Six+ Effective Strategies for Writing Special Reports, Monitoring Reports, Interim Reports for an Accreditor
Uh oh. The accreditor wants to get an official update in the form of a special report, monitoring report, interim report, or some other report name that means another official report is due. That is going to take you and your team time to produce. In this article, I share six+ effective strategies for writing special reports, monitoring reports, interim report for an accreditor.
I’ve assisted multiple institutions in writing satisfying – and most importantly, accurate — accreditation reports of all flavors (reaffirmation, special, monitoring, interim, etc.). I’ve served in a variety of accreditation related roles – accreditation liaison, support for the liaison, external reviewer, mock preparation reviewer, reader, writer, and even roles with accrediting organizations – such as WSCUC and NWCCU. I’ve even shared my favorite reaccreditation prep tips in a recent IEHE blog.
I share all of that to say, “I get it.” You’ve felt like you’ve already explained what the accreditation reviewers are looking for. And if “they” would only read the appendix they would understand. It was right there – on page 47 of Appendix 395.
And therein lies the problem – although perhaps not all of it. Important stuff was buried.
Writing a standard reaffirmation report is stressful. Thus, we all know that any of these “bonus” reports take that stress level up a notch. These tips come from my first-hand experience with successful accreditation processes. And they can help ratchet the stress meter down a bit so that you can focus on writing a (dare I say it), a promotion worthy, report J. [Ok – so maybe you’ll just be happy enough to not have write a follow-up report to the follow-up report.]
1. Use What You’ve Got
This is purposefully at the top of the list because, without fail, each institution that I’ve worked with, can overlook using everything at their disposal. The issue may be that the information isn’t documented in a report. But the key is – it can be. You can go back and create the documentation to provide the necessary evidence (and then document as you go forward, so that you have it for next time).
I find this particularly true with assessment related items. Faculty and staff are engaged in continuous improvement – but many times institutions don’t systematically collect and document this work. It doesn’t mean that assessment wasn’t happening. It just means that it wasn’t fully documented – a BIG difference. It’s a mistake that it can mean the difference between passing a standard or not. And the truth is – once folks go back and document their efforts, they say, “We are going to do this as we go from now on. It is much easier when it is fresh.”
Yes!!! That’s exactly what the accreditor wants – do it as you go (and spoiler alert – it is way easier and more useful that way). And – make sure everyone is doing it, even when things get busy, or people change positions. The takeaway here is – if you haven’t been documenting all along, what can you do to get it documented now and going forward?
2. Answer the Question
You’ve read and re-read the accreditation letter and directions 1,000 times. So much so that after the 412th time, it is easy to begin to read into things. ‘Did they mean this?’ or ‘Do they mean that?’ Before you know it, you are having a philosophical debate with yourself and you’ve gone off on some tangent. And now you’re NOT answering the question. I find this simple two column table keeps the writer on track (because, you might not be writing the section – but you can help set the subject matter expert who is writing up for success). After concisely addressing the findings, then add your more detailed response for each of the accreditor’s findings. This simple table gets the most critical information up front so that the reviewer can continue reading the detailed response knowing that each item was successfully addressed, rather than having to scavenger hunt for the information.
3. Be Selective with Appendices
This one is the hardest for many (and I’m still practicing it). More references means better – right? Not in this case. Rather – your goal should be to offer the fewest number of supporting documents that make your case. Too few and it is a flimsy argument. But include too many, and it is a sea of paper. Reviewers then feel like you are asking them to do your work of synthesizing the information (yep – that’s what they think).
So, go ahead – go wild! Add in every appendix that you want. And then when you are done writing the narrative for the section and it has gone through a couple of rounds of edits, ask yourself which appendices are actually critical. Which are adding noise such that the critical ones can’t even be heard or seen? Yes – extra appendices dilute the impact of the good ones.
4. Start with the Punchline
Begin your response with a summary statement. It’s just like with a resume – you want all the important bits right up front. If the reviewer reads only the first line – what do you want them to take away? And remember, this statement sets the tone for everything else that they will read. So, if you begin with ‘caveats’ and ‘excuses’ … you’ve set the wrong tone.
I totally get it – you want to be transparent and honest. And you must be! But you don’t need to lead with a statement of limitations. Think about it – in journal articles – where is the limitations section? At the end of the article. It is an important part – but it isn’t up front. Here are a few samples:
- XYZ University is and has been fully engaged in assessment of student learning and administrative units; reports for three years are included.
- ABC College is financially healthy based on external audit reviews and analysis of multiple financial metrics; cash on hand exceeds $XXXK.
- Student success improvements have occurred over the last X years at our institution, making significant progress towards institutional goals.
5. Seek Honest Feedback and Detailed Review
Get some honest feedback on the report from someone familiar with accreditation language and standards. This could be someone internal or external to the institution. The key is that the person needs to be a fresh set of eyes, able to find where improvements are needed, and comfortable with saying the things that need to be said.
Do you want the brutal truth from an honest colleague, when there is still time to make edits and improvements to the report? Or would you rather wait for the accreditor to tell you where your report is lacking – with their final decision? Of course – you want Option 1. Both options will sting a bit, but Option 1 affords you the opportunity to have a do-over and make some improvements to the report. If you don’t have someone on-campus who can serve in this role, consider an external person. By the way, IEHE offers accreditation services exactly like this!
6. Remember, The Little Stuff Adds Up
Let’s assume you write an amazing report. The next step is formatting, polish, and final patina. Don’t underestimate the power of these final elements.
- Labels – Make sure you label files, charts, graphs, column headers, etc. Do a point by point review to be sure that every single thing that can be is accurately, and consistently, labeled.
- Consistency – You might think you should use different words to mean the same thing to avoid sounding redundant in a report. But it can get confusing. For example, if you reference Program Learning Outcomes in one place and Student Learning Outcomes in another – but they’re really the same thing – readers may think they are different things entirely. At best, this can lead to confusion.
- Missing or odd formatting – This type of mistake simply distracts from quality work. One’s eye can’t help but see that the font type and/or size is different in a random spot. It signals to the reviewer that you didn’t take the time to ensure the visual quality of this report. And they will, perhaps, question whether the analyses and materials presented as content also received the same rushed treatment. Take time to clean up all of the formatting.
Plus a Bonus Tip – Ask for a Pre-Read
Check to see if your Vice President at the accreditor would be willing to read your report (or the most difficult section).
I have had the privilege of working with some amazing Vice Presidents at accrediting bodies. The Vice President at your accrediting body wants you and your institution to be successful. Yes – they are rooting for your institution. At an accreditation conference, one will often hear the accreditation staff say things like, “we are here to help,” and “if you have a question, just ask.” And while many people might feel like it is a trick – it really isn’t. They really are there to help and they really want to answer your questions.
And who doesn’t want to tap into the expertise of these talented Vice Presidents? In my experience with multiple regional accreditors, asking your Vice President at the accreditor if they would be willing to read a particular section or a few paragraphs to get their input has been met consistently with “Yes!” This does require getting the request in early, to give the Vice President enough time for review and you enough time to make edits. Their review serves the dual purpose of a fresh set of eyes and gaining critical input on how reviewers are likely to interpret your materials.
The Big Takeaway
Your accreditation special report will be a lot of work. Know that you are doing this important work to support student success (e.g., student access to federal financial aid, being an accredited institution, etc.) But keeping these tips in mind can make the process so much easier for you, your staff, and the accreditation team conducting your review. And if you incorporate these strategies into your reaccreditation process next time, perhaps you won’t have to go through a follow-up at all!