Supporting Student Success in a Capstone Course (School of Molecular Biosciences)

In which areas do students tend to succeed when doing senior capstone projects and in which areas do they struggle? How can we support their preparation for senior level coursework? These are some of the questions faculty in the School of Molecular Biosciences (SMB) sought to answer with a program assessment project over the last year. The results have helped target their efforts to support student success. 

Using adapted AAC&U VALUE rubrics, a group of four faculty from the SMB Undergraduate Studies Committee assessed a sample of papers from the MBioS 494 capstone course. The rubric, with a 4-point scale, provided criteria for student performance on SMB program learning outcomes, including written communication, information literacy, and students’ ability to identify modern knowledge underlying the SMB majors (Biochemistry, Genetics and Cell Biology, and Microbiology).

The faculty group also collected academic data for students whose papers were scored.  They discovered that MBioS 494 paper performance did not correlate with English 101 grades, WSU writing portfolio assessment, or GER/UCORE writing/communication course performance.  Instead, it correlated with grades in science courses, such as Biology 107 and Chemistry 345.  The Committee concluded that students who start the program with a strong academic foundation do well on the capstone paper, while students who struggle throughout the curriculum do not appear to improve over the course of their educational experience in regard to the capstone assignment’s learning outcomes.  This latter group of students needs more engagement and practice of skills that the School expects them to master by graduation.

In response, the SMB UG Studies Committee developed a new 200 -level course related to Scientific Communication with the goal to better prepare students for reading primary literature and writing and communicating in the discipline. With the approval of a UCORE [COMM] designation and approval by Faculty Senate they expect to offer the course for the first time in Fall 2016 or Spring 2017.  They will provide a limited number of seats initially for pre-majors and use matched cohorts of students who take the new course or don’t take the new course to see how their performance in MBioS 494 and other junior/senior MBioS courses is impacted. The results can help them iterate and refine the course and might uncover other potential strategies to support struggling students.

For help with capstone assessment or using rubrics, contact an ATL assessment specialist.