Multiple Opportunities to Become Good Scientists

UH Mānoa Department of Tropical Medicine

-The Department of Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology at the John A. Burns School of Medicine offers graduate programs leading to the MS and PhD in Biomedical Sciences (Tropical Medicine).
-The Department has over 19 Graduate Faculty specializing in Tropical Medicine and over 15 Cooperating and Affiliate Graduate Faculty.
-Average 1 MA, and 2 PhDs granted each year in Tropical Medicine.
-The program offers learning opportunities in virology, bacteriology, parasitology, entomology, immunology, cell and molecular biology, epidemiology, ecology, behavioral science and clinical medicine as well as vigorous training in scientific methodology.

Sandra Chang, professor and Graduate Chair in the Department of Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology (TMMM), used program review as a springboard to begin formal program assessment. She soon found that assessment had its own merits. “Because of participation in the assessment program at UH Mānoa and my involvement in poster session, program [assessment] became much more structured,” she said. “I think as a result we have a better idea of how to evaluate our program and where the strengths and weaknesses are.”

Sandra began by looking at her department holistically. “We looked at everything and we had to really think about the different components of our program and to gather data on how we’re doing,” she said. When it came to gathering data, Sandra first focused on student progression through the Tropical Medicine MS and PhD degrees: “How long our students were taking to go through the program, what our success rates were—in terms of recruitment, retention and completion of the program,” and then broadened the scope to take in the program as a whole. The assessment process opened up the lines of communication between faculty and graduate students and strengthened the feedback loop. “We got a lot of feedback from faculty and students about our courses and our curriculum,” she said. Initially the student feedback came in the form of course evaluations, both instructor-created evaluation forms and the e-café system. “So we got some feedback there,” Sandra noted. “Then we met with the graduate students as a group,” she said. “They identified [a core] course as being one that could be expanded and so we listened to them, essentially, and looked at [the core courses] to see how we could restructure them based on the areas that were of highest priority in our program.”

The body of assessment evidence gathered led the TMMM to the discovery that their core course offerings, which ran over two semesters, were too information-intensive for effective student learning, so the department decided to spread the material over three semesters instead. “We expanded our courses because we kept getting student feedback [saying] that it’s interesting, it’s a good course—this is our core course which covers a wide variety of sub-disciplines within tropical medicine—but it’s getting to be a little bit much for just two semesters. As a result we created a third course in our core curriculum and so now we’ve broken it down into pieces that make sense and have also given the students more time to absorb [information in] each sub-discipline,” Sandra said.

To ensure that their graduating students have the knowledge base, skills, and technical expertise to enter the workforce, the TMMM gives its students multiple opportunities to reach the program’s student learning outcomes. “We really try very hard to look at each aspect of their training and have feedback on each aspect,” Sandra said. Students typically sit for a four-hour written qualifying exam with each section graded by a faculty member who is an expert in that field. Students are then called in for a follow-up oral exam with the assembled faculty. “The oral exam is an opportunity for the student to provide some feedback or expand on their written questions,” Sandra said, explaining that “some students do better in a written exam and some students do better in an oral exam and so we give them an opportunity to use either mechanism.” This ensures that students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their achievement of the program’s student learning outcomes and that the process is equitable. “We want to be fair, as fair as we can,” Sandra explained.

Assessment in the TMMM started with a holistic review of the program and student progress toward the degree, and it ended up strengthening the process of student feedback and closing the loop with curriculum modifications. While assessment began simply, it has now taken on a life of its own. “It’s something that we always have done,” Sandra said. “But now it has a bit more structure.” That structure resulted in coherent program goals that are well publicized, and Tropical Medicine students having multiple opportunities to reach those goals. “What we’re trying to do is to develop good scientists,” Sandra said. “There are certain characteristics they have to develop, certain skills, a certain knowledge base they have to acquire, and so we try to assess those different parts of their training.”

Keys to Success

  • Use assessment to evaluate program strengths and weaknesses.
  • Open up the lines of communication between students and faculty.
  • Give students multiple opportunities to reach and demonstrate stated program learning outcomes.

Methods to Collect Evidence

  • Course evaluations, including e-café.
  • Group meetings with graduate students and faculty.

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