Digital Scholarship Comes of Age
New questions about credibility, modes, and readership
A growing array
"People are experiencing the world through multiple media. That may mean we need to think about different forms of scholarship."
"In terms of shaping scholarship, the technologist needs the scholar, and the scholar needs the technologist."
The Evidence of Transformation
Three faculty experiences of learning outcomes assessment
Knowledge and Application
Learning assessment in the Journalism Program
Learning to Follow the Butterfly
How dynamic learner outcomes helped me to be a better teacher
At the Heart of Learning
Assessing graduate student education in the biological sciences
When I started teaching, a little over four decades ago, I modeled myself on some of my best teachers. I lectured, tested, and assigned research papers that came in close to the end of the course. The sum of the student contributions, tests, quizzes, and term papers--plus some show of interest by asking questions in class or visiting me in my usually lonely office hours--was translated into a grade. That grade, I believed, as had my teachers before me, was the sufficient indicator of the transfer of knowledge from me to my students.
Over time, I came to doubt that certainty. After several decades in private and public university teaching, I began thinking about what we know as learner outcomes and assessment in spring 1994, when I joined the late Professor John Fenton in teaching a course in Comparative Sacred Texts. That fall, Professor Vernon Robbins joined the course, and Professor Laurie Patton joined in 1996, after Professor Fenton's death.
Our challenge was to construct and teach a course to Emory freshmen that compared the sacred texts of three, four, or sometimes five religious traditions, when, by their own admission, most of the students had only a partial grasp of the sacred texts of their own tradition or no tradition at all. "I don't have a religion; I believe in science," I remember one student saying.
In our first attempt, we taught the course "cafeteria" style with samples from each tradition, some discussion (usually in the form of answering the "I don't understand . . ."), questions, quizzes, and tests. It became clear that this approach was not working. Students kept each tradition in the separate compartments of the cafeteria tray we provided, and Judaism did not touch Hinduism or Islam. And the tests gave only a static picture of what the students were supposed to get from the course, much like pinning a butterfly to a matte when the object was to examine butterfly migration--that is, how to get out of the fact-based examination and find a way to teach and assess the dynamic act of comparison.
In order to get out of that static mode, we wanted to involve students with the faculty as a community of learners. This approach put us, as instructors, in the middle of the learning process. We decided to start with a tradition most familiar to the majority of Emory freshmen, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. We had ascertained that this was the most familiar by asking each student to write his or her own view of the creation of the universe using a set of descriptive tasks:
- Describe the sources of power that brought the created world into being.
- Explain the processes by which these sources of power caused things and beings to be.
- List the order in which things came into being in the created world.
- Describe the relation of humans to the sources of power and to other created things and beings. In other words, describe the order of the universe.
- Describe the higher and lower status (the hierarchy of things) in the universe.
We then had the students read the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis and write and post on LearnLink their descriptions of creation as set forth in those two chapters. Following this, we had the students read a Rabbinic description of creation that added many more details to the Genesis account and perform the same descriptive tasks. When they had done that, they then were asked to perform comparative tasks:
- Compare the sources of power in the religious tradition assigned for the day to the sources of power you identified in the tradition or traditions you explored previously in this unit on creation.
- Compare the processes by which sources of power caused things and beings to be in the religious tradition assigned for the day with the means you identified in the tradition or traditions you explored previously in this unit on creation.
- Compare the order in which things came into being in the religious tradition assigned for the day with the order you identified in the tradition or traditions you explored previously in this unit on creation.
- Compare the relation and hierarchy of things and beings in the universe the religious tradition assigned for the day to the relation and hierarchy you identified in the tradition or traditions you explored previously in this unit on creation.
We then followed this through Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, in that order, building on the comparisons, so that, in the end, the best of the students could compare across all of the traditions and across all of the course's topics: creation, end of the world, sacrifice, and religious practice.
We encouraged students to post their assignments on the class LearnLink conference (and rewarded them for doing so). This fostered self-assessment and group cooperative learning. Unit tests were, of course, held in confidence between the instructors and the students. Through this process, we could see that we were teaching the fundamentals of reading, careful analysis of source materials, and the use of textual details as evidence in presenting an argument. Additionally, the students found that they had a better picture of their performance at any given point in the course. Best of all, we knew what we wanted our students to take away from the course and whether we were helping them to that end. By concentrating on assessing the dynamics of learner outcomes, we found that we were more successful as teachers and more of our students lived up to our expectations.
As an extension of our experience with this class, the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies is using a similar learner outcome model in structuring our core major courses with good results and less trepidation about assessment in the upcoming SACS review.