Assessing Sustainability Education and Student Learning at Green Mountain College

By Meriel Brooks, Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the Environmental Liberal Arts Program, Green Mountain College

(This article appears in the May, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

Over the last 3 years, supported by a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the faculty at Green Mountain College (GMC) has restructured an innovative environmentally-focused general education curriculum (the Environmental Liberal Arts program or ELA), revised or created 53 sustainability related or focused courses, and created a system for assessment-driven program revision. With the project nearing completion, what have we accomplished, what have we learned, and what is next?

What should our graduates know and be able to do in order to contribute to a more sustainable world? For 2 days in May of 2008, 45 GMC faculty members brainstormed and debated this question before arriving at an answer in the form of 5 broad goals:

  1. Systems Thinking: Students will understand the structure and dynamics of representative social and natural systems and their interrelationships.
  2. Critical Thinking and Communication: Students will develop and apply strong problem-solving skills and communication skills.
  3. Environmental Awareness: Students will understand the factors contributing to our domestic and global ecological challenges and demonstrate the ability to evaluate proposals for creating a more sustainable future.
  4. Self Awareness and Responsibility: Students will demonstrate ethical responsibility, aesthetic sensitivity, and multicultural awareness.
  5. Liberal Arts Understanding: Students will demonstrate interdisciplinary integration of traditional liberal arts areas.
For each goal we articulated several associated assessable student learning outcomes (SLOs). We then used these student learning outcomes (SLOs) to drive program revisions. The structure of the ELA is 4 core courses taken by all students plus one course from each of 7 distribution categories. Teams of faculty metto assign specific learning outcomes to the 4 core courses and to 7 distribution areas. As students move through this curriculum, they will encounter courses designed to teach and assess each learning outcome. The faculty passed the new structure of the ELA, its goals and learning outcomes in spring 2009.

The next step was to revise or drop old courses and create new ones to address the set of outcomes assigned to each distribution area. Over the past 2 years the faculty created 21 new courses and revised 32 courses (including the 4 core courses). These courses are all designed for the ELA program and generally do not count in majors. They run a range of topics such as Climate Dynamics, Environmental Justice, Energy and Society, Moral Reasoning, and International Negotiation.

As courses were revised or created, faculty indicated at what points in the course each SLO would be addressed and how students would be assessed for achievement of the learning outcome. The assessment process is to collect samples of student work that address each SLO and have faculty indicate for each student the level at which each SLO was met (or not) in the particular class. These samples and data are collected electronically in the Epsilen course platform (or student portfolio, depending on the course) from which reports can be generated. The samples provide evidence of student achievement that is independently assessed by teams of faculty.

So, how is this all going? At this point the most developed assessment work has been done in the core courses and has focused in particular on communication skills. In two of these courses, writing assignments are graded by an external grader and the papers become a part of each student’s Epsilen e-portfolio. During the last two summers a team of faculty has assessed demonstrated skills from a random sample of these portfolio papers. For the distribution, assessment will be ongoing during the semester by a team of faculty who regularly teach courses in the distribution area.

Our findings are several. First, for faculty to agree on whether a student work approaches, meets, or exceeds a standard requires an ongoing calibration process in which faculty discuss their independent evaluations in some detail. We have initiated this as a process for our core classes and will begin a parallel discussion among small teams of faculty for distribution areas. Second, in the first year we found that our students performed less well in some areas than others. The following year we targeted those areas and improved student achievement. Third, we saw a marked improvement in writing ability from one core course to the next.

In the coming year we will implement a similar process for the distribution courses. The results of this assessment cycle will be used to enhance areas of the curriculum that are less successful at helping students achieve the goals. We are finding that the faculty conversations around the assessment results have significantly reshaped the structure and content of our program.

We have in place a definition of what students need to know in order to help create a more sustainable world. We’ve translated that definition into a series of general education categories and a suite of courses that all GMC students take. To make sure our students achieve the goals we’ve set, and to help those goals evolve in light of what we learn over time, we have implemented an assessment cycle that involves the entire faculty working in teams to refine and revise their pedagogy and our curriculum in response to demonstrated student learning.