Exploring the Role and Impact of Assessment Practices at the Institutional Level

Maura B. Mast, University of Massachusetts Boston

I am an assistant professor of Mathematics and the Director of Quantitative Reasoning at the University of Massachusetts Boston. As a mathematics teacher, I have always been interested in better understanding how well my students are learning, how well I am teaching, and whether the courses offered are appropriate. In the busy life of a faculty member, this interest was somewhat informal and any action on it was always pushed far down the to-do list. This semester, however, assessment is taking center stage. As Director of Quantitative Reasoning, I am working on the development of an assessment plan for the Quantitative Reasoning courses, one of the key components of our new general education curriculum. In addition, I will be involved in developing assessment plans for other aspects of the new general education program. The PKAL Roundtable on Assessment is quite timely, and I am excited about the prospect of learning more about assessment.

The University of Massachusetts Boston is a public, urban university with a diverse, commuting student population. The mission of the University is to provide access to a quality education at a reasonable cost to the people of the metropolitan Boston area. Since its founding in 1964, UMass Boston has worked to advocate the philosophy that a good education should be available and accessible to any students with appropriate desire and potential for academic achievement. The student population reflects this commitment: among undergraduates, approximately 80% are aged 22 or older; 35% are members of minority groups typically underrepresented in higher education; and a majority are low-income or first-generation college students. Time is a major problem for many of UMass students, and preparation for college ranges from excellent to seriously inadequate. The majority of our students are mature, serious, and highly motivated to overcome often severe obstacles to do well, and the faculty are highly motivated to help them.

Major changes in the University undergraduate general education curriculum are currently in progress, with the first phase of implementation occurring currently and later phases to be implemented in fall 2002. In this first phase, students are required to complete a "first year experience", consisting of two courses in writing and composition, a first-year seminar, and a course in mathematics/quantitative reasoning. The second phase includes a variety of distribution courses, including at least three courses in science or mathematics. Only courses that emphasize certain capabilities (use of technology and verbal reasoning are two examples of capabilities) are approved as distribution courses. The final phase consists of a capstone experience appropriate to the student's major.

Faculty at the University have put considerable effort into obtaining governance approval for this new curriculum and getting it implemented. The next step in the process is to determine appropriate assessment plans for each part of the curriculum. This work is just beginning, and a group of faculty has begun meeting to outline assessment plans. We have discussed the following issues, among others:

  • How to structure assessment so that it feeds back to the instructors and to the curriculum.
  • How to develop assessment plans that are affordable (both in terms of money and in terms of faculty time).
  • As part of the general education plan, assessment must be institutionalized. On the other hand, faculty must be actively involved in assessment. How can we develop assessment plans that have faculty support, yet satisfy the requirements of the administration?
  • Should the assessment plans we develop take the place of departmental assessment (typically, teaching evaluations) or should they supplement departmental assessment? How will the results from assessment be used in evaluating faculty for promotion, tenure, and merit raises?

My primary interest in assessment is in the context of the Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Many students fulfill this requirement by taking a course designated as a Quantitative Reasoning course. To date, we offer two such courses: Math Q114 (Quantitative Reasoning) and PoliSci Q221 (Introduction to Quantitative Methods). These courses are taught in a computer lab, using spreadsheets and the internet on a daily basis. The emphasis is on reasoning and analysis, and problems used in the course involve real world data. Students use writing, reading, discussion, technology and reasoning to solve the problems and present their solutions. Many students in these courses have a low level of mathematical ability (and even lower confidence in their mathematical ability); through these courses, they have a positive experience of mathematics and a better understanding of the importance of mathematics and reasoning.

Previously, our assessment has focused on data collected from a lengthy questionnaire. While we were able to obtain some information based on student opinions and responses, we were not able to assess student work or evaluate the instructor teaching the course. In my role as Director of Quantitative Reasoning, I have worked with other faculty develop a tentative assessment plan for the Quantitative Reasoning courses. For this spring, we will begin using portfolio assessment. We have asked each instructor to require students to assemble a portfolio of class work. To keep this to a manageable size, we are asking students to include: an "automathography" (a mathematical biography); one graded homework assignment; two writing samples; an end-of-semester reflection on learning; and the final exam. At the end of the semester, we will randomly select 4 of the 12 sections of Quantitative Reasoning and, in each section, randomly select 5 or 6 students. We will review the portfolios from this group, and attempt to provide feedback to the instructors and to the general education committee. By examining portfolios, we hope to get a better sense of how well the general education capabilities are being addressed in the Quantitative Reasoning courses.

We also plan to continue to build a community of faculty teaching these courses. For the past several semesters, the Quantitative Reasoning instructors have met at the end of the semester to discuss how the course went. These discussions have resulted in some changes to the syllabus and to expected course work. Rather than waiting until the end of the semester, we plan to meet with these faculty over lunch several times during the course of the term. We are also developing a summer workshop that will address some issues of assessment and issues involved in teaching this particular subject and group of students.

I expect participation in the PKAL Roundtable on Assessment to be tremendously useful for the continued development of assessment plans at UMass Boston. I look forward to learning about what others have done, discussing my work in more detail, and taking part in an on-going conversation about assessment and education.