By Alvin P. Sanoff
DESPITE ITS LIBERAL ARTS FOCUS,
ALVERNO COLLEGE MAY BE ABLE TO TELL ENGINEERING SCHOOLS A
BIT ABOUT ASSESSMENT.
On the surface it would seem that a small Catholic women's
college in Wisconsin that specializes in the liberal arts
would have little in common with the nation's engineering
schools. But dig beneath the surface and you find that Milwaukee's
Alverno College and engineering institutions share a concern
with assessing student learning and ability-based education.
This focus is still somewhat rare in higher education. Most
colleges require only that students attain acceptable grades
in a set of required courses to receive their degree. They
expect students to demonstrate, through tests and papers,
that they have acquired specific bits of knowledge and mastery
of certain concepts. But students are not expected to demonstrate
mastery of specific abilities, such as showing they can work
in teams, and to prove that they have learned to apply their
Zoreh Emami, associate dean for academic affairs at Alverno,
says "there is a culture in higher education that holds
the view that ‘we don't care what students are
doing so long as we deliver the knowledge.' "
There is a tendency, she adds, "to view thinking as
a passive act and to look down on" the idea of actually
having students do things, which is often dismissed as "vocational
education." But Alverno is unapologetic about the fact
that doing is a central part of the way it educates students.
is the emphasis that Alverno places on assessment and outcomes—assuring
that students have the knowledge and ability to meet specified
performance goals—that prompted the ExxonMobil Foundation
to give the school a $125,000 grant two years ago. The foundation
believed that the wisdom Alverno had accumulated in more than
three decades of building its education program around assessments
and outcomes could benefit engineering schools striving—in
some cases struggling—to meet the revised standards
adopted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
Those standards include requirements that schools demonstrate
that their graduates are capable, not just in content areas
but in areas considered vital for workplace success, such
as functioning on multidisciplinary teams, communicating successfully,
and understanding professional and ethical responsibility.
While some of the ABET outcomes are comparable to those at
Alverno, others are not. At Alverno, students must demonstrate
mastery in eight areas: communication, analysis, problem-solving
processes, social interaction, developing a global perspective,
making value judgments and independent decisions, effective
citizenship, and aesthetic engagement, i.e. involvement with
Within each of these eight areas, Alverno has defined six
levels of achievement. Students must reach the sixth level
in their major and the fourth level in other parts of the
curriculum. The Alverno approach is difficult to grasp in
the abstract. It becomes clearer when cast in terms of a specific
discipline. In chemistry, for example, majors are expected
to: communicate effectively using the language, concepts,
and models of chemistry; use the methodology of chemistry
to define and solve problems independently and collaboratively;
use a wide variety of laboratory techniques with accuracy,
precision, and safety; find, select, and use appropriate scientific
information to support their work; use values and scientific
information to make responsible decisions about the use of
chemical materials and knowledge; use different strategies
and models of chemistry to analyze and synthesize chemical
data; critique data, strategies, and models of chemistry;
and apply learning in an off-campus, professional setting.
Ann van Heerden, associate professor of chemistry at Alverno,
has structured her junior-level biochemistry course around
several of the abilities that students are expected to master.
For example, to help students develop the ability "to
use values and scientific information to make responsible
decisions about the use of chemical materials and knowledge,"
she requires students to take part in a panel discussion on
a controversial biochemistry topic and then to write a self-assessment
in which they provide evidence from the discussion to show
that they have met the assessment criteria. She, in turn,
provides students with feedback on their self assessment.
Van Heerden says that to achieve desired outcomes a course
must be well thought out and carefully structured. Trying
to graft assessment components onto an existing course is
not effective, Alverno faculty members say. The idea is to
design the course based on "the kind of thinking you
want students to do rather than starting with the material
you want the students to cover," says Tim Riordan, associate
dean for academic affairs at Alverno. He acknowledges that
"getting faculty members to articulate clearly the things
they want students to demonstrate is a challenge."
Judith Miller, director of the Center for Educational Development,
Technology, and Assessment at Worcester Polytechnic Institute
(WPI) in Massachusetts, says that Alverno's approach
represents "the gold standard" in assessment.
