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Pre-SoTL Institute

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Holly Ahern

Adirondack Community College, Queensbury, NY

Assignment #1: Introductions

1) Describe your teaching responsibilities and the type of student you

I am an Associate Professor at Adirondack Community College, which is a part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. The college is small and does not have a great deal of cultural diversity, but my students are an interesting mix of traditional and non-traditional college students, about half of whom will ultimately transfer to 4 year institutions. My primary teaching responsibility is Microbiology for science majors and health science (including veterinary) majors. The rest of my load consists of a non-majors biology lab science course, and may also include Genetics, Molecular Biology, and Organic and Biological Chemistry, which are taken mostly by transfer students.

2) Describe what you would like to take home as a result of attending
the institute

My main research interest is the role of assessment in learning - actually, I am intrigued by thoughts of what actually constitutes "learning" and how best to assess it. Assessment is also becoming a big concern for colleges within the SUNY system (and elsewhere apparently, since some of you seem to have similar interests!), so I hope that I might be able to contribute to the college's assessment efforts, as well as publish my findings.

3) Tell us about your interests outside of the classroom and a book that
you've read recently

Lately I'm finding myself wondering if there is an "outside" of the classroom, but when there is I am usually outside, and living near the Adirondacks and beautiful Lake George provides me with a huge playground. I am married, have two children, one in college and the other one on her way in the fall (ouch), two cats, and a horse.

Geek that I am, I enjoy reading and writing about science and history, particularly when they merge. I recently finished "Ship Fever" by Andrea Barrett. I also love to read anything by Robert Parker, Lincoln Child (with or without Douglas Preston), and Rita Mae Brown (the animals tell her stories).

Assignment #2 Reflections

1) How would you describe your “research problem(s)” to the Research Scholars group?

Of greatest interest to me at the moment is the problem of student assessment. Over the course of several years during which I have changed my teaching methods and attempted several different means of assessment, I have noted very little deviation in overall class averages; most classes, in fact, conform to a standard statistical “bell curve.”This observation raises several potential research problems, not the least of which is what differentiates the students at the top of the curve to those near the bottom. Currently I feel that it is a combination of factors, which I have divided into two groups: student factors and teaching factors. In my classes, student factors appear to include both innate abilities (such as reading comprehension skills) and external factors (family, jobs, etc.). I have noted that student commitment to learning (as evidenced by class attendance, participation, and interest) is proportional to student grades as well. Of interest (and perhaps concern) to me is that the literature I’ve been reading does not seem to differentiate among learners in general, treating them as a collective whole

On the other side are the teaching factors. One of those factors is the assessment instruments used to measure learning. Because the observed bell curve appears to be consistent across semesters (which for me includes spring, fall, and two summer sessions) I have to question if my assessments of student learning are truly authentic, or if they reflect some inherent bias on my part.

Thus I would like to try to develop an assessment instrument that (1) is directly related to the learning objective that I value most (after consideration of exactly what that will be), (2) provides a measurable outcome that can also be used to satisfy college, university system, and accreditation requirements of course, and (3) is an authentic assessment of student learning.

2)What theme(s) based on your readings, resonate with your “problem” and/or your proposed approach to address your problem?

What resonated most for me in the reading assignment was Randy Bass’ discussion of his journey from a teacher with questions to a researcher investigating a set of problems. I particularly liked the idea of breaking down the teaching factors influencing grades into a series of smaller problems, that can investigated over time, in a scientific way with measurable outcomes that can be used for objective analysis. I have concerns that this type of research, like grades, might be subject to inherent bias on the part of the investigator, since I will actually be investigating me!

3) Which of the 12 properties of SoTL in microbiology education proposed by S. Benson’s article are particularly relevant to your project at this stage?

Finally, at this stage, I believe that Benson’s 1st, 4th, 8th, and 12th properties are particularly relevant to my project.

4) Do you have any questions/concerns/comments that have evolved from your reading?

5) What do you see as tangible products to be developed as a result of your Scholars experience within the next 12 months?

As my “product,” I would like to have developed an authentic assessment “product” that can also be used to satisfy college, university system, and accreditation requirements, that could be presented at AMSCUE.

