History and Observations on Assessing Geoscience Programs at MSU

George Kipphut, Department of Geosciences, Murray State University

Approximately five years ago, Murray State University embarked on a program requiring departments to develop Assessment methods and instruments for all undergraduate programs. This effort was headed by an Associate Provost, and many workshops, invited speakers and other resources were provided to help launch and coordinate the departmental efforts. Prior to this time, most departmental outcome assessments consisted primarily of written or oral senior exit examinations, and alumni surveys. External review of departments was/is not part of the assessment process. My impression is that most departments did not subject these internal assessments to systematic or consistent review or utilize the instruments very effectively. This was the case for the Geosciences department.

I believe Murray State University' strategy to implement consistent assessment of undergraduate programs was similar to strategies used at many other universities. Faculty responsible for each program were to examine the curriculum, identify some specific learning goals, and develop specific criterion for matching student learning outcomes with the learning goals. The goals were supposed to be connected with broader university student goals; e.g. effective oral and written communication, appropriate use of technology, etc. Senior exit exams could be retained as part of the assessment process. For consistency and ease of tracking, an on-line assessment document was made available to all departments. I have posted a copy of this instrument with my other documents.

A separate Assessment Plan (Microsoft Word 33kB Feb12 09) was instituted for each of our departmental majors programs (Environmental Geology, Geoarchaeology, Earth Science, Earth Science Teacher Certification, Geographic Information Science). In a small department like ours, there was of course some overlap between plans. Our department chose initially to focus mainly on freshman and sophomore level courses within each program. The department chair was/is responsible for coordinating these efforts. Tracking is facilitated by the on-line nature of the assessment plans and documents. The assessment program was implemented in the Fall 2005 semester.

I have a few observations. In my opinion, the most useful part of this effort so far was developing the initial learning goals for each departmental major. This essentially necessitated an informal review of each programs' curriculum. This was timely as our department instituted significant curricula changes in 2007. Developing assessment goals also required more sharing of teaching and testing practices information among department faculty. Sustaining and utilizing the new assessment program has been problematic. The Associate Provost who instituted and pushed the assessment program has moved on, leaving at least a temporary vacuum in the campus-wide leadership of this effort. I have also observed that it is easier to assess student outcomes such as communication skills. In the absence of national or regional normative exams, it is less obvious how to meaningfully assess student success in obtaining important knowledge skills within the geoscience disciplines.