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A Brief History of Program Assessment

Ann Bykerk-Kauffman, Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, California State University, Chico


California State University, Chico, is a residential campus set in the northern Sacramento Valley at the base of the Sierra Nevada. We are a comprehensive university with a student population of 16,000 in a city of 100,000. The emphasis is on undergraduate education, although we offer a number of small master's degree programs. Each year, the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences awards 5-10 MS degrees, 10-20 BS degrees in geology, 10-20 BS degrees in Environmental Sciences, and 1-2 BS degrees in Geosciences (a degree that prepares students to teach secondary school earth science).

In the mid 1990's the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences constructed an exit survey for graduating seniors and began administering it every spring. For several years, the survey yielded useful data and spurred us to make helpful curriculum changes. But a waning in pressure from upper levels of administration to do assessment and waxing pressure from them to attend to other matters – coupled with several changes in department chair – caused the practice to lapse for almost 10 years.

As CSU Chico began undergoing review of its accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the upper administration greatly increased the pressure on departments to conduct formal assessment of their programs. In 2005, the administration required every academic program to establish official program goals and, within each goal, to write specific measureable student learning outcomes. Since then, each department has been required to submit annual assessment reports. Each year, we must assess a subset of our program goals on a rotating basis, so that every student learning outcome is assessed at least once every five years. The Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences has completed three rounds of this assessment and is currently engaged in the fourth round.

During this recent push for assessment, recognizing that CSU Chico faculty have little time for assessment while carrying 12 "weighted teaching unit" loads (12 hours per week, with each hour in lab counting as only 2/3 hour), the administration recently provided funds to each department to pay for 3 hours of release time for an assessment coordinator. I have held that position since January 2008.

I began by reviving the exit survey. I then worked with colleagues to improve and flesh out the program goals and learning objectives. I am currently engaged in facilitating the development of embedded assessments in courses throughout the curriculum. This embedded assessment consists of specific questions on exams and designated aspects of student projects. We use detailed rubrics to score the student work, using them for both grading and assessment purposes. We archive digital copies of the student work, with the intention to track the progress of selected individual students over time.

Our most useful embedded assessments have, to date, come from our field courses. (See our rubric for evaluating student work in a field course.) We are in the process of trying to demonstrate progressive skill and knowledge development in our students by comparing their work in our junior-level field course with their later work in the final mapping course.

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