The latest report of a working group assessing student learning at Hamilton is shedding more light on the factors influencing students' choices of courses since distribution requirements were eliminated with the new curriculum in fall 2001.
Project Director Dan Chambliss, the Christian A. Johnson Excellence in Teaching Professor of Sociology, said the project's research has found that students rely heavily on professors' reputations when making course selections, suggesting they are making better use of social networks.
"The kids who are a little bit motivated, who make the effort to find the right professors, can have a great experience here, and have worlds of opportunity open to them," Chambliss said. "I like to say that they own the place."
The document is the third of five annual reports being submitted to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of the Hamilton Project for Assessment of Liberal Arts Education. The project is funded by a $610,000 grant from Mellon to assess student learning in a liberal arts setting. It was extended two years beyond its original three-year term to allow for the collection of additional data and further analysis of findings in hopes that the assessment project can become a model for other liberal arts colleges.
An earlier report confirmed one aspect of the Hamilton experience to which many alumni can attest ' the College's academic program enhances students' writing and oral communication skills. The authors of a 2000 Mellon report wrote, "The strength of Hamilton's training of students in writing came through clearly. It is a skill that is both broadly valued as a practical skill, and is clearly taught well at Hamilton." The 2000 report also found that both students and alumni believe "at every level that writing is important to their success and that Hamilton improved their writing."
Chambliss noted that the assessment project's latest research supports the 2000 report. In particular, Hamilton students showed significant improvement between their high school essays and their first-year papers. In addition, senior papers were superior to those written in the first year in several ways, including unified and coherent paragraphs, wise word choice and theme development.
Papers written by Hamilton students were evaluated using a system of "blind, objective grading" by outside evaluators who had no connection with the students or with their work. The evaluators were selected based on their experience teaching writing at the college level.
Students surveyed indicated several factors that improved their writing skills including the number of papers written, peer support and use of the Writing Center. Students praised faculty members who gave "voluminous feedback," citing comments on papers as the most beneficial response from professors.
Students still need to work on grammar, mechanical errors and spelling, Chambliss said.
The assessment project is also looking at how oral communication is taught at the College. Thus far, it has found that most student presentations were "organized and focused," and that students showed improvement in their presentation skills after their first year. While presentations by seniors were "generally better and more consistent in their quality than those of first-year students," presentations in the Sophomore Seminars (team-taught interdisciplinary courses that culminate with an integrative project and public presentation) were found to be "comparable to those of seniors in originality and thoroughness."
Chambliss points out the benefits of assessing the curriculum at the same time many new components are being developed and fine-tuned. "We had a special opportunity to design a new curriculum and then assess it as it was being implemented," he said. "Now we can modify certain aspects as we go along based on what students tell us is working or not working."
Another significant finding indicates that students' experiences in introductory courses have a major impact on their academic path -- students who "click" with a professor are much more likely to pursue additional coursework or a concentration in that field; students who have a poor experience tend not to take another course in that department.
"It's the most important time, when students are trying out different things," Chambliss said. "The intro course is a gateway, and it's important that the gate be open. It could be a case of a teacher not being good for a particular course. Sometimes it might be the case that the department uses visiting faculty to teach an intro course, someone who may only be here for a year. Well, it takes you at least a year to get to know the students, so you may have someone trying something new that doesn't work well. We pay a real cost for not making sure intro courses are top notch."
Another area of concern is the number of students steering away from math and science courses. Student enrollments across disciplines have remained unchanged with the introduction of the new curriculum, but this finding obscures the fact that science majors at Hamilton are taking more science courses, while non-science majors are likely to take fewer science courses or none at all.
"It's not a problem specific to Hamilton, it's a problem with secondary and higher education in the United States," Chambliss said.
Chambliss, who will spend the 2005-06 academic year working on a book about the assessment project findings, said his research has benefited from a willingness by the College's administrators to listen to findings about "the things that are working well, as well as the things that aren't. That's a courageous position. They deserve credit for that," he said.
-- Gary Frank
Go just about anywhere and you'll find someone talking on a cellphone or sending a text message. But how effective could the latest generation of these devices -- video cellphones -- be in communicating messages?
That's the question John Adams, visiting professor of communication, and Josh Huling '05 asked last summer. "We wanted to determine if video cellphones would be an effective mass communications tool," said Huling, a communication major. "Given the constraints of this relatively new medium in terms of its small screen size and low resolution, could we use it to send an effective message'"
Thanks to a grant from the Media Studies Summer Program at Vassar College, Huling set out armed with a video cellphone and worked with Adams to create 54 "vidblinks," 15-second videos that used everyday items such as stop signs, flower pots and ceiling fans to communicate a message within the theme of "war."
"Because we had such a short amount of time to communicate each message, we chose common objects and attached a meaning to them that would give people something to think about," Huling added.
One vidblink begins with a close-up of a gasoline can. The camera slowly pans out, ending with a voice asking, "How much blood does it take to fill your tank'" In another, a man appears to be shouting but with no audio to accompany him. The camera pans to a stop sign with the word "WAR" taped at the bottom. The voice is heard saying, "Can you hear me now' Good."
Adams and Huling e-mailed the vidblinks to 150 people and, with the help of Janet Simons, instructional technology specialist, created a survey for measuring the effectiveness of the messages. One interesting finding was the number of people who forwarded a vidblink to other people online. "Because sharing something sent electronically is so quick and easy, it was impossible for us to determine exactly how many people eventually received them [vidblinks]," Huling said.
In October, the two researchers traveled to Spain to present their project "Video Cellphones, War & Vidblinks: Exploring the Rhetorical Constraints of Time & Place" at the annual International Workshop on Presence at Polytechnic University of Valencia. Their findings will also be published in an upcoming edition of the webzine intelligent agent.