How to Create and Use Foundational Documents

Version 2022.1

Foundational documents are statements and/or policy documents that articulate and shape the purpose, identity, direction, and future plans of your program or department. They can include:

  • Mission Statement: describes the primary functions and activities of your department, whom it serves, and what it aims to accomplish. The statement should be aligned with your institution’s mission.
  • Vision Statement: aspirationally articulates the qualities your department needs to have in order to fulfill its mission and what the results of fulfilling that mission would be. The statement should be aspirational yet attainable, and aligned with your institution’s vision.
  • Values Statement: articulates your department’s core values. The statement should be aligned with your institution’s values.

This section provides guidance for creating departmental mission, vision, and values statements and related documents through an inclusive process that engages and supports buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders inside and outside of your department and ensures that your documents are aligned with institutional values and objectives. The section also provides guidances for ensuring that these documents are used to guide strategic decisions in your department. Not every department or institution needs to create and maintain all kinds of foundational documents, though some of them are required by certain accreditors. While this section focuses on creating mission, vision, and values statements, the guidance on process can be applied to other kinds of foundational documents. For details about other kinds of documents, see the sections on How to Create and Use a Strategic Plan; How to Be an Effective Chair (e.g., management plan); Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (e.g., action plan for equity); Departmental Culture and Climate (e.g., code of conduct); Ethics (e.g., departmental ethics guidelines); and Advising and Mentoring of Students (e.g., framework for mentors engaging students).


Creating and maintaining departmental foundational documents provides an opportunity for members of your program or department to reflect on, define, and state your department’s identity and values. Foundational documents form the groundwork for strategic planning (see the section on How to Create and Use a Strategic Plan) and program review (see the section on How to Undertake an Undergraduate Program Review), and contextualize

Program-Level Student Learning Outcomes

Statements describing what your students should be able to do as a result of completing your degree program. Outcomes emphasize the integration and application of knowledge rather than coverage of material, and are observable, measurable, and demonstrable. They use specific, active verbs (e.g., “identify,” “develop,” “communicate,” “demonstrate”) rather than “understand.” Program-level student learning outcomes are often abbreviated as program-level SLOs or as PLOs, and are also known as program-level learning goals. The term “outcomes” is becoming preferred over “goals” or “objectives” because it makes it clearer that these are defined expectations upon completion of the program, rather than aspirational goals that may or may not be achieved. Examples include:

  • Identify, formulate, and solve broadly defined technical or scientific problems by applying knowledge of mathematics and science and/or technical topics to areas relevant to the discipline
  • Develop and conduct experiments or test hypotheses, analyze and interpret data, and use scientific judgment to draw conclusions
  • Communicate scientific ideas and results in written and oral form according to professional standards and norms
  • Demonstrate and exemplify an understanding of ethical conduct in scientific and professional settings

Program-level student learning outcomes generally focus on overall program outcomes, in contrast to course-level student learning outcomes, which are specific to the knowledge and skills addressed in individual courses. Accreditation requirements typically require program-level student learning outcomes to be defined separately for each degree program (e.g., BA, BS, or minor), even though there will often be considerable overlap among these sets of outcomes. For more details, see the section on How to Assess Student Learning at the Program Level. For examples, see the supplement on Sample Documents for Program-Level Assessment of Student Learning or the PhysPort expert recommendation How do I develop student learning outcomes for physics courses?

(see the section on How to Assess Student Learning at the Program Level). The process of constructing and revising foundational documents provides an opportunity to build consensus within your department on priorities and directions, and to ensure these are aligned with institutional goals, directions, and values. These documents can help focus efforts of faculty and staff, prioritize resource investments, distinguish among competing priorities when making difficult choices, and plan for the future. The documents help forge strong relationships with your institution’s leaders by aligning the core values and priorities of your department with those of your institution. Foundational documents can also help department leaders clearly articulate your department’s needs and advocate for support and resources. Students benefit from being in a department that uses such documents to guide and support improvement efforts. These documents can also be used to share your department’s mission, vision, and values when recruiting students and faculty, and when engaging in fundraising.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

Effective Practices

  1. Design and articulate an inclusive process for creating and maintaining foundational documents

  2. Implement your process to create and maintain foundational documents

  3. Share and use foundational documents to guide departmental discussions and decisions

  4. Evaluate the impact of your foundational documents and review them periodically

Guidance on how to write mission and vision statements. (Because these documents are written for a non-academic context, some of the example vision statements are less attainable than we recommend in an academic context.)

Guidelines that may provide a starting point for discussing values relevant to physics departments

Examples of mission, vision, and values statements from physics and other STEM departments.  (Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by EP3. Some of the suggested examples mix together elements of mission, vision, and values statements as they have been defined in this section.)

Reference 1 provides a case study that illustrates how the process of developing a mission statement can transform departmental culture. Reference 2 reports on a study that analyzes equity, diversity, and inclusion statements at various universities and finds that universities that make moral arguments for diversity have demonstrably better outcomes for


A person or people of African ancestry. We use this term, rather than African American, because it is becoming the preferred term, and to be more inclusive of people who can’t trace their lineage to a specific country in Africa and/or those who are not American. We capitalize this term to acknowledge that it represents certain shared experiences, rather than just a race or skin color.

students than those that make utilitarian arguments.

  1. G. Driskill, A. Chatham-Carpenter, and K. McIntyre, “The Power of a Mission: Transformations of a Department Culture through Social Constructionist Principles,” Innovative Higher Education 44, 69–83 (2019).
  2. J. G. Starck, S. Sinclair, and J. N. Shelton. “How university diversity rationales inform student preferences and outcomes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(16) (2021).
Stay Informed with Updates
Our quarterly newsletter keeps you in the loop about events, ways to get involved, and the latest EP3 Guide content.
By signing up, I agree to the APS Privacy Policy.
EP3 Logo

Brought to you by

Funding provided by

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

This site is governed by the APS Privacy and other policies.

© 2024 The American Physical Society