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Assessing Credit Courses with Signature Assignments

Lyda Fontes McCartin
Lyda Fontes McCartin, Professor, Head of Information Literacy & Undergraduate Support, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado, USA

In 2014, my library Curriculum Committee started work on developing new student learning outcomes for our 100-level LIB courses. We teach five distinct credit courses; four are 100-level courses and one is a 200-level course. The learning outcomes had not been revisited in years and we had added new courses since that time. With the debut of the Framework, we took the opportunity to update our learning outcomes. It was at this time we began considering all of our 100-level courses as one “program.” An overview of the process we used to create the outcomes is provided in a C&RL News article titled “Be critical, but be flexible: Using the Framework to facilitate student learning outcome development.” The 100-level student learning outcomes are:

  1. Students will be able to develop a research process
  2. Students will be able to implement effective search strategies
  3. Students will be able to evaluate information
  4. Students will be able to develop an argument supported by evidence

Since 2015, I’ve been guiding the library Curriculum Committee through the creation of signature assignments to assess our credit courses so that we can look at student learning across 100-level sections. A signature assignment is a course-embedded assignment, activity, project, or exam that is collaboratively created by faculty to collect evidence for a specific learning outcome. Most of the time you hear about signature assignments in relation to program level assessment, but they can also be used to assess at the course level and are especially useful if you want to assess a course that has many sections taught by multiple instructors (hint – this model can be used for one-shot instruction as well).

I like signature assignments because they create consistency in program assessment; regardless of who is teaching a course in any given semester, the assessment is the same. This means that data collection and analysis becomes more systematic, allowing for the use of samples of work so that the assessment can be done more quickly. I also like using signature assignments to get a sense of how students are reacting to different pedagogical techniques. The Curriculum Committee members unanimously decided not to anonymize assessment data so that if students in a certain section were doing far better than others we could discuss how the content was being taught differently. This could lead to improving teaching of content and help in making some curricular decisions. Also, with signature assignments assessment is embedded and systematic, allowing us to look over time at how students are achieving the SLOs.

When I first brought up the idea of signature assignments to the Committee there was some concern about academic freedom and potentially stifling creativity in the classroom. Valid concerns. I reassured them that, while they would implement these assessments in their course, how they wanted to teach the content was still entirely up to them. If they wanted to develop other, formative, assessments for the outcomes, they certainly could. What was important was being able to collect data from the signature assignments to assess learning across the courses. Faculty could also choose to remove the summative assignments from the final course grade (no one has chosen to do that). I also assured them that we would create the signature assignments collaboratively, so everyone would have a voice in how we were assessing student learning. This proved to be crucial in getting buy-in from the committee.

Creating Assignments

We’ve been developing our signature assignments since 2015. We have two signature assignments completed (SLO 1 and SLO 3) and are developing the signature assignments for SLO 2 and SLO 4 this year. This is the process I recommend for creating a signature assignment:

  • Take each student learning outcome separately
    • You want to create an assignment, pilot that assignment, and then revise. Your group can be working on different SLOs during the pilot, but for us it got confusing and it was easier to focus on one at a time.
  • Brainstorm and discuss current assessment practice for the SLO
    • It’s important to consider what you are already doing. If there is an assignment that works well, there is no need to create something new. Just be sure to include your whole team in this decision and in any revisions.
  • Everyone draft (or revise) an assignment for the SLO and present to the group
    • Signature assignments are collaboratively designed – this is key! One way to involve everyone is to have each person create or revise an assignment. Also consider pairing people so the process is a collaboration from start to finish.
    • In our work, each person brought an assignment to the table and the group picked the best one. Sometimes this included taking pieces from two or three different assignments to create the one we liked.
  • Collaboratively edit the assignment
    • Collaboration is essential!
  • Pilot the assignment
    • The pilot will help you revise for clarity and ensure that your assignment aligns with the SLO. This is also a time to make sure the assignment makes sense to the students. Ask them what they think about assignment and involve them in discussions during the pilot semester. I recommend piloting before you consider how you will apply a rubric or other type of analysis.
  • Review the data and create a data analysis process such as a rubric
  • Implement in all courses

Challenges and Lesson Learned

There are three challenges I’ve encountered since starting this process and some lessons learned.

First challenge: Time commitment. I thought we could move quickly and develop all four signature assignments during our monthly one-hour curriculum committee meeting. Ha! This was not the case. I realized we needed more time for discussion, planning, and drafting.

Lesson learned: Plan a retreat and get off campus (or at least to a different space). Give more time for each agenda item at the retreat then you think is needed (you’ll use it)!

Second challenge: Time for revisions. After each pilot, we devoted a lot more time to revision than I anticipated. For example, I allotted a one hour discussion of the SLO 3 assignment during the 2016 retreat and it took us four hours to be satisfied!

Lesson learned: Pilot each signature assignment in one class (or use a small sample) before everyone implements it and make time after a pilot semester devoted just to revision of the assignment.

Third challenge: Building consensus. I underestimated the difficulty we would have in coming to agreement.

Lesson learned: As the facilitator you want to be comfortable in disagreement and sometimes this means leaving an SLO and moving on to another one.