by Dr. Keri Franklin
What Do Today’s Wildlife Biologists Need to Know?
Assessment for improvement is essential to the Biology Department. Conversations about student learning permeate hallway conversations. Through faculty conversations about student learning in the hallway, in department meetings, and an analysis of job advertisements in the field, faculty discovered a pattern—students in Wildlife Biology needed more exposure to Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The program decided to solve the problem by steering students in advising to take an existing Geography, Geology and Planning course. Advisors in Biology recommended students take GRY 363: Introduction to Geographic Information Science and GEO 561: Intermediate GIS. According to Department Head, Dr. Alicia Mathis, “The department learned that this training was important by reading job advertisements in the field, and we’ve been able to help our students get this experience in their coursework.”
Assessing the Impact of Changes to the Program
As the department implemented this change in advising, the department collected feedback from students during advising sessions and from alumni in the field. “Now, we are getting feedback from students that they find the courses to be of limited use because they focus on GIS in urban planning, particularly in the lab. Our students want to use it through a wildlife perspective. So, based on student feedback, does the department continue to ask students to take courses? Or do we develop a course for Wildlife GIS?”
Closing the Loop
The Biology Department, through feedback from students and alumni and from job advertisements, realized that students needed knowledge of geographic information systems. Based on that feedback, the department made specific suggestions during advising. The faculty continue to collect feedback from students about what they need in the field. Conversations about student learning also affect how a department chooses to use resources.
The conversations about student learning and the feedback from students were taken into consideration as the department reviewed applications for a search. “We are in search for a wildlife ecologist. One in particular has experience and wants to teach a course in Wildlife GIS.”
From collecting information about student learning through direct and indirect means and then making changes, taking action on assessment of student learning takes time and affects how a department utilizes resources. “This is three or four years of indirect and direct assessment of student learning.”
What the Department Learned
Through the Biology program’s assessment experience, Dr. Mathis provides the following advice:
“Communication is the key. Advisors have a captive audience. They should ask advisees questions about whether courses in the program are meeting their needs. Talking to recent alumni and advisory boards can also help you identify holes in your program. Faculty should talk to each other outside of faculty meetings. Ask if other faculty have heard similar comments from students or others. Keep up with the job market—what new skills are appearing in job ads?” Once a program or department identifies patterns related to student learning, Dr. Mathis encourages faculty to keep the Department Head in the loop. “He or she has the tools to initiate change, including assigning curricular committees to investigate whether changes are needed, making teaching reassignments, providing needed resources, for example, if different equipment is needed for labs, and making contacts with other departments if collaboration is needed.”
- One of the most active departments in terms of undergraduate and graduate research
- Largest department in the College of Natural and Applied Sciences
- 17 tenure-track faculty
- Approximately 700 majors
- Approximately 45 graduate students, nearly all of whom conduct thesis research
Keys to Success
- Commitment to preparing students for future careers by studying requirements in the discipline.
- Understanding what employers in the field are seeking by talking to alumni and advisory boards.
- Collaborating with other departments to utilize courses that may fulfill the needs of students.
- Talking about student learning informally and formally, and looking for patterns based on faculty observations and feedback from students about their learning.
Methods to Collect Evidence
- Faculty observations
- Review of job advertisements
- Advising sessions
- Feedback from alumni and advisory boards