Assessment in the Geology Department at the University of Dayton

Allen McGrew, Geology Department, University of Dayton

Assessment practices in the Geology Department at the University of Dayton must be considered in light of the intersecting but distinctive missions of the Department, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the University. UD is a Catholic institution founded in 1857 by the Marianist Order, and it continues to have a strong Catholic and Marianist identity, with approximately 70% of its students coming from Catholic families. The Marianist charism emphasizes values of community, welcoming and inclusion, service, strategic adaptability to evolving times, and practical wisdom that support an open, inquisitive and engaged academic environment. UD is a regional, comprehensive university with an undergraduate student population of approximately 7000, approximately 3000 of whom matriculate through the College of Arts and Sciences which is conceived as a Liberal Arts college within the framework of a comprehensive university that also includes professional schools of Business Administration, Education, Engineering, and Law. In recent years the University has enjoyed significant success in enhancing its selectivity, raising its national profile, and enhancing its reputation as a leader in American Catholic Education.

The Geology Department at UD graduated its first majors in 1949 during the post-war expansion in education, and through most of its history has focused on offering a strong undergraduate degree program, which in the early 1990's was expanded to include a major in environmental geology. Historically, the UD geology program has been small but rigorous, with a focus on preparing students for graduate study. In the 1998 Franklin and Marshall study of the Baccaulaureate Origins of Doctoral Recipients, UD ranked first among Masters degree granting institutions in the number of its graduates who went on to earn doctoral degrees in the Earth Sciences.

In the past fifteen years the faculty has grown from three tenure line faculty and one part-time lab instructor to six tenure line faculty with a full-time lab coordinator and four part-time instructors. Much of the growth has been driven by the department's support of the Common Academic Program at the University. In addition, the department is on the verge of launching its first foray into the graduate realm as it develops a certificate program in Geographic Information Systems. With the growth and evolution of the departmental mission, the time is clearly ripe to reconsider how we assess ourselves.

Despite the growth in the department, we continue to have a single administrator, the chair, who is supported by just one administrative assistant, so it is imperative that assessment strategies provide meaningful data on departmental functioning without undue added burden on the already fully deployed administrative staff and faculty. Though many of our students enter the workforce directly, we continue to view how well-prepared our graduates are for graduate study as a key benchmark in program assessment. Simultaneously, we see a need to establish and expand relationships with the regional business community and public agencies that employ graduates in geology, and we need to form a "board of advisors" who could contribute to the evaluation of our programs. Finally, we have been exploring the establishment of a "second-year review" process to assess our students early in their careers in order to target areas in need of remedial attention (both individually and collectively). As we develop this process we need to consider how it can interface with department assessment.

In May 2007, the University passed a new assessment plan based on seven broad outcomes known as "Habits of Inquiry and Reflection," to wit: Scholarship, Faith traditions, Diversity, Community, Practical wisdom, Critical evaluation of our times, and vocation. It is not expected that every unit will be responsible for realizing each of these outcomes, but each unit should demonstrate how they contribute to a subset of these broad outcomes. The College of Arts and Sciences has responded by directing each of its departments to review and revise their assessment plans in light of the above broad institutional outcomes as well as in the context of their own distinctive departmental missions. We are not expected to assess every element in these plans each year. However, all pertinent areas need to be assessed at least once within a departmentally-defined review cycle that might be on the order of 3 or 4 years. Building these assessment plans is viewed as a multi-year process. In 2008, each department was charged with devising a plan to assess at least one broad outcome from the seven listed above, and in 2009 we are tasked with collecting initial data to assess the selected outcome(s). By 2010 we will need to complete our plan which will then be implemented through a multi-year cycle of annual assessments.

For our initial round of assessment we chose to focus on two outcomes: "Scholarship" and "Practical Wisdom", though there is still an opportunity to amend and improve our initial draft plan to assess our performance (Microsoft Word 120kB Mar4 09) in these areas. Our past assessment plan, in my opinion, was poorly designed as it focused almost exclusively on an exit survey completed by graduating seniors, and the statements on that survey, though pertinent are over-generalized and unduly subjective, for instance, "As an undergraduate in the Geology Department of the University of Dayton I believe I am adequately prepared for graduate school." Nevertheless, the existing framework does have an advantage in that it is simple and easily executed, and it provides a source of longitudinal data to gauge our progress over the past 10+ years. The revised plan calls for continuing the use of the current survey, though perhaps expanding it to provide more meaningful results and supplementing it with additional data to provide more objective measures. For instance, the revised plan calls for tracking the number of graduating seniors who complete theses or independent studies and/or present research at conferences or at UD's annual campus-wide research symposium. In addition, we plan to add a follow-up survey of alumni three years after their graduation and we plan to track the proportion of our students who go on to graduate programs or careers in geology within three years of graduation. In addition, we plan to begin tracking the proportion of our students who have summer research, service, or internship activities. At present we have not contemplated instituting comprehensive exams for graduating seniors, but we would be interested to learn of the experience of others along those lines.

As we move forward with the completion of our assessment strategy some of the most challenging work lies ahead. The College and University do not require us to assess all outcomes listed in the Habits of Inquiry and Reflection document, but we believe that most do in fact have some significant relationship to departmental mission, with the possible exceptions of "vocation" and "faith traditions." (Although even in that case, one could argue that a geology department has a significant role to play in the general education curriculum in defining the boundaries and distinctions between science and faith-based inquiry, and the value of not "blurring the lines" between them). There is a certain comfort level in assessing our performance in scholarship and development of the practical wisdom of our students, but how do we evaluate our progress in supporting the growth of our students with regard to their appreciation of diversity, the health of our department as a community of learners, and the ability of students to engage in "critical evaluation of our times"? What does it mean to be "called" to be a Geologist, and how do we gauge our students' understandings of Geology as a 'calling' (i.e., vocation)? I have some preliminary thoughts, but am hoping that discussions at this workshop may yield fresh insight and perspectives as well as practical suggestions as to how to proceed in interweaving our departmental mission and objectives with overarching University imperatives.