Learning by Doing

Department of Anthropology

-The Department of Anthropology was formally established in 1934.
-Eighteen faculty members in the department. Overall, there are more than 30 faculty on the Mānoa campus who specialize in anthropology.
-Anthropology has 111 declared undergraduate majors, 41 MA students, and 46 PhD students (fall 2009 figures).
-Average 37 BAs, 11 MAs, and 2 PhDs granted each year.
-UH Anthropology alumni include Ann Dunham Soetoro, mother of President Barack Obama.

Andrew Arno, a Professor of Anthropology specializing in law, media, and communication, took a holistic approach to the Department of Anthropology’s first undergraduate assessment study: “We wanted to go beyond the course and the instructor [to discern] whether some of our key goals were being met or not,” he said. But when faced with input from other faculty who said “we have quizzes for that, we have term papers, we have grades so what else do we need,” Andrew shared his program-level and social science-inspired vision for assessment: “We want to have a somewhat objective view of whether students are achieving [our program] goal or not . . . it’s something we’ve already been doing . . . this is a more precise way to do it.”

 Together with Department Chair Geoff White, the department’s Assessment Committee decided to tackle an element of the program’s student learning outcome #7 that addresses the methods employed by anthropologists:

“7. Learn various methods employed by anthropologists from a variety of sub-disciplines and specializations.”

They assigned an in-class writing assignment that students were told would not impact their final grade. Geoff and Andrew analyzed the seven written responses of each student separately, scoring them on a scale from 0 indicating no competence to 3 indicating mastery at undergraduate level. They then compared notes and took an average score. “You look at the quality of the [student] response,” said Andrew of their scoring process. “It is elaborate? Does it show that they’ve really mastered it or is it just putting down some bullet points and sort of guessing?” As for the students, Andrew was confident they enjoyed the process. “Everybody participated,” he said, adding “they seemed to like the idea of showing off what they knew.” But while some students excelled, others struggled. “We had in mind certain things that we wanted them to know,” Andrew said. “But it wasn’t clear that our learning outcomes were stated in a way that really made it clear to the students.” In order to tackle this shortfall, they decided to try something new: “Revisit the learning outcomes and provide rubrics,” said Andrew.

When the assessment committee decided to use rubrics to better communicate the goals of their educational activities, they were surprised to learn that one faculty member was already using rubrics in his courses. “I thought, well that’s interesting, that somebody outside the assessment gang had already decided that rubrics are a good idea,” Andrew said. While the terminology of rubrics was new for Andrew, the idea appealed to him. “There’s always the intuitive sort of artistic dimension of teaching and grading and learning,” Andrew explained, “but providing a formulaic structure seems to convey a certain fairness and objectivity.” Creating rubrics also helped the program rethink its objectives. Because Anthropology is a four-field discipline—incorporating cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology and linguistic anthropology—Andrew believed each student learning outcome (SLO) should be written in terms of each sub-field. “They’re really different in their methods and their goals and the body of knowledge,” said Andrew. “That means that assessment has to be keyed to the subfield.” Reaching this realization was the key to beginning their second-year assessment plan, in which they determined “that maybe there ought to be some kind of department-wide standards about what we really want [students] to know, and then making an effort, not just saying we want them to know this, but making some effort to make sure that it’s in our courses, distributed around the different courses. And then we actually try and measure it and see did they [learn this] or not?”

Because of their four-field distribution and the complexity of ensuring each outcome was being covered, Andrew took it upon himself to draft the program’s curriculum map. But rather than convene a meeting to discuss the idea, Andrew simply went ahead and created the map, then emailed it around the department for input from each sub-field. Once he had received input from other faculty and instructors and revised the map, he distributed it by email and added it to Anthropology’s annual assessment report, confident that each of the program-wide learning outcomes were included across the four sub-fields. “[Assessment] is something we can do to help our students and to be more efficient and really get across ideas that we think need to be taught,” Andrew said.

For Andrew Arno the end result of being involved in program assessment has been increased awareness of student learning. “I think I’m a little more deliberate,” he said. “When I’m teaching . . . I’m a little bit more aware of their reaction. Are they really getting this? Am I giving them examples that strike them?” Andrew finds this focus on student learning to be especially pertinent for professors teaching upper-division courses. “I see it more in terms of craft . . . being conscious of what’s really working . . . testing your skill as a communicator . . .  maybe in upper-division courses you’re kind of talking about things that you’re doing, your own research, things you’re excited about. That’s great too [but] the assessment idea just sort of sharpens that sense of, we’ve really got something that they ought to know and this is going to be good for everybody if they know this.”

Keys to Success

  • Begin simply and let results guide the next steps.
  • Focus on the program and its effect on student learning.

Methods to Collect Evidence

  • In-class writing assignment that tests student knowledge on a program learning outcome.

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