Faculty reexamine learning goals, outcomes

As Antwan Jones looks toward his fourth semester teaching at GW, one of his first thoughts is to glance back. In reading through completed assignments and exams, the assistant sociology professor thinks about whether or not students are digesting the information he expects them to.

When he first started teaching sociology courses as a graduate student at Bowling Green State University in Kentucky, Jones got caught up with “cookie cutter” learning outcomes, or conceptual guidelines for what students should know by the end of a specific course. After he realized one of his assignments wasn’t really capturing the theory of the course, Jones modified its instructions to help students understand what he wanted them to achieve.

“If I’m not guiding students on what the paper should actually incorporate, then I can’t expect students to do what I think,” Jones said. “They shouldn’t be mind readers, and I shouldn’t assume that they are.”

As he gains more experience in his second year at GW, Jones has adapted his goals and assignments with the help of resources that are now funneled through the Teaching and Learning Collaborative, a faculty-driven effort to enhance teaching at GW that launched this fall. The group of faculty and administrators is working to expand existing programs and develop new priorities, one of which is assessment.

“It’s really about tailoring a specific need that you want your students to have filled by taking the class,” he said.

Colleges and universities nationwide are contemplating new ways to track the success of students after a Nov. 21 report by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment called for greater transparency in showing evidence of learning.

The study of 200 institutions of higher education pointed to their websites as untapped platforms for showcasing information about student learning. Online presentations of learning assessments have increased in recent years, but the authors of the report suggest that data be more widely available – rather than buried in internal sites – and more comprehensible to prospective students and parents.

A Campus Assessment Coordinating Council was appointed with representatives from each of GW’s 10 schools in spring 2010 to regularly review the implementation of assessment across the University.

As head of that council, Cheryl Beil, associate provost for academic planning and assessment, said GW has pushed to make both faculty and students more aware of methods that trace and advance learning since its last round of accreditation.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, GW’s regional accrediting agency, revised its standards to include an assessment of student learning as a key component of its accreditation review in 2002. While the body requires the assessment must take place, it lets the institution determine the steps to measure student learning, Beil said.

The University mandated that all schools identify measurable learning outcomes on course syllabi as part of GW’s accreditation review in 2006 to 2007. All programs must identify four to five central learning outcomes and choose at least two measures for each one that will provide evidence of learning, including one “direct” measure like a product or performance.

Faculty can receive assistance in writing and planning measurements for learning outcomes through the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. As a member of a junior faculty community last semester, Jones also gained insight and support from more senior faculty members. The learning community, which will mark its third year this spring, aims to bring in more participants to the program through efforts of the Teaching and Learning Collaborative.

Building course syllabi around the notion of student learning required a shift in thinking away from the assumption that faculty should be “knowledge holders,” Jones said. The junior faculty learning community, he said, emphasized ways to keep students engaged and to make learning fun and accessible.

“So we’re not the harborers of information,” he said. “We’re the facilitators of dialogue.”

As a way to centralize learning outcome information, Beil’s office created a single website to collect tips and examples for measuring how well faculty’s courses work.

Each year, academic departments or programs produce reports showing student achievements toward at least one to two learning outcomes and all outcomes must be evaluated every five years. The reports must also outline future steps for educational growth.

These annual reports are sent to the deans of each college and to the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment for review. Findings from learning outcome assessments can be used for curricula reform or for making decisions about raises, promotions and tenure.

“The assessment results are used as guidance, not to dictate decisions,” Beil said. “Most programs are having department discussions and making curricular changes that they think will address the assessment findings and will improve student learning.”

Recent changes that stemmed from academic program reviews include the adoption of new general curriculum requirements by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in spring 2010, the revision of the core curriculum and general education requirements in the Elliott School of International Affairs in 2008 and outside accreditation for the GW School of Business and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

While the national report found that 70 percent of institutions participating in transparency initiatives were more likely to report data from national surveys, Beil said it is important to note that GW’s reported information is shaped by its own measures, not state- or national-level benchmarks.

She explained that accountability assessments can be used punitively against departments or institutions – somewhat at odds with the primary purpose of GW’s evaluations as a tool to improve student learning.

To reach that target, Beil said she wants “programs to be candid in their assessment findings,” rather than selecting measures that “show them in the best light.”

Within the Columbian College each year, all major programs assess at least one program-wide goal and every course in the new general education curriculum will evaluate at least one learning goal for that course.

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in Columbian College Daniel Ullman said the best measures of teaching are “multi-faceted ones” that incorporate both student evaluations of teaching and assessments of student learning.

“We want students to be engaged in challenging courses and to succeed in them,” Ullman said.

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