As I noted in my previous post, I am teaching a section of our capstone course “Senior Symposium” in the fall. One feature of this course is a portfolio that counts as part of the course grade, but is later used to assess the program. Those of you who are high school teachers have been living with Common Core learning outcomes and other top down standards for some time now. In higher education, outcomes assessment has been a topic among administrators for more than a decade, but departmental faculty are still pretty much doing their own thing.
I was on the Learning and Teaching Committee, responsible for developing and assessing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs), for many years. At first it was fun and it seemed important. University faculty tend to think seriously about their own courses without ever thinking about what the whole program adds up to. This was a way to make faculty think about the whole.
I came to think about outcomes assessment in terms of four questions:
- What are we trying to do?
- How are we doing it?
- How do we know we are doing it well?
- How can we improve?
A discussion of just those four questions can help a department come together and function as a team with a vision of the big picture beyond individual courses.
However, administrators tended to want to make things much more complicated than a discussion of four questions. And teaching literature is not quite the same as teaching engineering or science. The administration kept asking for lists of the knowledge and skills we were teaching and matrices that indicated in which courses those skills were introduced, reinforced, and mastered. We called these “lego matrices” because they appeared to assume that a degree was built up out of a series of small pieces. This never worked very well for an English Department. They kept asking for more and more detail and it became clear that many thought that if you had trouble filling out the matrix, you weren’t teaching anything of real substance.
Another problem was that over the years, we kept changing the outcomes and the assessment procedures. That probably surprises high school teachers, who usually don’t have much control over the SLOs or the assessments. However, because we kept changing them, we don’t have a baseline, so we can’t answer the “How can we improve?” question.
As part of the portfolio for the “Senior Symposium,” my students will have to write a cover letter that argues that they have met the current outcomes and point to evidence in the rest of the portfolio, which contains a critical paper and some other materials, including papers from past courses if they want to include them, to support their argument. I created a worksheet including the current outcomes to help them prepare to write this paper:
We used to have an “Oral Communications” outcome that caused most faculty to require student presentations in their courses. Some students reported in exit interviews that this practice had made them much more confident about speaking in front of people. However, other students complained that they didn’t get enough guidance in creating the presentations or enough feedback afterwards. The presentations were also difficult to evaluate on a program-wide basis. Rather than taking steps to improve, the department decided to eliminate the outcome. Again, I am sure high school teachers are surprised. I was too.
However, I do think the above outcomes represent a reasonable set of goals for the program. I also think that having students connect their own experiences to the SLOs and think about work they have produced that demonstrates that they have met them is a very useful culminating activity. Students are often surprised at how much they have learned.