Assessment in the Department of Geosciences, Boise State University

Karen Viskupic, Department of Geosciences, Boise State University

Since 2004, the Department of Geosciences at Boise State University has been assessing its undergraduate programs according to a formal plan that was developed after an on-campus workshop led by Dr. Barbara Walvoord. Development of the assessment plan began with the definition of learning goals for each of our undergraduate programs (geolosciences, geophysics, earth science education). Once the learning goals were defined, we defined assessment measures to address each goal.

The learning goals for each degree were defined in general terms so that most of them are shared among programs (for example, graduates will have effective written and oral communication skills). This parallelism allowed us to develop assessment measures that could be used for all degree programs. We defined the following assessment measures: 1) Direct evaluation of student research and oral presentations in a capstone seminar course; 2) Indirect measure of students' perceived learning evaluated in a senior exit interview and survey; 3) Indirect measure of the value of specific courses in meeting the program learning goals through end of semester course evaluations; and 4) Indirect measure of student preparedness from an alumni survey.

In practice, the most useful assessment measure has been the senior exit interview, which we have conducted in a group setting. The exit interview is held each spring for students who plan to graduate in May, August, or December. Discussion is facilitated, but not directed, by the Education Programs Manager, a staff member and adjunct faculty who oversees undergraduate advising, assessment, curriculum development, and outreach. Topics covered in the focus group include the overall curriculum, program strengths and weaknesses, specific courses, facilities, faculty, advising, and any other topics brought up by the students. Suggestions made in the senior focus groups that we have incorporated into actual changes include placing greater emphasis on writing and on using quantitative skills, the development of a sophomore-level course in geophysics, and the development of a stronger undergraduate advising program. The group setting for the interview allows students' memories and ideas to be sparked by their peers' comments. Sensitive comments can be made privately or as part of the senior survey.

At Boise State, end-of-semester course evaluations are designed and administered by each department. A positive consequence of this system is that we can include questions in the evaluation survey that provide information about topics specific to our programs. For example, students are asked to evaluate how well a course has helped them meet each learning goal. A negative consequence of this system is that there is not a university or college supported database of survey responses, so paper responses need to be compiled by hand. We have debated using an online evaluation survey but fear students will be less likely to complete them when not asked to do so during class time. Currently, the course evaluations are most widely used by individual faculty to make sure their courses are meeting the learning goals they expect.

We are currently struggling with the development of rubrics to evaluate student research in the capstone seminar course, and the measurement of overall student content knowledge. We are considering having students develop portfolios of their work as a proxy for measuring content knowledge. These portfolios would be evaluated during the senior capstone seminar, but again, we would need to develop a rubric for their evaluation. We have not yet administered an alumni survey.