A Brief History of Assessing Geology at Wheaton College

Stephen O. Moshier, Department of Geology and Environmental Science, Wheaton College, Illinois

About five years ago our College accreditation review resulted in a positive endorsement, but a warning that our school had not yet developed "a culture of assessment." We understood that this critique was common at the time and assessment remains an ongoing struggle for higher education, to wit, this very workshop on assessment for Geoscience departments. We were given two years to develop a document in order to satisfy our accrediting agency. Our Education Department provided leadership across campus, as they seemed to "get it." An annual Faculty Development Day was devoted to presentations and breakout sessions on how to assess our programs. We rolled up our sleeves and calibrated our assessment instruments with words like "pedagogy" and "rubric" (words not typically uttered by scientists who think instruments are used to measure isotopic ratios). The crisis was averted when our institutional document was approved at the end of our probation.

So many different approaches to assessment offered as examples actually made it difficult to know which ones were most appropriate for our program and its disparate parts. We tended to force existing models to our courses rather than develop instruments that emerge more organically from them. If I described here what we developed, our effort would probably sound familiar to everyone in the workshop: collections of specific assignments keyed to learning objectives, overall class performance on selected exam questions, pre- and post- course exams, etc.

Our college had already a tradition of self-study and external review for every department. Our Ten-Year Review process was established in order to "evaluate departmental strengths and weaknesses in the areas of curriculum, teaching, advising, and facilities, and to provide recommendations that would strengthen the overall program." It remains a mystery to me why our accreditors did not value this process as strong evidence of "a culture of assessment." Granted, a decade between reviews can miss pertinent and even persistent problems in fulfilling a department's mission, but the entire affair amounts to more than one semester's worth of effort to gather documents, retrieve surveys from students, alumni and other members of the college community, and invite the inspection of three outside reviewers (two from off-campus and one from another department on campus). These reviews are particularly helpful in highlighting for administration real and vital needs of the department (not just the whining that every chair routinely does to get attention). For example, as our department underwent revitalization in the early 1990s, our ten-year review showed specific deficiencies in facilities that resulted in almost immediate renovations of our space. An outside reviewer can look at a Dean straight in the eye and say, "yes, they really do need that!"

Our plan (Acrobat (PDF) 56kB Feb19 09) rightly points out (with credit to my colleague and previous chair who assembled the plan) that a traditional geology education offers unique opportunities for learning synthesis and assessable outcomes, namely, field camp and capstone seminar. Good ol' Summer Field Camp comes midway or late in the program, so students are forced to do integrative thinking to complete projects. Knowledge from stratigraphy, structure, petrology and more is applied to interpret local geology and make maps. Accompanying reports must communicate information with sophistication and technical style. Our liberal arts curriculum requires a capstone seminar for every major. In our capstone, geology seniors are given several opportunities to think through and communicate how their entire education fulfills the college mission statement. In three writing assignments they are asked to place their geological education in the context of a Christian worldview in the areas of professionalism, environmental stewardship and origins issues.

Now that our department assessment plan (Acrobat (PDF) 56kB Feb19 09) is in place, our problem is in actually doing what we promised and keeping the plan up to date. As I read over our plan (that is only 5 years old), I note that some of the assignments keyed to certain objectives are no longer assigned in some classes. Some of my colleagues are not willing to go through the routine every year, so there are gaps in the records. I have found that some of my assessment goals were set so high that the numbers indicate I am falling short (and that just can't be the case, right?). It is time for us to assess our assessment.