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Assessment in the Department of Geology, Geography and the Environment, Slippery Rock University

Michael Zieg, Department of Geology, Geography, and the Environment, Slippery Rock University


The Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment was created in 2001 by the merger of the Department of Environmental Geoscience (EGEO) with the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies (G&ES). The G&ES program had a long tradition of assessment, primarily by means of exit interviews, but the EGEO program had no such tradition. Thus, departmental assessment activities were initially limited to the geography programs, due in large part to a lack of interest on the part of EGEO faculty. Motivated by administration requests for greater EGEO participation, and by departmental concerns about perceived and actual academic discontinuities within the various programs, it was decided to rework the entire departmental assessment process from the ground up. To this end, the department drafted a new set of outcomes that would "bridge the gap" between the social and natural science programs in the department. In addition, responsibility for departmental assessment was transferred from the department chair to a departmental assessment coordinator.

As I was beginning my responsibilities as departmental assessment coordinator, I attended a workshop given by Dr. Dan Weinstein of Winthrop University. One of the themes of the workshop was degree coherence, or the expansion of program assessment to include not only those courses offered in the home department, but also required courses in General Education (Liberal Studies) and support courses in math and the sciences. The motivation was to be able to demonstrate to external constituencies (such as university administration or accreditation agencies) that the program is not only successful in teaching its own core, but that it has designed a coherent program that is providing a broad education that meets the mission of the university as a whole. University outcomes generally include concepts, skills, or capabilities beyond the specialty of the department, so how can we demonstrate that our major programs are accomplishing the university mission? As an example, one of SRU's university-wide student learning outcomes is aesthetic appreciation. This is not typically addressed in a traditional geology curriculum, but is a significant part of the Liberal Studies program. Thus, although we (as geology faculty) don't directly teach courses in aesthetic appreciation, all of our students are exposed to this important field through the Liberal Studies requirement for their degree. This process of examining program coherence is formalized in our assessment plan, and is reported to the administration through a degree coherence matrix that has been incorporated throughout the university.

Currently, we are at the stage of seriously examining all of our programs in light of the new set of learning outcomes that were developed and implemented over the last three years. In particular, we are examining the coherence of our programs, both in terms of how the course requirements meet program outcomes, and in terms of how our programs fit within the broader mission of the university. Major problems at this point are still structural: identifying changes in the curriculum that would improve the program without unduly impacting student learning (which is definitely aided by continuity and can be negatively influenced by radical, rapid changes.) Positive results have included a greater sense of unity in the department through the recognition that many of our expectations for student learning are the same, regardless of the specific major program, and the opportunity this process has provided for updating and revising programs that have remained static for several decades.

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