Graduate education represents mastery of an academic discipline. As distinct from undergraduate education, graduate education provides advanced knowledge in a field of study that is characterized by specialized training in the discipline’s theory, research methodology, and critical analysis. Specialization, however, is not narrow or limited. Specialized training means concentrated learning in the depth and breadth of the discipline.
Since graduate education is concentrated, learning is more self-directed, and involves more individualized instruction and mentoring than does learning for a baccalaureate degree. A master’s degree provides a student with the skills necessary to generate new knowledge and to apply existing knowledge. It also provides the student with the professional ethics and values of the discipline.
Master’s degrees may have a variety of orientations or goals. Some degree programs stress the traditional orientation of emphasizing theory and basic research. Other programs are designed to meet professional goals and emphasize theory, skills, and applied research. Regardless of the purpose and goals of a master’s degree, all graduate programs share common characteristics. The following characteristics help define a quality program:
1. Clarity of Purpose:
A high-quality master’s program is centered on the collective understanding among faculty and students of the purpose and goals of the program. This unity of purpose develops a sense of collective ownership of and commitment to the program. This mutual understanding shapes the values and customs of the program. It also builds effective professional relationships among the faculty and students.
2. Supportive Learning Environment:
• Program: High-quality programs provide a supportive learning environment. Such programs nurture an ethic of cooperation and substantially enrich the learning experience for faculty and students. A supportive learning environment means the faculty have shared expectations for intellectual rigor in which students are encouraged to challenge the limits of their knowledge.
• Institutional: Quality programs require institutional support. Sufficient institutional resources supporting facilities and equipment, e.g. laboratories, computers, library resources, equipment, and supplies, directly affect the quality of the learning environment. Institutional support is also critical in establishing and setting the expectation for high academic standards, including those for accreditation.
3. Academic Experiences:
• Core Knowledge: A core of knowledge provides the theoretical underpinnings and the research practices and methodologies of the discipline. A solid core, the foundation for advanced knowledge in the discipline, supports the entire learning experience for students. A core helps define the understanding of the knowledge, skills, and practices the faculty expect the students to learn. A core of knowledge helps insure that the program is a coherent learning experience rather than a simple collection of courses.
• Course Content: Courses should lead to specialized knowledge in the discipline. They should teach students the skills, tools, and methods of the discipline. All courses must have advanced disciplinary content and be intellectually rigorous. The courses should teach students how new knowledge is created, how existing knowledge is applied, and how to evaluate the issues and the literature in the field of study. Lastly, courses should develop students’ oral and written communication skills.
• Immersion: The entire curriculum should be designed to involve students in intense learning experiences. Graduate education requires that students become deeply engaged in the discipline. Part-time as well as the full-time students need to be immersed in the learning experiences. These experiences engender creativity, dedication, cooperation, and collegiality.
• Critical Dialog: The curriculum should be centered on encouraging students to critically engage the faculty and each other in dialog about the assumptive foundations, structure, and consequences of the knowledge they are learning, applying, and creating. Graduate education is characterized by a dialectical approach to learning that emphasizes the necessity of collegial and collaborative confrontation about ideas, methods, and skills.
• Application: The graduate program should provide students with an opportunity to apply the knowledge they have gained. This application can be in the form of internships, practica, theses, papers, fieldwork, laboratories, and assistantships. These experiences promote and foster effective learning experiences for students.
• Mentoring: Mentoring of students helps teach students the ethics and conventions of the discipline. It helps immerse the students in the field of study and helps ensure that individual learning needs are addressed. Individualization of instruction also provides the guidance needed for students to learn how to acquire, create, and apply knowledge independently.
• Product: Students must have a culminating experience in which they are required to integrate the knowledge and skills they have been taught. A final product, in the form of a thesis, project, recital, exhibit, exam, or internship, allows the student to apply the theory, skills, and methods of the discipline.
A high-quality graduate program must have a faculty that are actively engaged in research. The faculty must be active learners themselves in order to be effective in the instruction of the students. To be active learners, the faculty must be involved in the practice of the profession through scholarship. By being practitioners in the profession, they engage the students in active learning and they are able to demonstrate to the students how new knowledge is generated. A high-quality faculty is able to understand as well as share new knowledge with students.