Using Results of Course-Embedded Assignments to “Close the Loop” (Psychology)

“Painless,” “organic,” “minimally invasive” – these might be some of the adjectives used to describe the annual assessment activities of the Department of Psychology. Their practices offer others a model of efficiency in assessment, while providing useful – and actionable – information about student learning at both course and program levels. 

Psychology faculty at the Pullman, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, and Global campuses worked collectively to define and endorse the program’s student learning outcomes, adapting goals identified by their professional association, the American Psychological Association. Once these learning outcomes were approved, as Director of Undergraduate Studies and Assessment Coordinator Dr. Dee Posey notes, faculty then created a clear program rubric which “included descriptors that articulated each learning goal at three different levels of mastery” (basic, developing, and advanced). The program refined this rubric over several cycles and now uses it to determine achievement levels of students entering and exiting the major. Each assessment cycle, this rubric can be modified to measure specific student learning outcomes, such as the requirement that students demonstrate the proper use of “descriptive and inferential statistics to ask and answer questions about physiological, behavioral, and mental processes.”

Next, Psychology faculty teaching undergraduate courses identified the particular student learning outcomes addressed in each of their classes, and specified appropriate levels of mastery that students enrolled in those courses should achieve. They mapped their curriculum in this manner. Activities like these allow for learning goals, outcomes, and measurements to develop organically over time and increase faculty participation and buy-in. Curriculum maps allow students and faculty to visualize the points (or courses) students are introduced to, practice, and demonstrate mastery of a program’s learning goals. Sequencing courses for the major is an important part of curriculum mapping; think of this activity as creating a scaffold on which students build their disciplinary skills and knowledge.

What’s distinctive about Psychology’s approach is how the department makes assessment manageable. Embedded assignments are crucial to the program’s assessment strategies. Faculty design assignments to target a particular student learning outcome, then use a brief “customized” rubric to assess student work just after grading it. Faculty members are expected to assess just ten papers (or other assignments) each. Using brief custom rubrics, in the words of Dr. Posey, made it possible for faculty to assess student learning “in a quick and efficient manner” while also maintaining “consistency in the evaluation criteria.”

Busy faculty members appreciate this approach. As Dr. Michael Morgan of the Vancouver campus remarks, “The part of the assessment I really like is that it is easy to do and takes very little time. Blackboard randomly selects 10 papers for the assessment. I grade the paper and then conduct the assessment. Dr. Posey makes it very easy by providing an online form that explains each learning objective. I simply select a score for each of the learning objectives. Dr. Posey distributes the work across a number of faculty and classes so there is no burden and the data provide a cross-section of our students’ abilities.”

Directly assessing student work in this manner is “minimally invasive” for students and faculty alike. It involves students and faculty members in the process of educational improvement. Further, using embedded assignments is eminently meaningful, as NILOA scholar George Kuh argues, “No standardized measurement tool generates better actionable data about what students know and can do than their performance on tasks that their teachers determine to be valid indicators of intended outcomes.”

This regular, sustainable assessment gives the department information about student strengths and weaknesses, showing where the curriculum is more effective and where it might benefit from changes. In this department, results of assessment are regularly shared with the chair and faculty for discussion and interpretation. For example, to “close the loop” – or use assessment results to improve student learning – the Psychology Department recognized a need to introduce scientific concepts earlier in a psychology major’s academic career. In response, the program developed a new sophomore-level course, “Psychology as a Science” (PSYCH 210). A data-informed decision, offering this new course also seemed a natural and reflects changes in the profession and discipline. The National Science Foundation recognizes Psychology as a STEM discipline. Greater emphasis on improving scientific literacy and student understanding of scientific methods in psychology showcases WSU’s commitment to educating students in current best practices.

This department’s assessment processes, developed by two faculty assessment coordinators with chair support over a period of seven years, continues to evolve to meet the needs of student learning and support curricular effectiveness. If you are interested in learning more about the assessment approach and practices used by WSU’s Psychology Department, please contact Dr. Dee Posey or an ATL assessment specialist.