The Biology Department at Western Washington University serves approximately 400 majors. At the beginning of their degree (Phase I), all students take a core set of 200-level Biology courses designed to introduce them to the breadth of biological subdisciplines. The three courses that make up these basic requirements are: Biol 204 – Introduction to Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity; Biol 205 – Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology; Biol 206 – Introduction to Organismal Biology. Each course has an associated lab which emphasizes content and laboratory techniques important to the discipline. Concurrent with these Biology courses, students also take a General Chemistry series. To advance as a Phase II Biology major, students must perform well in these core Biology and Chemistry courses.
After completion of the 200-level core courses, Phase II Biology majors continue with a set of 300-level core courses, and one 400-level course, designed to cover major biological subdisciplines in greater depth. These courses are: Biol 321 – Genetics; Biol 323 – Cell and Molecular Biology; Bio 325 – Ecology; and Biol 432 – Evolutionary Biology. Most of our majors also take Biol 340 – Biometrics, although some take a statistics course offered by the Mathematics Department. There are 300-level laboratory courses associated with these courses that many of our students take depending on their area of emphasis (see below). Thus, these breadth requirements build on the framework established in the 200-level courses with an increasing emphasis on science process skills, critical thinking, and analysis of the primary literature.
When students declare Biology as their major, they choose an area of emphasis which leads to depth requirements. These 300-level and 400-level courses are structured to cover specific biological topics in great detail. These courses place emphasis on deep content knowledge, the ability to think and act like a scientist, including designing and executing experiments, and written and oral communication.
Thus, an important aspect of the curriculum in the Biology Department is for the students to develop their cognitive abilities from knowledge acquisition and application to knowledge analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. It is expected that students can achieve the desired intellectual progress by learning more deeply about topics as they recursively return to and focus on topics through the curriculum. They further increase their analytical and evaluative skills by performing ever-more advanced scientific research as they progress from freshman through senior levels. They are also able to communicate scientific principles and conduct research in increasingly sophisticated ways, from simple lab papers to research papers, oral presentations, and scientific posters on independent research.
Program Assessment in the Biology Department is an on-going process that was initiated in the 2008-2009 academic year. At that time the faculty of the Biology Department worked together to develop Content and Process Goals [also known to as Program Outcomes (POs)] for Biology students. We expect our students to master these goals by the time they graduate from WWU. Learning Objectives [also known as Course Outcomes (COs)] were identified that support each Program Outcome, and faculty members worked together to determine which COs were met in specific courses. Only our core and breadth courses were assessed since most of our majors take these courses. Faculty members began including specific COs on their syllabi for each core and breadth course. In 2009-2010 faculty discipline groups determined the extent to which our courses address Course Outcomes (COs) using a ranking scheme based on whether a course strongly addressed a CO (rank of 3), moderately addressed a CO (rank of 2), or weakly addressed a CO (rank of 1). These rankings were used to determine the extent to which our classes are assessing each CO and the extent to which our students are meeting the COs. The results of this work are shown in the Map of Course Outcomes, and the results of the analysis are summarized below.
Program & Course Outcomes
We have identified the following learning goals for our students:
- Our students will understand and apply fundamental biological principles from the major areas of biology (ecology, genetics, evolution, cell and molecular biology, and organismal biology).
- Our students will acquire in-depth knowledge from the major areas of biology and be able to integrate principles from these areas.
- Our students will acquire laboratory and field skills necessary to answer biological questions.
- Our students will develop enhanced critical thinking skills.
- Our students will develop effective quantitative reasoning skills.
- Our students will communicate precisely and analytically in written and oral forms.
- Our students will engage independently and collaboratively in the scientific process.
2009-2010 Assessment Analysis
- All of the Program Outcomes are assessed in multiple core and breadth courses. All of our majors will further meet these outcomes in their 400-level specialty courses that they take for their emphases.
- All of the Biology course outcomes are assessed in one or more of the core and/or breadth courses. Most are assessed in several (3-7) courses. We expect that students will further master many, but not all, of the course outcomes in the specialty courses that they take for their emphasis.
- When considering all of the core and breadth courses, the level of mastery is fairly consistent over all of the POs. Approximately 35% of our students have mastered the POs at the “A” level, 30% at the “B” level, and 17% at the “C” level.
- When considering all of the core and breadth courses, there is variability in the level of mastery among the different COs.
- The content COs (CO1-CO10) tend to be mastered at a lower level than the skills/process COs (CO11-CO25). However, some of the higher COs are assessed by a small number of instructors so instructor variability could be playing a role in this.
- Students display a lower level of mastery of CO25 than any of the other COs. However, CO25 is not assessed to the same degree as most of the other COs. It is assessed in only a few courses, and within those courses instructors do not always assess it.
To close the loop: In Fall of 2010, we will discuss these findings at faculty meetings and determine if we need to modify content or how we assess students. We also need to examine our 400-level courses to determine if all students are obtaining higher level outcomes.