– by Tom Paradis
One of the final phases of the Student Learning & Curriculum Design process at NAU involves the creation of a degee program assessment plan. Since 1999 NAU has expected the faculties of all undergraduate and graduate degree programs to determine a manageable set of learning outcomes to facilitate the meaningful assessment of student learning. Like other institutions of higher education, it has taken some time for the faculty and leadership to learn how to maximize the usefulness of the outcomes approach, admittedly an ongoing adventure. (I was fortunate to have served from 2005-2011 as NAU’s Director of Academic Assessment, which launched me into this arena of higher education.)
In short, the first step for developing a degree-program assessment plan is to determine a handful of learning outcomes that can be reasonably measured (a potential topic for future posts). As a valiant attempt to stay focused on GeoDesign here, let’s look specifically at the learning outcomes we developed to represent our new B.S. degree for Geographic Science and Community Planning (GSP) (please see The NAU Approach for more information).
Gaining faculty consensus on a preferred set of program learning outcomes typically requires numerous meetings and plenty of snacks. And, it is reasonable to expect a direct relationship: the more faculty members involved in the conversation, the greater amount of time and energy necessary to form consensus. In our case, only one meeting was required to determine our chosen set of outcomes – the silver lining of a rather small faculty (six tenure-track, full-time professors) who actually get along quite well. Further, the “one meeting” scenario hides the fact that we had already met for nearly two years to fully redesign our geography and urban planning curricula. We had consequently developed a rather prolific curriculum map that already included hundreds of outcomes at the course- and lesson-level of teaching. The curriculum map was already organized around “natural” higher-level topics of outcomes (research, planning, technologies, etc.), which made this final step less complicated. Adding to this, our faculty already had experience with past assessment plans and were familiar with the “language” of learning outcomes. We were therefore not starting from scratch. (If you are, I recommend some background reading on the topic – perhaps get a hold of Linda Suskie’s 2009 Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide. There are also numerous web sites devoted to the topic of “writing learning outcomes”).
With the goal of keeping our assessment process manageable, we decided to focus on four broad learning outcomes, keeping in mind that it is not reasonable (and borders on madness) to assess everything all the time:
Learning Outcomes for B.S. Geographic Science & Community Planning:
- Communication: GSP graduates will be able to professionally communicate synthesized knowledge through written and oral products appropriate for diverse audiences and perspectives.
- Geospatial Techniques: GSP graduates will be able to interpret, design, and produce quality 2D and 3D computer-generated maps and illustrations that communicate spatial knowledge at local, regional, and global scales.
- Planning and Participation: GSP graduates will be able to work effectively in teams to design more sustainable places through the synthesis and input of various disciplinary and community perspectives.
- Research and Analysis: GSP graduates will be able to apply relevant qualitative and quantitative research methods to conduct scientific, objective inquiries at local, regional, and global scales.
What struck me about our final decision was how closely these four outcomes seem to align with the GeoDesign Framework presented at the 2011 GeoDesign Summit and elsewhere by Dr. Carl Steinitz, who has proposed for four educational areas to represent a GeoDesign curriculum: (1) Design Professions (2) Geographic Sciences (3) Information Technologies, and (4) People of the Place (temporary reference and graphic). While discussing our potential learning outcomes, this framework had not factored into the conversation. Instead we had focused more on the aforementioned curriculum map and the outcomes we had used previously. Still, they seem to align closely, with an interesting exception:
- Communication (Framework: No clear Alignment)
- Geospatial Techniques (Framework: Information Technologies)
- Planning and Participation (Framework: Design Professions)
- Research and Analysis (Framework: Geographic Sciences)
This effort with alignment is more of an academic exercise at this point, as there is no imperative to create four learning outcomes that match the Steinitz Framework. Indeed, both projects (Outcomes and Framework) were produced for different purposes – albeit both oriented to college-level education. Our “Communication” outcome is ever-more vital to include, given the ongoing need to graduate students who can write and speak effectively. This outcome essentially integrates the other three (perhaps an “umbrella” outcome), whereby students learn to effectively communicate their knowledge and learning to various audiences. As such, there is no distinct alignment between this outcome and the four areas of the Framework, and this should not be a problem – just an interesting observation at this point. Communication can be interpreted as an “umbrella” outcome that necessarily integrates the other three.
As for the other three outcomes, they actually match quite well. A fundamental principle of GeoDesign, it seems, is to combine the traditionally separated arenas of geographic research and mapping (understanding what exists) with the design professions (planning for the future). These three learning outcomes therefore may provide inspiration to others who wish to play with the idea of intentionally developing a more cohesive GeoDesign curriculum. As for the fourth area of the Steinitz Framework, People of the Place, I currently view this as an “umbrella” arena that necessarily encompasses the other three but rightfully still deserves its own “place” in the Framework. This is not unlike our Communication outcome that, while involving the other three outcomes, still deserves its rightful “place” in the assessment plan.
I suppose my primary observation then, to summarize, is that it may not be necessary to closely match a degree program’s learning outcomes with this or other GeoDesign frameworks – though it certainly remains a potential option for a faculty to do so. They can still include important elements of GeoDesign that make sense for the context of a particular department and degree program. Further, given the nearly infinite combinations of potential learning outcomes that faculties can create, a good deal of diversity from one program to another is to be expected. What approaches like that of Dr. Steinitz can provide are important foundations that help us answer the question, “In what ways is our curriculum a GeoDesign curriculum?” As always, that answer is dependent upon the faculty members who teach within and guide their own distinctive curricula.
P.S. Our Future Assessment Plan: During the remainder of this fall semester, we will use these outcomes as the centerpiece of a more comprehensive assessment plan. We need to determine some techniques or methods that provide useful information about how well (or not) students are succeeding at these broad-level outcomes. This will certainly lead to future blog posts on this topic. In the past we have relied heavily on the use of student projects and field presentations in our senior capstone courses, along with student reflective essays and cartographic/GIS products. We will likely continue down this path of emphasizing the use of student projects and presentations (direct evidence) while enhancing them with one or more additional measures such as student focus groups, exit interviews prior to graduation, and input from alumni (known as indirect evidence). These are some of our options, and common ones that are being employed at NAU and at many other institutions.