Open-Doors Communication for Continual Assessment

American Studies

-The UHM American Studies Department is one of the oldest and largest American Studies departments in the United States.
-12 faculty members plus approximately two dozen additional faculty from throughout the University work closely with American Studies students. 
-25 undergraduate majors and 85 graduate students.
-Average 14 BAs, 7 MAs, and 3 PhDs granted each year.
-Two graduate certificates offered: Historic Preservation and Museum Studies.

When Vernadette Gonzalez took over as Undergraduate Chair of American Studies, she used assessment as a tool for exploring the program. “[Assessment] was actually a really good way to know a little bit more about how we were serving and not serving our students,” she recalled. “I always want to look at how we can build and serve the students better so I always start with the big pukas.” Because American Studies is a small department with open doors and corridors bustling with students, Vernadette engaged in an assessment process involving continual communication with both students and faculty and then used this information to make program improvements. It’s “a more informal assessment,” she remarked, that led to increased consciousness “about how we could better build our students’ skills to match the SLOs we’re saying that they should have by the time that they graduate.”

The culminating experience in the American Studies’ undergraduate program is a capstone course, AMST 481, which the program uses to assess all program student learning outcomes. Assessment-related conversations about AMST 481 and evidence that up to forty percent of the enrolled students were not doing well led the Curriculum Committee to implement a curriculum change. “[Students] were really struggling,” she said. “It wasn’t always apparent that by the time they hit their senior year . . . they had the skills to succeed in 481.” The Curriculum Committee concluded they needed to add a methods class to allow their students to acquire the requisite skills to succeed in their capstone projects. “We determined that we really needed to give them a whole class to just spend thinking about research and primary sources,” she said. “We had a really good justification for it [through assessment], so it wasn’t very difficult . . . to add it pretty quickly.” Because Vernadette grades the final capstone thesis, results from this curriculum modification showed themselves on her desk. “It’s been fantastic in terms of really being able to see a big difference in our students,” she said. “Even the ones who are weaker writers and weaker with analysis . . . are doing work towards their thesis in really measurable ways and you can see the improvement, at least qualitatively.”

Vernadette serves as both Curriculum Committee Chair and Assessment Coordinator and sees these duties as working together harmoniously to provide what she described as “an organic assessment of the program . . . It was the Curriculum Committee looking at how the curriculum was succeeding or not succeeding in particular ways,” she said, adding that this information “fed into the assessment data as well.” Although curriculum mapping was new to Vernadette, she looked at examples of other programs’ curriculum maps on the Assessment Office’s web site and endeavored to create one for American Studies. The completed map led to the realization that they needed to “provide more scaffolding in the lower division classes,” she said. “So that we can actually provide more critical writing training and analysis that they’ll need later on . . . so that they get some kind of training on the way to writing their senior thesis . . . Basically it was just thinking about what we were able to offer in what classes and perhaps where we needed to strengthen particular kinds of offerings,” she said. Again, Vernadette saw this part of the assessment process as “a good review of the whole department and how we were serving the students.”

While curriculum mapping was a new method for Vernadette, she had long used rubrics both to crystallize in her own mind what she wanted students to achieve and to share that information with her students. “I actually hand out my grading rubrics to my students . . . so they know. It’s really transparent,” she said. An additional benefit of handing out the rubrics was that it turned students from passive readers into active readers of other students’ work. “I think that’s generated more critical feedback from their classmates,” she said. “So when they’re looking at their peer’s writing they have something really concrete to look for. They become more actively engaged in not just writing their own stuff, but thinking about how other people are writing and communicating.” And when it’s time for Vernadette to grade students’ capstone projects, the students are confident they will get a fair evaluation. “They are saying that it’s really, really nice to have a sense of what you’ll be looking for when you read our stuff and grade,” she said.

Vernadette has worked hard to build a rapport with students and to keep program improvement in the minds of other faculty members. “We’re very supportive and we’re small and we have good lines of communication,” she noted, adding that assessment has become “a learning process” for her. While Vernadette sees her program’s assessment tradition as primarily informal, the faculty members’ openness to student feedback, as well as their willingness to think self-reflexively and look critically at their program has led them “to think about the different kinds of assumptions we have about what American Studies students are supposed to be learning, like what our goals are for them and where we might fall short in terms of giving them the tools to achieve those goals.” Her advice to other programs is clear: “Start with what the biggest concerns are . . . what are the biggest needs of the students or of the program,” she said, directing assessment coordinators to “ask students and teachers first.”

Keys to Success

  • Use assessment as a tool to look for gaps in student skills.
  • Work with the Curriculum Committee to gather data.
  • Create a curriculum map and use it to explore the program.
  • Use grading rubrics to offer transparency in grading.

Methods to Collect Evidence

  • Capstone thesis.

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