Developing the Framework for Assessing a New Core Curriculum at Siena College

By Blasting, Ralph J. | Peer Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Developing the Framework for Assessing a New Core Curriculum at Siena College


Blasting, Ralph J., Peer Review


Siena College reveals the dirty secrets behind developing a campus-wide assessment plan, and asks "Are we alone?"

When the Peer Review editor asked for a contribution "illuminating the complexities" of campus assessment practices, I was both flattered and apprehensive. Though our team came away from the AAC&U 2009 Engaging Departments Institute with an elegant plan to integrate the assessment of general education with assessment in the major, a follow-up report in November would represent relatively small accomplishments given that it could cover only eight weeks of the fall semester. Our campus is just beginning to develop a culture of student outcomes assessment, and simultaneously grappling with revision of our core curriculum and the development of a new strategic plan. Somehow I couldn't help but recall Malvolio, the steward in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, who is captivated by a secret letter telling him that "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Encouraged by Peer Review, we herewith put on our yellow stockings and present ourselves to the court of academic opinion, hoping for better results than Malvolio's.

Siena College is an undergraduate, mainly residential, liberal arts institution of 3,000 students, situated on the northern boundary of Albany, New York. We were founded by seven Franciscan friars in 1937. Our Franciscan and Catholic tradition is at the core of our mission and planning documents - although it also engenders some of the most lively campus debates about what that actually means to our curriculum and policies. Our current president, Father Kevin Mullen, took office in July 2007; we hired a new director of assessment in fall 2008 and submitted a Middle States interim review in summer 2009. We began a fundamental review of our core curriculum in fall 2007, with a target completion date of spring 2009 and implementation for fall 2010. Presuming that a new core structure would be in place by July 2009, we applied for the Engaging Departments Institute with a team ready to draft a core assessment program at the conference. Two years ago, we had no plan for campuswide assessment of student outcomes, and few consistent programs in the majors. A new Assessment Planning Committee (APC) was formed in fall 2008, and our core review was not going particularly smoothly. The Engaging Departments Institute seemed like exactly what we would need to help us learn to create a culture of assessment within and among the academic major departments. This would be crucial to the success of the program, since academic departments have the most direct impact on students while retaining the greatest degree of autonomy. For better and worse, departmental faculty are acknowledged as the authoritative voice in the delivery and evaluation of the curriculum. While assessment expertise may vary widely among faculty and departments, the most successful programs are those that the faculty view as important and useful. Our team applied to the Engaging Departments Institute with the purpose of developing the framework for assessing our new core curriculum.

THE INSTITUTE

A priest, a dean, a teacher, and an art historian walk into the Alumni Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This may sound like the start of a bad joke, but one of our goals was to include a diverse team of participants at the institute: all of the team members hold some level of leadership on the campus. Not all are tenured; our assessment expertise varies widely; and none of us had been direcdy involved in revising the core curriculum. What we do share is an interest in practical, valid assessment practices that yield information useful to us and to our colleagues, and which can help our students to become more intentional learners. All of us teach core courses; each of our departments is committed to offering large numbers of core classes to all majors. As dean of liberal arts, I was deeply concerned about how the new core would manifest itself, as nearly half of the sections that I schedule every semester fulfill some aspect of the core. …

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