Assessment Brief #94 - Philosophy Assessment Activity

Assessment Logo: assessment-revision-outcomes

April 2017

One common misconception about assessment of student learning outcomes is that it can only be valuable in disciplines that focus on quantitative methods or empirical work. Miami's Department of Philosophy has proven that meaningful assessment can be accomplished in humanistic disciplines that rely upon qualitative approaches to learning.

The assessment plan for the B.A. degree program focuses on assessing four outcomes in two types of writing at different levels in the curriculum. Outcomes focus on presenting a thesis, interpreting philosophical content, constructing and advancing an argument, and following disciplinary standards, and student work from a 200-level course and 400-level courses is collected and scored via rubrics that include descriptions for each outcome and their gradations of quality.

Here is an excerpt of the rubric and the outcome focused on philosophical content:

Level 1 - Needs Improvement Level 2 - Competence Level 3 - Good Level 4 - Excellent
Does not offer charitable interpretation of the reading or issue and/or shows misunderstanding of the ideas being discussed; many philosophical ideas are not clarified Summarizes rather than explains or evaluates argument and textual claims; shows uneven grasp of material and/or explanations of philosophical ideas are vague, overly general, or superficial Gives a charitable and overall accurate understanding of the reading or issue, but some aspects of argument, purpose or context need more attention or are not as nuanced as they could be; some philosophical ideas in need of clarification Demonstrates both an accurate and a strong and complex understanding of text, issue, or question being addressed, with regard to its central argument, purpose, context, and significance; philosophical ideas are explicitly and thoroughly explained in their complexity

Scores were also summarized clearly. For example, here is the summary for the 21 student papers collected at the 400-level:

Outcome 2015-2016 average 2014-2015 average
of context and purpose of writing (presenting a thesis) 3.09 2.70
Interpretation and critical evaluation of reading (philosophical content) 2.88 2.55
Construction and development of philosophical argument (argument and evidence) 2.88 2.55
Adherence to disciplinary standards (communication and organization 2.86 2.65

There are several impressive aspects of the philosophy department's approach to assessment which could be good guides to other departments wanting to engage in more meaningful assessment:

  1. Being Honest about Student Learning: The faculty focus their assessment efforts on those outcomes that are meaningful to them, and they are willing to note areas of strengths as well as areas in which students are not performing up to expectations. For example, the report notes that while students "were able to formulate a clear thesis, the thesis was not necessarily incisive or interesting." Assessment is about focusing on those areas where you want students to improve, not just focusing on what you already know they are doing well.
  2. Closing the Loop: The faculty agreed upon some changes in the approach to teaching that they believe led to the improved rubric score averages. They decided to implement a common core assignment for all students at all levels so that students would gain proficiency at key outcomes in multiple contexts. Using assessment data to make improvement to the teaching or curriculum is a key component of strong assessment.