UW News

May 1, 2008

Learning goals projects among 41 poster presentations at Symposium on Teaching and Learning

Three projects on departmental learning goals are among 41 offerings at the annual Symposium on Teaching and Learning, scheduled for 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6, in the HUB Ballroom. The event includes a poster session at which participants can talk to people universitywide who have been involved in new initiatives in teaching and learning.

The learning goal projects — in psychology, dance and biology — are part of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Learning Initiative. The college has been funding departments and providing them with advice from Cathy Beyer, a research scientist in the Office of Educational Assessment. (See story below for more information.)

Dance and psychology represent two very different cases — a small department versus a large one. Dance will be presenting its experience of going through all the steps and creating an assessment tool that didn’t work, then stepping back and revising. The project began with interviews of all the faculty members, said Dance Director Betsy Cooper. From those meetings were derived learning objectives for individual core courses, and departmental learning goals were extrapolated from that information. Faculty then revised and refined the goals.

The next step was to map individual course goals onto the goals the entire department had decided on, after which they looked for ways to assess whether the goals were being met. Dance decided to create an electronic portfolio using Catalyst tools. “There were folders for all our core classes, with the goals, and students were asked to drop an artifact, such as a class paper, into the folder, then to reflect on the goals,” Cooper said.

But dance students balked. “The students claimed that the e-portfolio wasn’t very intuitive,” said Kory Perigo, a former graduate student in dance who worked on the project. “They said that there were a lot of steps to go through in order to submit an artifact and there were aspects of their learning process that didn’t appear to be accommodated through the e-portfolio. I think that by and large the students wanted to have more creative license with the portfolio, and felt bound and uncomfortable with only an electronic choice.”

The faculty took the criticism to heart, and this spring the department is asking students in its capstone course — the Senior Seminar — to submit a portfolio that they have designed themselves. They’ve also added a third day to the formerly two-day seminar to provide time strictly for writing and reflection.

“I think this is a really interesting case,” Beyer said. “This electronic portfolio was perfect. You could put it in a journal article on assessment and people would be impressed. But it just didn’t work in that setting. This illustrates how differences in departmental culture can really matter.”

Psychology is not as far along in its process, said Psychology Associate Chair Beth Kerr. As a large department graduating about 400 students a year, they had many more variables to contend with. But Kerr said psychology was eager to participate in the learning initiative because the faculty had just finished refining the undergraduate curriculum to better separate classes for majors from those for general education.

The department gathered their faculty input through focus groups that Beyer facilitated, then had faculty further refine the departmental learning goals that emerged. The faculty who teach the same course collaborated on goals for that course through Catalyst discussion boards on a Web site, and faculty teaching individual courses worked on their own goals.

The department is still working on mapping individual course goals to those of the department, Kerr said. She said she thought that was one of the most valuable parts of the process: “Normally, there’s not a lot of time for faculty to think about how their course fits in to the overall curriculum, but we’ve found that once faculty members work on learning goals for their own courses, they like to talk to students about course learning goals.”

The process has also been helpful to psychology advising, giving them information they’ve used to create a mountain image on the Web for students who are interested in a psychology major (see above or go here). Psychology has also created three skills-based pathways — in information literacy, writing and quantitative work. They will be presenting their information literacy work (done in collaboration with Psychology Librarian Laura Barrett) at the symposium.

The symposium opens with a keynote address, Expanding Learning Inside and Outside the Classroom: Issues of Culture, Pedagogy and Technology, by Forest Resources Professor Tom Hinckley. The poster session follows. Posters have been divided into five categories:

  • Learning focused assignment design
  • Course redesign
  • Transforming teaching and learning with technology
  • Focus on Students
  • Examining teaching.

The Teaching and Learning Symposium is hosted by the Faculty Council on Instructional Quality, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Forum, the Teaching Academy and the Center for Instructional Development and Research. For further information, contact John Holmes, University Libraries, jwholmes@u.washington.edu.

A&S Learning Initiative supports departments working on learning goals, assessment 


Since its beginning in 2004, 32 of the 41 departments in the College of Arts & Sciences have been funded for projects as part of the Learning Initiative.  The initiative was in part a response to 2003 recommendations from the UW’s accrediting agency that called for further assessment of student learning through the setting of specific learning goals.


“The reason the college took a departmental focus is because of evidence in the study that three of us in the Office of Educational Assessment did — the Study of Undergraduate Learning (UW SOUL) — that showed that learning is mediated by the academic disciplines, so that what biology majors learn is different from what geography majors learn, etc.,” Beyer said  “If that’s the case, the departments are really the ones who have to decide what they want students to learn and figure out if they’re learning that.”


That may sound like an obvious statement, but it is bucking what Beyer calls a “huge movement at the federal level” to assess learning in college with a standardized test. The idea is to allow colleges and universities to be compared on the same bases across the nation.


The UW argued to its accrediting agency that learning goals and their assessment should be a department activity, and the agency accepted that position.


“We focused on courses, especially the gateway courses, at the beginning,” Beyer said.  “But more and more our focus has been on departmental learning goals — assessing learning in the major.”


Beyer has come up with a general process that departments can follow in working on learning goals, but that process can be tweaked in any number of ways by department faculty.  It starts with the creation and refinement of the goals through faculty input of some sort, followed by mapping individual course goals onto the departmental goals — saying, in other words, which departmental goals are met in an individual class. Then an assessment method is chosen to determine whether the learning goals are being accomplished.


Assessment often takes the form of student portfolios and/or a capstone course, but it could be anything the department deems appropriate. Two departments are currently doing two-year longitudinal studies involving a random sample of their students.


“There are tests out there for particular fields,” Beyer said. “And it’s possible faculty might say, ‘We want to administer this test at the end of the senior year to see if students have this knowledge that matters to us.’  But most people think the best kind of assessment is to use the work that students do in the course of their major.”


“Assessment is not evaluation of teaching,” said Paul LePore, assistant dean in the college and coordinator of the Learning Initiative.  “It’s a way of determining whether the courses in a given major collectively allow students to reach the learning goals the department has set out.”


The initiative must be succeeding, because the accrediting team visited recently for the University’s five-year checkup and didn’t make any new recommendations.  For more information on departmental and course-based learning goals, go to http://depts.washington.edu/learning.