St. Olaf College Context
1. What is the status of Quantitative Reasoning programming on your campus?
Two of the most important features of Quantitative Reasoning programming at St. Olaf are (1) our recently-revised general education requirement in Abstract and Quantitative Reasoning (AQR), and (2) the majors and concentrations offered by our Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science (MSCS).
All students at St. Olaf must complete at least one AQR course, defined as a course which "develops analytic thinking skills through systematic focus on abstract and quantitative reasoning." Consistent with the overall design of our GE curriculum, AQR courses may be offered by any department, so long as they are approved by our Curriculum Committee as meeting the criteria for AQR accreditation. These criteria are as follows:
"1. Abstract reasoning is the study of structures and patterns that arise in quantitative or computational settings. Quantitative reasoning is the use of formal structures and methods to model and analyze phenomena in the natural and human-made worlds. An AQR course should include elements of both of these reasoning activities.
2. An AQR course should develop students' problem-solving proficiency through analytic thinking, not merely routine calculation. An AQR course should develop skills and ideas beyond what is typically attained in secondary school.
3. An AQR course should incorporate multiple elements of abstract or quantitative reasoning (e.g., symbolic, geometric, and numerical perspectives; data analysis and statistical inference; visualization; algorithms and formal models)." (http://www.stolaf.edu/committees/curriculum/ge/aqr.html)
Not surprisingly, at present all courses meeting the AQR requirement are either mathematics, statistics, or computer science courses. However, the newly-revised requirement has just been implemented, and it is hoped that more departments, particularly those in the social and natural sciences, will be able to offer courses satisfying the AQR requirement.
Our department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science is among the strongest in liberal arts institutions nationwide. The department's website is a very fair portrait of its programming and how that programing is generally perceived by students and faculty alike:
Mathematics at St. Olaf
Practical - Popular - Visible - Active - Useful - Fun
Mathematics is all of those things–and more–at St. Olaf, where the mathematics program is recognized nationally for innovative and effective teaching. Our program was cited as an example of a successful undergraduate mathematics program by the Mathematical Association of America (Models That Work, Case Studies in Effective undergraduate Mathematics Programs) and St. Olaf ranks sixth in the nation as a producer of students who went on to complete Ph.D.'s in the mathematical sciences (Report on Undergraduate Origins of Recent [1991-95] Science and Engineering Doctorate Recipients).
The majors and concentrations offered by our MSCS department include a major in mathematics, which students pursue on a contract basis; a recently-initiated major in computer science; and a concentration in statistics. A signature element of the department's program is its commitment to active and applied learning. For example, for many years, the department has offered a January term Mathematics Practicum to its mathematics majors, in which students work for a month in five-person teams on real industrial problems and present their results to scientists and executives of the company that posed the problem. Recent Practicum topics include:
* Time-Efficient Suturing During Cardiac Surgery
* Estimation of Minimum Freight Car Needs
* Optimal Positioning of Manufacturing Equipment
* Load Factors for Airline Scheduling
* Federal Fairness Test for Benefit Plans
The programming in Statistics includes an NSF-funded Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CIR), which brings together undergraduate statistics students supervised by statistics faculty with faculty and students from other disciplines to share in the excitement and challenge of working across the traditional academic boundaries to collaborate on research. Projects have ranged from biology to psychology, economics, and linguistics, and have included work with the St. Olaf Office of Evaluation and Assessment to investigate the development of tools for assessing information literacy.
Finally, mathematics programming at St. Olaf makes possible a variety of opportunities for study abroad, consistent with the larger college culture supporting international and off-campus study.
2. What are the key learning goals that shape your current programming or that you hope to achieve?
Intended learning outcomes for the Abstract and Quantitative Reasoning (AQR) requirement:
Students will demonstrate:
1. An ability to recognize and employ patterns, structures, and models appropriate to particular theoretical or applied problems, as well as derive and understand properties of patterns, structures, and models themselves;
2. An ability to apply abstract and quantitative reasoning to solve problems in novel contexts.
3. An ability to approach problems from multiple perspectives, employing a variety of strategies.
Intended learning outcomes for the major in Mathematics:
Students will demonstrate:
1. the ability to understand and write mathematical proofs.
2. the ability to use appropriate technology to assist in the learning and investigation of mathematics.
3. appreciation of mathematics as a creative endeavor.
4. the ability to use mathematics as a tool that can be used to solve problems in disciplinary and interdisciplinary settings.
5. the ability to effectively communicate mathematics and other quantitative ideas in written and oral forms.
Intended learning outcomes for the major in Computer Science:
Students will demonstrate:
1. the ability to solve problems that require creative reasoning with levels of abstraction.
2. competence in core computer science topics, represented by
I. the ability to reason about structured computer systems, and
II. the ability to design good algorithms.
3. the capacity for identifying, analytically discussing, and creatively addressing ethical issues in realistic computing systems.
