the evidence of transformation


At the Heart of Learning

Assessing graduate student education in the biological sciences

Keith Wilkinson, director, graduate division of biological and biomedical sciences, and professor of biochemistry

Knowledge and Application
Learning assessment in the Journalism Program

Sheila Tefft, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Program Director, 2000-2009

Learning to Follow the Butterfly
How dynamic learner outcomes helped me to be a better teacher

Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies

Vol. 12 No.1
Oct.Nov 2009

Return to Contents

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


Preparation for the upcoming SACS accreditation process has presented us at Emory with the opportunity to formalize our assessment of educational strategies. As director of the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS), I have recently become more educated myself, this time in the formalities of learning assessment. This exposure to methods of assessment has revealed that we already do most of what is necessary, albeit in a rather reflexive and less-than-systematic way. We are now being asked to examine our assessment processes and to make them more formal and standardized.

At the heart of learning assessment are three questions: What do we want our students to learn? How do we determine whether our students are learning? Can we recognize and respond to shortcomings in our educational methods? A number of direct and indirect methods of evaluation go into answering these questions.

In the GDBBS we have defined several learning goals. We hope that all graduates will be able to

  • critically evaluate scholarship and research in their field,
  • formulate and prepare research proposals for funding,
  • conduct independent research using methods appropriate to the field or discipline, and
  • communicate the results, findings, or new interpretations of their scholarly work to peers, students, and the general public.

To assess progress toward these learning goals we use a number of exercises and assessment tools that each address one or more of the goals. No one measure is definitive, and several address the overall achievements of the students.

  • Communication skills are vital to the success of any professional. Our students have many opportunities to hone those skills, and we often evaluate their presentations by soliciting written audience feedback and faculty comments. Students gain experience in communication by presenting published research papers in the first year, continuing journal club presentations in their chosen fields, and presenting their own research as more senior students.

  • In addition, written grant proposals are part of many courses in the GDBBS, and every student takes a lead role in writing their research publications, giving their advisor an opportunity to help hone their logic and language.

  • Teaching is also a form of communication, although to become accomplished one needs training and additional aptitude and skills. All graduate students at Emory must teach, and both their teaching supervisors and students offer observations and suggestions. Many other opportunities to “teach” arise in mentoring undergraduates and junior graduate students, as well as in presentations at laboratory meetings and scientific meetings. The best teachers seek out additional teaching activities, and these can be important for those seeking jobs in teaching.

  • Research accomplishments are measured in several ways, including grades in dissertation research, qualifying examinations incorporating a research proposal, regular dissertation committee meetings, the oral defense of the thesis, and publications in scholarly journals.

  • Finally, a measure of overall success is afforded by the placement and career advancement of a student after leaving Emory. We look for the quality of the postdoctoral experience that most students undertake upon graduation, the record of continued employment is some aspect of the sciences, and the level of appointment held by the students five, ten, and fifteen years after graduation.

In spite of this rather lengthy inventory of assessment tools, most graduate programs lack consistency in the application of these tools and carry out only cursory global comparisons of all students. This makes it difficult to identify common mistakes in our approaches and prevents us from gaining a larger picture of how our efforts succeed or fail. Nonetheless, the potential of most students is broadly recognizable by the time they graduate. External measures of post-graduate success include the student’s publication history, the quality of their initial placement, and the nature of their eventual career trajectory.

Our response to the results of these evaluations is as crucial to the process as the evaluations themselves. Our curriculum is routinely altered as shortcomings are identified. For instance, we have begun to provide more formalized training in grant writing, have sought to place students in the laboratory more quickly in response to lengthening “time-to-degree” statistics, and have greatly amplified our coverage of non-academic careers for our students.

These moves seem to pay off. Nearly a fifth of our students submit fellowship applications every year, and the success rate for funding these applications is 50 percent, higher than the national norm of about one third. Similarly, the expanded coverage of non-academic careers has challenged some of our faculty to rethink the definition of a “good” placement; no longer is a career in the professoriate the only quality outcome.

But ultimately, and perhaps in spite of whatever we do in formal classwork and evaluation, there are three traits that seem to correlate with success: aptitude, curiosity, and hard work. These qualities can be groomed and nurtured but probably not taught. Perhaps we should consider modifying the admission and evaluation processes to take this into account. If we could learn how to assess these traits, we could admit more students with a high probability to succeed. If we focus our energies on nurturing these critical traits, then we will have optimized the education we provide.