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Hamilton Assessing Student Learning

Interim Report: Academic Program Improves Students' Communication Skills

By Mike Debraggio
Posted November 19, 2003
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The interim report of a working group assessing student learning at Hamilton College has found significant improvement in students' writing, one of the college's curricular points of emphasis.

Preliminary findings also indicate that the college's academic program enhances students' oral communication skills.
 
The report was submitted in September to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which is providing Hamilton with $330,000 over three years to assess student learning in a liberal arts setting. It is hoped that the assessment project at Hamilton can become a model for other liberal arts colleges.
 
"With support from the Mellon Foundation, Hamilton has taken a lead role in assessing student learning," said Project Director Dan Chambliss, the Christian A. Johnson Excellence in Teaching Professor of Sociology at Hamilton. "Our findings validate claims that the college teaches students to communicate well. We also identified other areas in which the college excels and some areas needing improvement. Ultimately, we expect the assessment methods being developed as part of this study can be replicated by other colleges interested in measuring student learning."
 
The study coincided with the fall 2001 implementation of a new curriculum at Hamilton.
 
"We had a special opportunity to design a new curriculum and then assess it as it was being implemented," said Chambliss. "Now we can modify certain aspects of the curricular program based on what students tell us is working or not working."
 
Student writing is one area that is working especially well, Chambliss said.

"In all sources we consulted," the authors of an earlier (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. Our students and alumni believe at every level that ... writing is important to their success and that Hamilton improved the quality of their writing."

"Using a variety of measures we found that student writing at Hamilton makes definite gains over time, in nearly all areas," according to the 2003 report. "In particular, we found significant improvement for Hamilton students between their high school essays and their first-year papers. In addition, we found that senior papers were superior to those written in the first year in several ways, including unified and coherent paragraphs, choosing words wisely, and developing a coherent theme."

Students still need to work on grammar, mechanical errors and misspellings.

Papers written by Hamilton students were evaluated using "a system of objective, 'blind' grading by outside evaluators who had no connection with the students or with their work." The evaluators were selected based on their "previous experience teaching writing in college programs and their known personal and professional commitment to college writing and writing programs."

In addition, as part of focus groups, students were asked about writing instruction at Hamilton.

"In interviews, students expressed the belief that feedback from professors was the most important factor in improved writing, followed by the peer tutoring program of the Hamilton Writing Center (http://www.hamilton.edu/academics/resource/wc/), the ability to rewrite a paper for a better grade, the quantity of papers assigned in a class, and, finally, informal peer feedback."

The success of the college's writing program was also cited earlier this year in a survey of college presidents, provosts and deans. According to U.S. News & Work Report, which conducted the study, Hamilton was one of only 13 U.S. colleges and universities singled out for making "the writing process a priority at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum."

The Mellon Assessment study also looked at how oral communication is taught at the college.

"Our analysis of student presentations found that most were organized and focused," said the report's authors. "We also found that presentations by seniors were generally both more improved and more consistent in their quality than those of first-year students. On the other hand, we found that the presentations by sophomores in the sophomore seminars were comparable to those of seniors in originality and thoroughness, suggesting that the new curriculum may be helping to improve students' oral communication skills."

The assessment was based on 60 student presentations made during the 2002-03 academic year. Members of the working group recommended further data collection and analysis to more fully assess the impact of a Hamilton education on students' oral proficiencies.

The study also pointed to areas needing improvement at the college. Although a majority of first-year students "are satisfied with the advising system as a whole," the report concluded too many students said their advisors did not know them well, and that they often "relied upon other professors, usually those that they have had in class, for advice and information."

The Sophomore Seminar program (team-taught interdisciplinary courses that culminate with an integrative project with a public presentation) and proseminars (small enrollment courses that emphasize writing, speaking and discussion) are also in need of fine-tuning, according to the report. In response, faculty members offering sophomore seminars are working to maximize the benefits of team-teaching by emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

"This ambitious program is unique in that it requires both faculty members and students to go beyond the standard course formats to provide a multidisciplinary experience," said Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty David Paris. "The benefits for students' critical thinking, writing and presentation skills are significant."

Finally, students were asked about the social life at the college. Using surveys conducted over the past decade, and new data collected in recent years, the report's authors concluded that student satisfaction with the college's social life declined in the years (1995-1998) immediately following the Residential Life decision that closed fraternity houses, but "[s]ince 1998 ... satisfaction with Hamilton's social life has increased steadily so that it is now at the same level as it was before the Residential Life decision."

"This finding is significant," Chambliss said, "especially in light of the growing expectations of today's college-age population.

The report also noted that since student satisfaction at Hamilton is about the same as in 1995, and since the percent of students saying they would choose Hamilton again is higher than it was in 1995, then "students have a more positive overall assessment of Hamilton, not just of its social life." According to the report, students "like more things about Hamilton now than they did in the past."

Hamilton is currently in the third and final year of the Mellon-funded Assessment Project, although the college is looking to extend the study for another two years.

"We are gathering some extremely useful data at the same time that we are refining our methodology," said Chambliss. "A five-year study will enable us to collect more data and analyze it further, greatly extending the validity of our findings."

In addition to Chambliss, members of the Mellon Foundation Assessment Project Working Group include Jennifer Borton, assistant professor of psychology; Theodore Eismeier, professor of government; Ann Frechette, Luce Junior Professor of Asian Studies and assistant professor of anthropology; James Helmer, lecturer in oral communication; Elizabeth Jensen, professor of economics; Philip Klinkner, James S. Sherman Associate Professor of Government; Ann Owen, associate professor of economics; and Sharon Williams, director of the Writing Center.

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