Friday, June 3, 2011

Assess this!

All day meeting earlier this week at school on assessing online courses.  The college is discussing using a rubric called Quality Matters.  Since I've been teaching online courses for at least a decade now, I'm usually included in such discussions.

One of the side discussions was about assessing course learning objectives.  Assessment is a big issue now on many college campuses - especially those embedded within a statewide system like we are (SUNY).  Don't even get me started on it - a lot of this push is politically motivated by people who don't know shit about higher education.  Those of us teaching at the college level look at how well micromanaged assessment has done for secondary education and despise the concept ("No Child Left Behind" - some should have been!).

My problem with assessing course learning objectives is that we're often focused on the wrong thing.  Let me give a concrete example.  I teach a 101-level Earth Science course called Earth's Atmosphere & Oceans.  The course covers, in a basic way, meteorology, climatology, and physical oceanography.  It's a three-credit course, no lab, for non-science majors.  Since it satisifies a requirement for a natural science general education course in the SUNY system, it's often the only science course many students will ever take in their four-years of college.

One important topic covered in this course is the concept of adiabatic heating and cooling.  Adiabatic heating and cooling refers to temperature change that results only from pressure change.  It's why a parcel of rising air will cool - pressure decreases with altitude.  This is important in meteorology because once the rising air cools to its dew point temperature (the temperature at which it has 100% relative humidity and is saturated), water vapor will begin to condense into water droplets forming clouds and eventually precipitation.

I want students to understand this concept.  It's in the textbook, I lecture on it, give examples, have students work on an assignment calculating values of adiabatic cooling given lapse rates (e.g. 5° C / km), and test them on it.  I can put this down as an assessed learning objective.

But, when the course is over, is this what I want students to carry with them through the rest of their college career?  Emphatically no!  They will never use this again if they are, for example, an English or art major.  Then why teach it?  Why have an English or art major even take a basic science course?  (we'll ignore the fact that there are some writers or artists very interested in science).

What do I think is the most important learning objective for the course?  It's this - I want my students to gain a basic understanding and appreciation of science as a way of investigating the natural world.  In all of my science courses, I always spend a little time talking about what distinguishes science from pseudoscience and why science is important.

Some of the issues discussed in the course affect all of our lives - severe weather, global climate change, air pollution, etc.  When discussing climate change, for example, I want students to know scientific issues aren't settled by clever rhetoric (which is how it's presented in the mass media and political arena).  There's DATA.  Scientists can measure past ocean temperatures by looking at oxygen isotopes of foraminifera buried in seafloor sediments.  Scientists can core marshes on the edge of the Hudson and look at pollen buried in the muck thousands of years ago to obtain information on past climates.  We've been directly measuring carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere for over half a century now.  There are a lot of things about atmospheric chemistry we DO understand.

Bottom line is that humans are altering the chemical composition of our atmosphere and contributing to climate change.  It's a fact despite some people's willingness to stick their heads in the sand for ideological reasons (or simple greed).   It's not just an opinion, there's a lot of science behind it.  That's what I want students to take away.  Scientists don't just say the Earth is 4.6 billion years old or carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere or continents move around over the surface of the Earth for the hell of it.  There's abundant data to support these ideas.  These processes, whenever possible, are described by mathematical equations.

Science is a way of looking at the natural world that WORKS.  Just about every culture at one time explained that massive, dangerous storms formed because some god or goddess was angry.  These explanations were wrong.  There are no angry gods and goddesses sending tornadoes into Joplin, MO or Springfield, MA.  It starts with adiabatic cooling and cumulonimbus cloud formation.  All described by the science of meteorology.

So I could put as a course learning objective that I want my students to gain an understanding of what science is and how it works and to gain an appreciation for it.  But then I'd be criticized since I can't easily assess such a learning outcome with a simple assignment or exam.  Well fuck it.  I'm not teaching students how to bake a cake or repair a car.  I'm teaching them to think.  Something I wish the morons in state-wide educational administration would learn someday.


  1. So at the end of the day, have you been successful at teaching students to think and use the scientific method?

  2. All I can do is try. Learning is a two-way street.