for both sides while avoiding these potential pitfalls.  Below, I will focus on the “pre” portion of the site visit.

#1 Before the Visit-A:  A successful site visit starts off with a thorough self-study review.  By that, I meant not just the site visitor having a good look over the materials but also paying attention to the comments made by the self-study reviewer.  Make sure to differentiate between actual concerns vs. just comments. Often times a smooth site visit can be predicted by the quantity and type of concerns raised by the self-study reviewer and how they were addressed by the Program Director (PD).  If the site visit looks to be a difficult one, then a dialog should be started with the site-visit teammate and the PD as soon as possible.

#2 Before the Visit-B:  Next, I would do some background checks.   Check and see if the current Program Director has been through the site visit before. If the PD is new then the sooner you start the communications, the better.  I am sure the PD will be appreciative of that gesture.

#3 Before the Visit-C:  Know who the site visit partner is.  Email the partner immediately and try to set up a call.  Don’t wait for the other person to call, instead take the initiative and call first.  Sometimes one can get the general “feel” of the partner just from a simple phone conversation.  Hopefully, this will help the team to prepare for the first face-to-face day before the visit.  

#4 Before the Visit-D:  It is essential to plan a good site visit agenda.  This depends on many factors. If PDs are new, they will often use the generic template provided by NAACLS.  They do not know if the generic template is the best for the program’s unique situation so hopefully at least one of the two team members is a veteran and can offer some suggestions.  If the PD is a veteran then s/he may have a plan in mind. In that case, I usually don’t offer suggestions and just accept what is provided. Often times, trying to offer edits of the agenda to an experienced PD to fit a site visitor’s schedule sets off a bad start.  However, if the times allotted are not consistent with the current standards, i.e. 4 hours are not needed to review curriculum if the outcome measures are above the benchmarks, then the site visitor may suggest changes.

In summary, I believe if these steps are taken in advance, the chances of a smooth visit will increase.  It sure has for me!

Peter Hu, NAACLS President-Elect 

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