Course-Embedded Assessment, Part Two – Closing the Loop

May 7, 2008

To continue a summary of our presentation at the NC State Assessment Symposium…

Our ‘closing the loop’ example was the most detailed of the best practices that we presented because I was personally involved in the project.

Closing the loop refers to not just collecting data, but using it to inform decision-making. It is the focus, seemingly, of most accrediting agencies. In fact, one engineering school I visited recently was criticized by ABET for collecting too much data and not doing very much with it. I don’t think that’s just an engineering issue, as much as the stereotype of engineers might suggest it, but a reality of outcomes assessment. We can collect all kinds of data but using it to change the process can be the most challenging part of the process.

I was impressed, at several different sessions at NC State, to see educators excited at the prospect of even slender amounts of data. As Dr. Ken Bain and his colleagues at Montclair State University’s Research Academy argue, repositioning the whole accreditation/outcomes/teaching debate as a question of academic inquiry rather than external requirements can be quite powerful. Educators are researchers – no matter whether teaching economics, English, or third grade. So it makes sense that presented with data, educators begin to see their own teaching as an area worthy of research.

We presented the changes brought to a first-year engineering program, particularly having to do with research skills.

The challenge is one familiar to most educators: how do we teach students to value the library databases and scholarly resources available to them, and understand the differences between Wikipedia, Google searches, and corporate websites?

The consensus amongst a team of first-year humanities instructors, who taught an interdisciplinary first year covering composition, design and research, and literature, was that research skills could be taught more effectively. The process saw 30 sections of first-year engineers marched to the library in January for a 60 minute presentation by librarians on the library databases.

This approach was a classic catch-22: since the students were just beginning their research project, they didn’t have any vested interest in learning the ins and outs of ProQuest and LexisNexis. But when they did need the info, later in the term as they finished up length design proposals, it was too late to teach them. So these 50 minute sessions were often dry and difficult for students and teachers alike, even when the librarians tried to engage the students with examples of design projects past. Read the rest of this entry »