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Project Will Help Develop Tools to Measure Learning in First-Year Courses

Project Will Help Develop Tools to Measure Learning in First-Year Courses May 18, 2010

The ACM colleges boast a wide variety of first-year studies programs that are designed to integrate first-year students into the intellectual life of the college. The programs aim to help students develop academic skills – such as writing, critical reading and analysis, and information literacy – that are hallmarks of education in the liberal arts and sciences.

While the programs are fixtures on the campuses, in some cases stretching back for decades, how effective are they? What are students learning, and how can their learning be improved?

Those are among the questions being addressed in First-Year Learning Outcomes and Their Assessment, a project led by faculty from Colorado College and Lake Forest College and funded by the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project.

The First-Year Learning Outcomes and Their Assessment project has been organized by three faculty members – Dennis McEnnerney from Colorado College and Rachel Ragland and DeJuran Richardson from Lake Forest College – who have invited faculty from other ACM colleges to join the effort as collaborating partners.

The impetus for the project came from McEnnerney. A philosophy instructor and chair of the First-Year Experience Program at Colorado College, he has been working with other faculty there to develop an assessment plan for the first-year program.

The timing worked well for Lake Forest College, as well, where the First-Year Studies program had just undergone a review, according to Ragland, an Assistant Professor of Education and chair of Lake Forest’s Assessment Committee.

“Part of (the First-Year Studies review) was defining more clearly the student learning outcomes for the program,” said Ragland. “That just seemed to fit in really nicely with what Colorado was doing (in) trying to define and then measure their outcomes for first-year studies.”

The project will unfold in two phases. During the first phase, each of the collaborating colleges will work individually to develop a mission statement, set of learning outcomes, and assessment plan for a first-year studies course. During the fall, they will carry out a pilot assessment of the course to find out whether the learning outcomes were achieved by the students.

In November, the entire group of project participants will gather to share their results from the pilot assessments and to provide feedback to each other, with the aim of improving the assessment tools.

Phase two of the project will take place in spring 2011, as the colleges refine their plans for launching a full-scale assessment of learning outcomes in first-year courses. Those plans will be presented at an ACM-wide conference in summer 2011.

The first-year studies programs at the ACM colleges vary, Ragland noted, and so will the learning outcomes and approaches to assessment. “Each individual campus can (structure the assessment) as it makes sense for their campus,” she said. “We want it to be authentic to what they want to do on their own campus.”

Despite the differences, though, Ragland said that she sees value in bringing all the ACM colleges together for the concluding conference. “Even if they haven’t been part of phase one, we’d want them as an audience to possibly think about how this would work out on their campuses in the future,” she said. “I think there are some overarching similarities where we can learn from each other.”

The ACM Faculty Career Enhancement Project is supported by generous grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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