Sigma Xi Statement - M. Catharine McElwain

M. Catharine McElwain, Loyola Marymount University

My interest in this conference stems from my department's efforts to assess our undergraduate biology program. We have been actively working on our program for about five years and are currently engaged in an assessment of our assessment. Like many assessments, ours was begun under a mandate from above with only limited enthusiasm on the front line. Although I was an architect of our assessment program, I remain dubious about the usefulness of the exercise. Among the suggested essay topics, mine most closely addresses the issue of how to build confidence in assessment among an ambivalent faculty, but it also addresses issues of impact on stakeholders from the institution to the individual undergraduate student. I believe that classroom assessment is an integral part of effective teaching and begins with appraising the look in their eyes as I speak and doesn't end with the evaluation of their last essay response. I apply a number of principles to the tools I use to assess learning in my class. Assessment has to be an extension of the rest of the course, not an interruption in learning. It must provide information to both the student and the instructor. It must be frequent and ongoing so that both the student and instructor can respond to the information. It must be cost-effective for the student so that time is not lost from the learning process in needless evaluative activities with little direct impact on student learning. Successful classroom assessment can be a very powerful tool in changing the behavior of both students and faculty and must be used carefully. As the question of assessment moves to assessing courses and curriculum, the appropriate application of assessment tools and strategies becomes less clear to me. For example, we use a standardized questionnaire scored on a Likert scale to assess course effectiveness at the University level. These questionnaires are administered to every class in the last two weeks of the semester. The responses are scored by the Academic Vice President and then returned to faculty via the department chair. Although relatively cost-effective in terms of student time, I doubt this tool has significant impact on classroom learning in any but the most dreadful classroom situations. We have added to this tool, the ETS Field Exam in Biology for graduating seniors, exit interviews with graduating seniors conducted by both the department chair and the college dean and telephone interviews with graduates 1 and 3 years after graduation. In my opinion, none of these tools has provided us with the kind of information we need to make concrete changes in our programùthe kinds of changes that would affect learning for an individual undergraduate. Thus, my interest in this conference reflects my concern that we have expended a great deal of resource, but have little to show for our efforts. I hope that this conference can provide guidelines and strategies to exploit the data we have acquired and to adjust our tools to meet our needs more directly.