Compiled by Cecilia Shore, CELTUA Director, and Masela Obade, CELTUA Assessment Coordinator
Graduate programs at Miami have made notable gains in planning and implementing program-level assessment of their student learning outcomes (SLOs). To date, all graduate programs have designed an assessment plan, and several others have collected and analyzed their data and are well on their way to completion. But perhaps most impressive, by December 2013, six programs had completed a full-cycle assessment and submitted an assessment report. This is a commendable achievement considering that graduate programs have until May 2014 to complete a full-cycle assessment, which includes at least four steps: creating an assessment plan, collecting and analyzing data, discussing and reflecting on the findings as a faculty and recommending any necessary changes, and compiling and submitting a report of this activity. These programs are the Master’s in Kinesiology, Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Ph.D. in Student Affairs Higher Education, Master’s in Student Affairs Higher Education, Master’s in Philosophy, and Master’s in Political Science. This article highlights some of the lessons learned by the six graduate programs, including students’ achievement of program-level SLOs, students’ perceptions of their own learning within the context of their programs, and faculty recommendations for improving their programs and student learning therein.
Broadly speaking, the assessment reports submitted by these programs show that faculty members are engaging in reflective practice. Not only are they looking at patterns of strengths and weaknesses in their findings with regard to student learning, they are also rethinking their pedagogy and, subsequently, adjusting their programs. The Master’s in Kinesiology and Health (KNH) faculty serve as an example of examining the quality of their students’ learning. They observed that their students are making progress toward asking their own questions and pursuing answers, which is an element of inquiry based learning that is, in itself, a “best practice” in student learning. The faculty noted that students are “developing their inquiry-based skills in our research methods course, through publications and presentations, and through their exit projects.” Furthermore, in their report, KNH faculty reiterated that “through these experiences, most students are able to develop a satisfactory introduction, methods, and procedure.” It is also encouraging to hear what the students are saying about their courses. Faculty reported that students indicate on their course evaluations and through a focus group at the end of the year that their course experiences are helping them develop as professionals.
Master’s in Philosophy faculty members serve as an example of using assessment information to make specific recommendations aimed at improving student learning. They agree that it is good practice to share with students in their graduate classes the rubric on which they will be assessed, and that they should be more explicit in communicating the writing outcomes for the program to their students. Also, in their assessment report, the Master’s in Philosophy faculty argued that “students should know that there is a direct relation between the quality of their writing and their preparedness for further work in a Ph.D. program.” This example suggests that assessment is opening up opportunities for faculty to help students make more tangible connections between Master’s-level skills and their utility for future work.
Within the Student Affairs in Higher Education Master’s and Ph.D. programs, faculty have learned, as a result of their assessment, that their students “have a strong understanding of the theories that inform their work, as well as how those theories inform their respective practice.” Additionally, they also appreciate the fact that their students undergo much personal transformation as a result of these programs and develop toward “operating from an internal foundation that benefits their practice.” However, the faculty also noted some deficiencies, reporting that “students need the most work on understanding how to integrate inquiry into their practice, as well as how to communicate their ideas in the most effective way possible.” The faculty, in response, bolstered their commitment to rethink aspects of their inquiry curriculum, as well as to focus intentionally on providing more support for students to develop their writing skills.
Understandably, for some of these programs, the initial round of assessment was a preliminary exercise, which, as one program’s faculty noted, revealed useful but inconclusive results. The faculty for the Ph.D. in Educational Leadership program observed that as their newly revised doctoral program finishes its first year, assessment data show that their students are meeting the learning objectives of the doctoral program. This, they said, was evidenced in the comprehensive exams process results. This is an encouraging piece of evidence when one considers that a comprehensive exam is one of the culminating experiences of graduate work and speaks to the students’ achievement and abilities at the point of degree attainment. From another perspective, to underscore the effectiveness of the program’s coursework, the faculty also noted that their “informal” assessment data of course evaluations show that students are finding the core doctoral courses to be valuable. According to the report, this was particularly the case in the areas of “increased understanding of material” and “analyzing problems and issues.” Moving forward, the Ph.D. in Educational Leadership program intends, as they enter the second year of their revised doctoral program, to initiate another part of their assessment process. This phase, they say, will be based on their doctoral preliminary examination, and the faculty are hopeful that it will present them with another insightful opportunity “to discern the quality of our program and students’ work within it.” Besides, in keeping with a culture of continuous improvement, the faculty also plan to revise their preliminary exam process to ensure that it is a high-quality assessment tool for students and faculty in the Ph.D. program.
Taken together, the assessment reports from the six programs were inspiring. They underscored the effort and thought that faculty members continue to put into assessing student achievement and the programs’ commitment to their students’ learning and professional progress. We look forward to reviewing additional assessment reports from other graduate programs and hope that assessment continues to be a useful endeavor, one that is informative in revealing successes as well as any deficiencies that call for improvement.