Wednesday, April 11, 2018

When There’s No Capstone

This one is a little “inside baseball,” but for those of us who wrestle with outcomes assessment, it’s a real issue.

How does your college assess gen ed outcomes when you don’t have capstone courses?

“Gen ed outcomes” are the skills that students are supposed to pick up from the required courses outside their majors, and that transcend individual fields: communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and the like.  The idea is that every student who graduates a degree program at a given college should have proven proficiency in each of the general education goals. They may well have different majors, but the gen ed outcomes should be common ground.  

Traditionally, those have been assessed in two ways.

One involves mapping each outcome to a given gen ed course, and then looking at whether students in those courses actually achieve what they’re supposed to.  The flaw in that model is that the whole doesn’t always equal the sum of its parts. For example, when I taught poli sci, I used to assign papers. When I graded the papers, I included feedback on the quality of the writing.  Some students would complain “this isn’t an English class!,” as if that mattered. I’d explain that the point of a composition class isn’t to pass a composition class; it’s to pick up a skill you’ll use in other classes, and presumably, on the job.  If they did just enough to pass composition but then left it behind, they will have succeeded in the class but utterly missed the point.

The other involves having students do some sort of project in a capstone course they take in the last semester before graduation, and assessing the outcomes as demonstrated in that project.  Four-year schools often use this model. It gets beyond the issue of the whole and the sum of the parts, which is good, but it only works when you have clear capstone courses. At the two-year level, many programs don’t, and won’t.

Has your college found a way to see if students carried skills beyond the classes tasked with teaching them, in the absence of capstone courses?

At a previous college, we had faculty who would design projects in upper-level classes to lend themselves to assessment, and then submit a few samples from students who were in their last semester to the Gen Ed Assessment Committee, or GEAC (pronounced “geek”).  It worked tolerably well, but it relied a lot of faculty willingness to go the extra mile. Over time, going back to the same few good soldiers repeatedly could bring an unintended selection bias into the process.

I’m confident, though, that many colleges have faced this, and some must have found reasonably adept workarounds.  So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your wisdom. Have you found a good way to assess gen ed outcomes in the absence of capstones?