Sigma Xi Statement - David L. Boose

David L. Boose, Gonzaga University

As a young faculty member in my sixth year of teaching (fourth at my current institution), I am definitely a "learner in the assessment community," and "wrestling with" assessment issues at three different levels. First, I am constantly struggling to find a balance between practicality and effectiveness in designing assessment tools for my own courses. My teaching responsibilities include two first-year courses for biology majors, with enrollments of 45-50 students. In both courses, I have tried to develop assignments and exams that not only evaluate student mastery of course material, but also provide an opportunity for learning in themselves. My belief is that writing is a key to achieving both of these goals, and I have tried to incorporate written assignments into both courses as much as possible.

For example, my exams are usually a mix of multiple-choice, short-answer, and single-page essay questions. The different types of questions allow me to assess different levels of knowledge, and the essays evaluate students' abilities to articulate and apply the concepts we have covered. But an essay question on an exam only evaluates the extent to which a student has already processed and integrated concepts; it is not a useful tool to help bring about that integration. To address this, I have also assigned a number of homework questions designed to be answered in a single typed page. I then choose one or two of the questions to use as essay questions on each exam.

The drawback to these methods is the time required for grading. The homework questions in particular take a great deal of time, because I comment extensively on each one. The reason I do this is a strong belief that most of the learning comes from re-writing, not from the original draft. I am also aware that students will see some of the questions again on the next exam, and I want them to correct errors in their understanding before then. Unfortunately, as our class sizes have increased over the last several years, I have been forced to reduce my use of written assignments; currently, I am the only faculty member in the department who uses anything other than electronically graded multiple choice exams for these introductory courses.

This is the second level of my interest in assessment. Despite the time involved, I believe that written work is essential in all biology courses, and I would like to convince my colleagues to develop writing assignments for all sections of our introductory courses. This will be a hard sell in some cases, and I am looking for objective ways to evaluate different teaching strategies and assessment techniques, as well as examples of approaches that have been found to be successful in classes of this size.

Finally, our department is searching for methods to assess the effectiveness of our entire curriculum. As part of this process, we are being forced to articulate our goals for the program, and to evaluate the current curriculum for its ability to meet those goals. We also have an interest in moving from a fairly content-centered model of teaching to a more process-centered approach, and are struggling with questions of how to compare the outcomes of each model. I have taken an active role in promoting these discussions, and I am interested in the experience of others who have faced the same challenges.