Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Targeted Assessment of Students' Interdisciplinary Work: An Empirically Grounded Framework Proposed

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Targeted Assessment of Students' Interdisciplinary Work: An Empirically Grounded Framework Proposed

Article excerpt

The demand is clear. To thrive in contemporary knowledge societies, young people need not only to develop insights and modes of thinking that are informed by a variety of disciplines but also to integrate these forms of knowledge effectively--be it to develop a personal position about stem cell research, prepare for a career in intellectual property law, or understand global efforts to eradicate poverty. Interdisciplinarity is increasingly the hallmark of contemporary knowledge production and professional life. Preparing young people to engage in the major issues of our times requires that we nurture their ability to produce quality interdisciplinary work (Boix Mansilla et al., 2000; Boix Mansilla, 2005, 2006).

Colleges and universities increasingly offer "interdisciplinary" programs as markers of their capacity to prepare a new generation of thinkers and professionals (Lattuca, Voigt, & Fath, 2004). (1) Yet the rapid growth of these programs is accompanied by an often-warranted concern about the quality of learning taking place: What constitutes quality work when individual disciplinary standards are inappropriate or inadequate? Greater emphasis on evaluation and accountability across the academy (Astin, 1993; Banta, 2002; National Academies, 2005) accentuates the ambiguity surrounding quality assessment of interdisciplinary work. Faculty and programs remain ill-equipped to advance students' understanding of complex issues or to evaluate the impact of interdisciplinary programs on firm grounds, making interdisciplinary courses and programs vulnerable to reduction or closure (Schilling, 2001).

In this article we present a study of experienced faculties' beliefs about the assessment of interdisciplinary student work. Our results shed light on the qualities they associated with more and less accomplished interdisciplinary student work and on the particular assessment challenges posed by work at disciplinary crossroads. Building on an educational research tradition that favors the development of "usable knowledge" (Lageman, 2002), our findings are integrated into a framework designed to focus evaluators' attention on the key qualities of interdisciplinary work worth attending to in assessment. In what follows we begin by reviewing relevant literature on assessment and interdisciplinary learning in higher education. We proceed with a description of our study and introduce our framework for targeted assessment. In conclusion, we revisit the challenges and possibilities of more rigorous assessment and pedagogical support of interdisciplinary work.

Assessing Interdisciplinary Understanding

Since 1980, attention to assessment in higher education has been fueled by the recognition that insights into student progress and outcomes can inform direct instruction as well as programmatic improvement in teaching and curriculum (Astin, 1985; Ewell, 1984). More recently, concern about accountability (Ewell, 1991) has led to a growing array of quality measurement tools. Today, the field of assessment in higher education is characterized by its multiplicity of purposes (e.g., supporting learning, gate-keeping and certification, policy review), units of analysis (e.g., individual vs. groups, process vs. outcomes), approaches (e.g., performance based tasks, standardized tests), and stakeholders (e.g., faculty, students, the state).

Within this broad and often contentious landscape, our study focused on faculty's close analysis of student work produced in interdisciplinary courses, such as integrative final papers, written examinations, and capstone presentations. In other words, we focused on assessment practices geared primarily to eliciting, characterizing, and informing students' interdisciplinary understanding. Our study builds on the premise that assessment conducted with the aim of certification or program evaluation must stand on valid indicators of what counts and what does not count as accomplished student work--that is, indicators that have proven elusive in interdisciplinary education to date. …

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