The Milwaukee school's reputation was instrumental in
the ExxonMobil Foundation's decision to approve the
The foundation did not expect its modest grant to be transformative.
Truman Bell, program officer for education and diversity at
the ExxonMobil Foundation, says the grant funded "a
seed program." The foundation viewed the grant as an
opportunity to expose engineering administrators and faculty
to Alverno's approach.
Alverno used a variety of methods, including a series of
workshops, to explain its approach to engineering educators.
One workshop, held at the 2004 ASEE Annual Conference, drew
some 95 faculty members and administrators. Riordan says engineering
administrators and faculty want to learn about Alverno's
methods, but have questions about how what Alverno does can
be translated into engineering education.
Some engineering school faculty and administrators who have
participated in Alverno's workshops feel that the school
has much to offer them. Tom Brumm, assistant professor of
agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University,
says that even prior to Alverno's receipt of the grant,
he had visited the Milwaukee school several times to "observe
and learn from what they have done in assessment. The basic
principles of assessment that they have demonstrated are very
important to what we are doing" to meet ABET requirements
and improve the education of students.
In Brumm's program, students must meet 14 competencies.
To prove their mastery they create an electronic portfolio,
something that students at Alverno also do. The Iowa State
portfolio might include examples of a student's work,
such as a capstone design project, as well as a video of the
student's speeches. By focusing on a competency-based
approach, Brumm says, students come to see their education
"as more of an integrated whole rather than as a checklist
of courses they have to take."
For the faculty, he says, this shift requires a major re-conceptualization
of how a course is constructed and taught. "We are changing
the way we do business," Brumm says. The response from
employers to the competency-based approach has been overwhelmingly
positive. "They are amazed we are focusing on competencies
because that is exactly what they are doing" with their
employees, Brumm says.
WPI's Judith Miller says that her school has drawn
on the methods Alverno uses to assess its students on teamwork
and problem solving. WPI students are put on a team, given
a problem to solve, and have a few hours to work on it. When
time is up, teams present their results. Each group's
work process and presentation is videotaped and sent to external
judges who pick a winner. The winning team's members
receive a cash prize.
Miller says that while some facets of Alverno's approach
can be adapted by engineering schools, others might be more
difficult to emulate. In general, the Alverno approach is
very hands-on and labor intensive for faculty, and that might
make it difficult to institute at a large school with huge
classes. "When I describe what Alverno does to colleagues,
they say it sounds really cool, but we couldn't do it
here," Miller says.
Moreover, she says, at Alverno much of the faculty research
and scholarship revolves around assessment, while that is
decidedly not the case at schools of engineering. So there
is no incentive for engineering faculty members to pursue
innovations in assessment.
Alverno administrators say they don't expect engineering
schools to follow in their footsteps. They feel that institutions
should utilize those facets of the Alverno system that work
for them, while devising their own version of assessment.
"We don't expect schools to replicate what we
do," Riordan says.
whatever approach they take, Riordan says, engineering schools
need to bear in mind that assessment is most successful when
done on an individualized basis. He says that a lot of engineering
faculty and administrators seem to think about assessment
as a way to see where their programs need to be improved,
and thus collect aggregated data. But he argues that "if
you are not assessing at the individual student level,"
then the value of assessments is considerably diminished.
For one thing, that means some students may be graduating
without having the requisite abilities.
There is no question that the public increasingly wants colleges
to prove that they have made a difference for students—that
they have added to what students know and can do. As a result
of public demand, the desire of employers, and growing pressure
from government, various accrediting bodies are following
ABET's lead and incorporating outcomes into their requirements.
But it is slow going, since it introduces an element that
is alien to the way the academy has traditionally done business.
Alverno was clearly decades ahead of other institutions in
understanding the importance of assessing student abilities.
Although engineering schools are relative newcomers to this
approach, they are still ahead of most others in higher education.
Iowa State's Brumm says that "because of ABET,
engineering is further along than other fields."
Alvin Sanoff is a freelance writer based in Bethesda,