6) What do you see yourself presenting at the follow-up session at ASMCUE 2009?

7) What will you need to develop these products?

I believe that I will need some guidance in this area, particular the methods used to conduct this type of research objectively.

Assignment #3 Annotations

Although there were many articles dealing with my research interest (assessment), very few were related to assessment of science courses and even fewer regarding the assessment of community college students. The following articles, however, did provide some very interesting insights.

  1. McDowell, L., Smailes, J., Sambell, K., Sambell, A., and Delia Wakelin (2008) Evaluating assessment strategies through collaborative evidence-based practice: Can one tool fit all? Innovations in Education and Teaching International

45(2): 143-153.

This article reports on a project undertaken by faculty in three different academic areas in which an “action research approach” was used to gather data with an existing data collection tool, which was then analyzed in a collaborative manner (one of the academic areas was Psychology). The team used an existing instrument (the AEQ) administered to students who essentially assessed the assessment practices in individual classes. The net result was that one assessment tool does not fit all but is context-driven. It was also interesting from the perspective of steps taken toward moving (perhaps less than enthusiastic) university faculty away from traditional and toward formative approaches to assessment.

  1. Ebert-May, D., Batzli, J., and Lim, H. (2003) Disciplinary research strategies for assessment of learning. BioScience 53(12): 1221-1228.

A science research approach to assess students’ understanding of a core topic in biology (the carbon cycle) was discussed in this article. In addition to providing a detailed methodology, the authors also put out a “charge” to other scientists in education to rethink traditional assessment approaches and to conduct their own classroom based research (in strong support of SoTL).

Interesting, their research was funded (in part) by grants from the NSF and HHMI, also supporting the concept of teaching and learning as a scholarly pursuit.

  1. Payne, S.L., Flynn, J., and Whitfield, J.M. (2008) Capstone business course

assessment: exploring student readiness perspectives. Journal of Education for Business Jan/Feb: 141-146.

This was one of several articles I found regarding assessment in business, which was an interesting finding in and of itself. The researchers were concerned primarily with student readiness for a capstone business course, and used what they termed a feed-forward approach, in which the retention of basic core principles by students in pre-requisite course was studied. Students in those courses were tested at the time a core principle was presented, and then again at the end of the course. They found that in general there was a significant lack of knowledge retention of the foundation principles necessary for success in a capstone course. This is of particular interest to me because I assume prior knowledge (from pre-req courses) of concepts such as metabolism and genetics when I teach Microbiology, and those are typically the areas in which student averages on tests are the lowest. This is an experiment I would like to repeat with my own students.

  1. Wilson, M. and Scalise, K. (2006) Assessment to improve learning in higher

education: The BEAR assessment system. Higher Education 52: 635-663.

The BEAR system was developed by the Berkeley Evaluation and Assessment Research Center and was designed as a comprehensive, integrated system for assessing, interpreting, monitoring, and responding to student performance. The system relies on the use of “embedded” assessments and discusses the concept of formative assessment, which took me off to search the term formative assessment. There is a preponderance of articles (which I have not included in this bibliography) that collectively indicate that formative assessment instruments enhance student learning and are clearly superior to summative assessment tools. Since I already use both summative and formative assessments in my microbiology class, I started to think about my own “data” in this area, which indicates that students consistently achieve lower “grades” on summative assessments (ie lecture exams), and get higher “grades” on projects that are evaluated using rubrics (a type of formative assessment).But, which is an authentic measurement of student understanding? Are students truly gaining a deeper understanding of microbiology, as indicated by the results of the formative assessment tool, or is there an inherent bias in the way such projects are assessed, resulting simply in higher grades? How do I “assess”


  1. Smith, Gary (2007) How does student performance on formative assessment relate to learning assessed by exams? July/Aug: 28-34.

This was my “capstone” article – an analysis of formative and summative assessment strategies in two undergraduate geoscience courses. Grades from formative assessment projects were correlated with grades on “infrequent” exams and relationships were found, although conclusions were considered tentative because there were no control groups or efforts to limit external variables.

The data presented in this article mirrored my own informal observations, and will form the basis of my research.

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