Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Designing and Implementing Transparent Assessments in Doctoral Education

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Designing and Implementing Transparent Assessments in Doctoral Education

Article excerpt

The graduation rates for doctoral students continue to be a concern for higher education administrators, faculty, policy makers, graduate students, and funding agencies. A recent study confirms that only 56.6% of doctoral degree students at private and public colleges and universities in the United States complete their degrees within 10 years after they initially enrolled in their doctoral programs (Sowell, Zhang, Bell, & Redd, 2008). Each doctoral student represents a significant investment in terms of the amount of time that faculty spend supervising students' research and the amount of intellectual resources dedicated to helping students succeed. When doctoral students successfully graduate, they are likely to become contributors to their profession by building on their previous accomplishments and applying their expertise to help others. If doctoral students do not complete their degrees, then there is little or no return on investments (Council of Graduate Schools, 2006). Doctoral students also make substantial investments in their own future. Some students leave their jobs to enroll in college on a full-time basis and accept graduate assistantships while other students incur significant financial obligations and lose major opportunity costs while pursuing their degrees (Council of Graduate Schools, 2006).

External funding agencies such as the Woodrow Wilson Foundation have observed the significant challenges students face in doctoral education. In 2005, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation asserted that a major way to address some of these challenges is "an assessed excellence" (p. 8). The Foundation contends that the quality of a doctoral education in part depends upon the degree to which sustained assessments are conducted over time. Such assessments provide evidence of student learning and progress in relation to specific objectives that individual program faculty have articulated for their own students. In addition, the Foundation emphasizes that well-constructed assessments should continue each year rather than at the end of educational programs. Conducting a regular assessment helps faculty and students better understand or clarify initial goals, "seeks maximum feedback at every stage of the doctoral experience from all concerned, and evaluates outcomes unflinchingly and with expert understanding" (p. 9).

This view is supported with another national report released in 2006 by the United States Department of Education. This report, A test of leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education, called for colleges and universities to be more transparent about student success and the types of outcomes that college graduates actually achieve. The report noted that assessment of student learning can provide evidence of how well college students master important outcomes. Additional reports (such as Kuh & Ikenberry, 2009) stress the importance of assessing student learning in a systematic manner.

Assessing doctoral students in an ongoing and systematic manner is a genuine challenge. Golde and Walker (2006) note that doctoral student attrition in many departments remains a major issue as students often depart after they have completed all of their course work and find the dissertation to be an overwhelming challenge. De Valero (2001) found that many students work in isolation on their dissertations and rarely communicate with their advisors or committee members on a regular basis. Some students report being challenged by the lack of structure in the dissertation stage of their programs and report this factor as a major obstacle to completing their degrees (Tluczek, 1995; Mah, 1986).

The quality of training doctoral students receive in research through their courses and other learning experiences (such as research assistantships) affects "their ability to conduct their own research, the timely completion of their dissertation, and their preparedness for the rigors of faculty research and productivity" (Johnsrud & Banaria, 2004, p. …

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