Intended learning outcomes for the concentration in Statistics:
Students will demonstrate:
1. the ability to formulate statistical models based on research questions. To that end, students will demonstrate communication skills to assist non-statistical collaborators in addressing research questions through statistical models.
2. the ability to apply flexible approaches to modeling by graphically exploring data, choosing appropriate analyses from a variety of statistical methods and implementing analyses with proficient use of technology.
3. the ability to interpret results correctly and make inferences consistent with the study design. Students will be able to communicate results effectively orally and in written form to researchers and non-technical audiences alike without overstatement, acknowledging the limitations.
4. appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of statistics in both academia and industry.
3. Do you have QR assessment instruments in place? If so, please describe:
Two of our principal instruments are the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) and a set of supplementary questions about quantitative reasoning which we included in our 2007 administration of the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) senior survey. In addition, there are a few items related to quantitative reasoning in the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) and the HEDS Alumni Survey. The CLA data we receive does not isolate information about quantitative reasoning; instead, it provides a score on students' abilities to sift through and present relevant evidence in support of a solution to a complex and ambiguous problem. Most of the scenarios provided to students in the CLA performance task include some hypothetical quantitative information which students must evaluate for relevance and then cite appropriately in their proposed solutions. So we see the CLA assessment data as relevant to the assessment of quantitative reasoning, but it is indirect.
We anticipate expanding our assessment of quantitative reasoning through a new Teagle grant we have secured in partnership with Carleton and Macalester. The purpose of this Teagle grant is to make systematic improvements in students' ability to make effective arguments, using assessment data to inform classroom-level innovations and then to assess the extent to which those innovations yield improvements in student learning. We expect faculty from many disciplines to participate in this project, and we are confident that some faculty will develop innovations that improve students' abilities to use quantitative data skillfully in making effective arguments.
4. Considering your campus culture, what challenges or barriers do you anticipate in implementing or extending practices to develop and assess QR programming on your campus?
We face the same challenges that all institutions of higher education face in growing our culture of assessment: (1) Limited faculty and staff time to frame questions, seek data systematically, and use data to inform practice; (2) the fact that high-quality assessment is just plain hard to do; it is a difficult thing to gather data that points conclusively to the effectiveness of specific educational practices, especially since so many of our learning outcomes are not fully realized until long after students have left the institution and are not available for direct measurement of those outcomes; (3) the fact that a culture of assessment requires different ways of thinking about student learning and making academic decisions. Even when we have good assessment data, it is not easy to make sure that the people who need it to inform their practice have access to it and know how to use it.
5. Considering your campus culture, what opportunities or assets will be available to support your QR initiatives?
(1) A growing number of faculty are interested in, engaged with, and supportive of assessment. In particular, the principal faculty committee responsible for the college curriculum has a strong contingent of colleagues who are advocates for assessment.
(2) Every member of our Dean's Council – the associate deans who lead the various academic divisions of the faculty and who work with the Provost and Dean of the College on budget, personnel, and the academic program – has had significant engagement with assessment in the past few years. Some have participated in another Teagle grant intended to foster a culture of assessment; one is a member of the Assessment Subcommittee of the college curriculum committee; and one has helped recruit students to participate in the CLA. The Assistant Provost, also a member of the Dean's Council, is a strong supporter of assessment and has provided excellent leadership in grant-seeking and organizational development in the Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation, the administrative unit of the college with principal responsibility for leading the college's program of assessment.
(3) The Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation has also provided effective leadership and support in growing St. Olaf's culture of assessment. The office has two directors, a staff member who leads the institutional research work of the office, and a faculty member who leads the assessment work. This partnership across roles has strengthened faculty ownership of the college's assessment program while educating faculty about the resources we already have available in IR to support effective assessment. Assessment features strongly in the vision of the office, which is "to be a national leader among liberal arts institutions in institutional research and the assessment of student learning" (http://www.stolaf.edu/offices/ir-e/). IR&E is delivering on that vision: its directors are leaders of two inter-institutional grants which will enhance assessment on campuses in addition to our own, and they have been innovators in developing assessment instruments, stimulating appreciation for the value of assessment, and making assessment data readily available to faculty. The interim Director of Evaluation and Assessment, responsible for leading St. Olaf's assessment program during the 2008 calendar year while the long-term director is on sabbatical, is also chair of the Department of Chemistry, and is thus particularly well-positioned to enhance the assessment of quantitative reasoning.
(4) We have enough assessment data that we are not starting from scratch. We can build on things we are already doing, rather than starting from ground zero. That is the idea behind the new Systematic Improvements Teagle grant – build on what we already have to enhance a specific student learning outcome and assess the extent to which we are successful.