DCAL receives grant to assess departments

The Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning received $100,000 from the Teagle Foundation a philanthropic foundation dedicated to improving liberal arts education to help two departments develop clearly-defined outcomes for students to work toward in their major programs, according to English professor Thomas Luxon, director of DCAL.

DCAL collaborated with the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University in its grant application, and the two centers will receive a combined total of $200,000 over the next two years, Luxon said.

“I’m hoping departments will be able to make a short list of skills, attitudes and accomplishments that students can hope to develop as a philosophy or English or physics major,” Luxon said.

The assessment methods developed would not necessarily consist of a final exam, Luxon said. The DCAL brief submitted to Provost Carol Folt which received her approval called for a simple and sustainable method for departments to assess the achievements of graduating seniors by some means other than grades obtained in individual courses, he said. Luxon cited departmental prizes and honors theses as examples of assessments already in place.

“We really want to take existing structures and work with them,” Luxon said.

Due to the varying nature of the College’s various academic programs, each department will eventually develop its own plan for defining goals and assessing outcomes, according to Luxon. DCAL has requested that each department submits proposals, which are due May 2 and will be reviewed by a committee beginning May 13. DCAL will then work with two selected departments to develop pilot plans, Luxon said.

“It’s going to be kind of like a papal enclave,” he said. “We’ll get the department in a room for a couple of meetings and get them to carefully, articulately state what majors can hope to learn in their studies, and how they will demonstrate what they have achieved.”

Each department will have project leaders one of whom will be the department chair to assist their colleagues, according to Luxon. Faculty leaders will teach fewer courses due to their additional responsibilities, Luxon said.

Most of the upcoming work on the project is scheduled for the summer, according to the timeline included in the College’s proposal. Representatives of DCAL will meet regularly with faculty leaders during July and August, and Dartmouth will host a planning conference for Brown and Dartmouth faculty members in August, Luxon said.

During the final stages of the Teagle Foundation’s grant proposal process, Luxon approached faculty members from Brown University and offered to collaborate on the proposal, Luxon said.

“I wanted another institution that thinks of itself as a university-college devoted to undergraduate education, but also possessing graduate structures,” he said.

The grant is a part of the Teagle Foundation’s ongoing Outcomes and Assessments program, according to Annie Bezbatchenko, the Teagle Foundation’s program associate. The program seeks to help colleges and universities use the data they collect for external reporting to internally improve student learning outcomes, Bezbatchenko said.

The foundation adopts a “hands-off” approach towards its grantees, Bezbatchenko said.

“We’re trying to empower the institutions to do the work themselves, and we really trust them on these projects,” she said.

The lack of clarity regarding the skills and opportunities for growth offered in various majors can make it more difficult for students to “find their path” at the College, Luxon said. Because students are unaware where an area of study may lead them, they spend valuable time “being pulled in different directions” instead of pursuing specific goals, he said.

The grant will help encourage interdisciplinary collaborations because different departments offer a wide range of learning experiences at the College, Luxon said.

“Each department will have its own way of doing this,” he said. “There is no magic way.”

Like Dartmouth, Brown will use the money to develop courses that engage students in critical thinking and application, and to design assessments aligned with both individual course learning goals and departmental learning outcomes, Kathy Takayama, director of Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, said in an email to The Dartmouth. Because the grant is an investment, the Foundation requests both final reports and an annual report to ensure accountability, according to Bezbatchenkoz.

It is impossible to predict whether the grant will be renewed or enlarged, she said.

“Obviously if things go really well we like to work with our grantees again,” she said. “But we are in no way, shape or form committed to a second grant.”

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