“Education is something you do, not something you get.”
– Student Participant in the University of Washington
Study of Undergraduate Learning (UW SOUL)
Knowing whether students are meeting our goals for their learning is the most challenging part of our work in assessment, because research tells us that learning is complex and often highly individual. Furthermore, research shows that learning is domain-specific. What students learn and how they learn it are shaped primarily by the academic practices and values of the majors, and those practices and values differ from one discipline to the next. Chemistry majors graduate from the UW with content knowledge and skills in writing, thinking, and research that differ from the content and skills that Art, Business, and Nursing majors learn.
Because learning varies across the disciplines, assessment that can inform curricular change and improve student learning must be primarily the work of experts in those disciplines – our faculty and departments. Departments evaluate the learning of their majors in a number of ways.
Assessment of learning in the major
Departmental assessment always begins with development of student learning goals for majors. Although there are starting points in creating learning goals, they are always based on what departments expect their students to know and be able to do by the time they graduate. Departments report their learning goals and assessment methods every two years, at the request of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Academic Affairs (UAA). Reports are compiled and analyzed to create summary charts on the learning goals and assessment methods used across departments and within colleges and schools. The Assessment in the Major reports show that departments use a variety of methods to assess student learning in the major. Assessment of student learning includes direct and indirect measures, and one of OEA’s priorities is to work with departments to increase the amount and impact of direct measures of assessment, such as capstone courses, portfolio-based assessment, and use of senior-level classes as assessment sites. OEA also works with departments to develop exit surveys for seniors that include questions about departmental learning goals. Exit surveys can be a rich source of information for faculty about how students experience the major.
In addition, aggregated course evaluation results provide departments with information on teaching and learning. The UW student ratings system, IASystem™, provides student feedback to faculty about their teaching, as well as about the academic challenge levels of their courses relative to other courses students have taken.
All departments have curriculum committees that meet throughout the year. Faculty in curriculum committees use assessment information, as well as information about national trends in their disciplines and the realities of staff expertise and budgetary constraints, to review and often reshape the department’s curriculum. Curriculum maps assist in relating course offerings to specific student learning goals, and relational models tie course goals to goals at the level of the department and college. Curricular changes are tracked in the departments’ biennial assessment reports.
Assessment projects funded by colleges and schools
UW schools and colleges sometimes collect information on departmental assessment that informs institutional work. For example, the College of Arts and Sciences Learning Initiative provided funding to departments over a four year period (2004-08) to conduct assessment of learning in Arts and Sciences majors, and departments receiving funding reported their results back to the college. This program provided an important stimulus to faculty involvement in the assessment process. By enabling focused attention on elements of assessment that were identified by faculty as most critical, the Learning Initiative provided critical incentive to departmental efforts. Unfortunately, budget reductions necessitated suspension of this program in 2009.
Academic program review
Every academic department completes a self study as part of the Academic Program Review process. Reviews are coordinated by the Graduate School and are on ten-year cycles for each academic program. Study guidelines ask departments for assessment information about their undergraduate programs, including ways in which assessment results have been used to modify the curriculum. The 10-year review also offers assessment help to departments, providing the UW with a way to institutionalize assessment processes.
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