- Last Updated on Thursday July 19, 2012
Given the rising costs of higher education, resources for innovative teaching and learning programs are becoming scarce. More and more, resource decision makers are demanding data to inform their conclusions. As College Park Scholars approached its first decade marker, the faculty felt that providing data on the traditional 'provostial four,'1 did not provide a complete picture of the College Park Scholars experience. Assessments of each of the 12 Scholars programs were essential to a) illuminate the programs' outcomes, and b) identify any deficiencies and best practices.
Thomas Angelo, summarizing the thoughts of many assessment scholars, defines assessment as "an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving learning. It involves making our expectations explicit and public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance."2
During the '02-'03 academic year, the then existing Scholars Faculty Advisory Council designed and began implementing an assessment of each of the 12 Scholars programs.
Program directors prepared self-studies based on an array of questions and prompts. An assessment team - comprised of Faculty Advisory Council members plus a staff member from the Scholars central office - reviewed the reports and gathered additional data from appropriate stakeholders, e.g. sponsoring college and departmental representatives; staff from the Division of Student Affairs, particularly the Department of Resident Life; and alumni. Special attention was devoted to surveying and interviewing current students. Reports were generated then reviewed by the program directors based on criteria outlined by the Council. Final reports were presented to the Faculty Advisory Council at a meeting to which all program directors were invited. Findings and recommendations were discussed.
The Comprehensive Summary generated recommendations for individual program enhancements and best practices within and across programs.
Assessment is an ongoing process. As learning outcomes assessment becomes the national standard, future College Park Scholars assessment initiatives will focus on learning outcomes. At the end of the 2005 spring semester, the Scholars faculty convened for a day-long workshop to identify the program's learning outcomes. The outcome of that workshop was not what we, as a community, had hoped. It generated confusion and frustration, not clarification and direction. Though College Park Scholars has articulated a mission statement and set of goals, focusing on those as learning outcomes overlooks the unique, interdisciplinary theme of each of the 12 programs.
Then came the summer, bringing with it an opportunity for some reading, some reflection and some creative thinking. At the first convening of the program faculty in the fall of 2005, I shared Ken Bain's concept of 'the big question.'3 Using this concept as the focus for our learning outcomes, each program director has articulated a big question that prompts students to reflect on their Scholars experience in holistic, meaningful ways.
Some program faculty are already testing their big questions and use of portfolios with current sophomores. Preliminary observations indicate that even though the process is labor- and time- intensive, it provides wonderful opportunities for students to make meaning of their Scholars experience and for faculty to validate their efforts. An example from a recent citation recipient from the Media, Self and Society program follows:
Academically, Scholars has provided me an oasis from [my major] engineering. That is, it gave me an opportunity to have an academic focus outside of my major. This academic experience has been made up of practical and critical examinations of the media. Coming in as a freshman, my critical thinking skills were horrible. I, as an engineer, think practically, and I think in terms of what works/doesn't work. I quickly found myself awestruck at how the majority of the journalism/ communications students in my colloquium class could immediately formulate opinions, and back them up with excellent points during critical discussions without even thinking twice about it. I often found that it took me the entire length of the discussion for me to even come up with the slightest bit of opinion. As my freshman and sophomore years went on however, although I didn't really volunteer my opinions, I found that I could follow what other students were saying better. I could either agree or disagree in my head, and come up with a reason why most of the time. In this sense, I definitely improved my critical thinking skills through the Scholars program.
College Park Scholars has developed the following documents to guide on-going learning outcomes assessments:
- An Assessment Plan, specifying what data program directors will provide to their sponsoring deans on an annual basis, and how feedback on that data will be used to improve their programs.
- Faculty guidelines to develop prompts to accompany the introduction of the big-question exercise to students.
- A sample rubric.
As a result of College Park Scholars assessment efforts, the University committed to assessing all its living-learning and special programs. This initiative, outlined in the University’s 2008 Strategic Plan, requires all living-learning programs to submit annual assessments for review by a committee of faculty and administrators.
Current and future students, not to mention resource decision makers, deserve quality programs. College Park Scholars has committed to: making our expectations explicit and public; systematically gathering data about our programs; analyzing and interpreting that data; and using that information to improve performance. We invite our students, fellow University of Maryland faculty and administrators, and living-learning colleagues across the nation to stay tuned.
1 Jean Henscheid (2004) coined this phrase in an address to the 24th Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience. The 'provostial four' refers to: Retention rates; student satisfaction; time-to-degree/program completion; and grade point averages.
2 Angelo, T.A., Reassessing (and Defining) Assessment. The AAHE Bulletin 48(2), November 1995, pp. 7-9. (Appearing in the University of Maryland's Middle States Periodic Review Report, 2002).
3 Bain, K. (2004) What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press.