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ACM Voices-Spring 2014

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In the Spring 2014 issue of ACM Notes

Going Beyond "Awesome" in Assessing Student Learning

Guest columnists: Joan Gillespie, Elizabeth Ciner, and David Schodt

Elizabeth Ciner, David Schodt, Joan Gillespie

Joan Gillespie (right) is ACM Vice President & Director of Off-Campus Study Programs.

Elizabeth Ciner and David Schodt are ACM Senior Program Officers for Faculty & Staff Development Programs.


"It changed my life – it was awesome!"

Those are sweet words to hear from a student returning from studying off-campus, but …

The ACM colleges put a lot of resources into making study away opportunities available for their students. At ACM, we pride ourselves on offering programs with a distinctively liberal arts perspective, with academics and cultural immersion – and the vital connections between them – front and center.

Are we succeeding? How can we find out what our students are learning, and use that knowledge to improve our programs? Can we get beyond "awesome" to student learning assessment that is actionable?

Students in Costa Rica

ACM students and staff in San José, Costa Rica.

For the past year, ACM has been engaged in a pilot project called Learning from Study Away, or LSA, to try to develop assessment tools for our consortial off-campus programs that can help us answer these questions.

Along the way, we've been learning some lessons about assessment ourselves, such as:

  • From day one, bring stakeholders together to collaborate on assessment;
  • Embed the assessment within a program’s learning goals and activities;
  • Design the assessment to be a guide for making changes in the program; and
  • Make assessment a process that is ongoing, iterative, and focused on improving the program and student learning.

LSA has been built through a collaboration of stakeholders, with program faculty and staff playing key roles in every step of the process. For example, one of the assessment tools we're developing has roots in the Chicago Program's "scavenger hunt" activity, a long-time staple of that program's first day orientation, and we've gained valuable insights from Beloit College Director of Off-Campus Study Betsy Brewer and her project to encourage students to be more reflective about their education away from campus.

Read more about ACM's Learning from Study Away project

Our pilot assessment tools include two types of assignments for the students to complete – reflections before and after the program, and a neighborhood walk done at the beginning of the program and then repeated in the final week. The reflections and walks are later scored, using rubrics designed to measure the student's intercultural awareness and growth during the program.

We put the assessment exercises in place last fall at four program locations with on-site directors and staff – Costa Rica, Chicago, Florence, and India. In March, faculty advisors to those programs joined program staff, consortial staff, and other interested ACM faculty at sessions in which they applied the LSA rubrics to the students' reflections and neighborhood walk assignments from the fall 2013 semester.

Already, LSA is putting a spotlight on the value of embedding the assessment in program learning goals and activities. An important question which the neighborhood walk helps us answer has to do with "transfer." Can students take what they learn in one situation, such as the classroom, and apply it to novel situations in other parts of their lives? Correspondingly, can they take what they are experiencing outside the classroom and use that knowledge to inform their academic understanding?

Chicago Program students

Students exploring the Wicker Park neighborhood on the Chicago Program's scavenger hunt.

Being able to do this is the gold standard of learning, and our assessment has begun to show us the extent to which this is happening and suggest how to make it happen more frequently. For example, as a result of LSA, program staff are exploring ways in their teaching to more explicitly identify connections between the academic and experiential components of their programs – how does a reading about a city's architectural development inform a field trip to a historic district, and vice versa – and then to prompt their students to make those connections themselves.

Based on this year's experience, faculty at our four pilot sites want to explore possibilities for wrapping these reflections and assignments into a course, to even more firmly embed the assessment in the curriculum.

Reading the students' reflections gave faculty advisors from our campuses a wealth of detail about the students' experiences on the programs, and sparked constructive discussions about pedagogy and student learning.

Looking ahead, we see this assessment project as a work in progress on every level, from tweaking the prompts for the assignments to refining the scoring rubrics to scaling up the project to cover more programs.

For example, we also have program sites – such as in Botswana, Tanzania, Jordan, and London – where the directors are visiting faculty from ACM colleges who are with the program for a single semester. Can we adapt the LSA assessment model to serve those programs, faculty, and students, as well?

That's one of the questions we’ll explore at the 2014 Program Directors and Visiting Faculty Conference on June 16-18. Once again, we'll be drawing on the collaborative efforts of our program staff, visiting faculty for the coming academic year, and other colleagues from the campuses to help us and our students. It's a prospect we can only describe with one word. Awesome!

<Return to the Spring 2014 ACM Notes>


This column was written for the Spring 2014 issue of the ACM Notes newsletter for faculty and administrators.

Copyright 2014