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Six AQIP categories help analyze and improve the systems essential to effective institutions. The name of each AQIP Category refers to a group of related processes. For example, "Helping Students Learn" includes the largest group of critical processes in higher education institutions, processes dealing with program and curricular design and delivery.

Each category allows an institution to analyze, understand and explore opportunities for improving processes. Metaphorically, categories serve as "buckets" that allow institutions to sort key institutional processes into analyzable groups, and as "lenses" that permit in-depth examination of each group of processes. Each category identifies specific issues (in the form of questions) that guide the institution in structuring its Systems Portfolio and in crafting Action Projects.

Different types of questions allow for deeper analysis of institutional systems: Process Questions ask how an institution has designed and deployed processes that help it achieve its overall goals; Results Questions  ask about the performance of institutional processes whether their performance results meet requirements of stakeholders; Improvement Questions  ask how the institution promotes systematic improvement of its processes and performance in each category.