Assessment and Outcomes

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Teaching - Learning Fellows, Summer 2003 Learning Outcome Project

Overview | Environmental Science 101 | Environmental Science 481

Environmental Science—Scott Brennan


Faculty Member Statement by Scott Brennan,
Huxley College of the Environment

Scott BrennanI selected Environmental Science 101, Western’s largest lecture course, and Environmental Studies 481, an upper division environmental journalism course as the two courses for the summer 2003 Teaching, Learning and Assessment work supported by the Provost’s office.

Teaching Environmental Science 101 presents special instructional and assessment challenges because of the course’s size (~475 students) and the interdisciplinary and applied nature of its subject matter. I have taught this introductory, GUR course 12 times since the Fall of 1999 and was pleased to have this opportunity to revisit the course features, goals, intended learning outcomes and assessment while working with a team of faculty colleagues and student research partners.

Environmental Journalism, Environmental Studies 481, is a small, senior-level course intended to provide students with an immersion experience in investigative environmental feature writing and the tools required to work as a staff reporter or freelance writer. This course presents special assessment challenges because of the sometimes subjective nature of evaluating student writing and the highly diverse backgrounds and differing levels of writing experience students bring to the course. Students in this class also gain valuable experience and insight into their own writing by editing and being edited by their peers in the class.

These two courses serve very different programmatic needs and present very different instructional and assessment-related challenges but I am confident that students in both courses will benefit from the application of Teaching, Learning and Assessment work to their syllabi. I am also hopeful that the lessons I have learned while revising both courses will be valuable to a diverse group of faculty who are interested in revising their courses as well.

Student Research Partner Statement by Jillian Martin,
WWU Junior, major undeclared:

Jill MartinAs a student new to learning assessment I had vague ideas as to what we would be accomplished this summer but I did not initially realize the integral role I could play as a student research partner. As an undecided junior at Western I felt participating in learning assessment would be a great opportunity to become involved in Western’s community and explore possible major interests. I was interested in getting involved in this project after taking Environmental Science 101 with Scott Brennan spring quarter of 2003. The subject matter was of great interest to me and I felt compelled to offer my critique of the course and participate in its improvement. One of my goals this summer was to help create new and more focused outcomes and to help students gain a higher level of personal involvement and interest in understanding and solving environmental problems.

I found it easy to be excited about revision to the 101 course because it is such an eye opener to the problems and possible solutions of our world. I feel the role of the course is to show students how we use our planet, what is happening as a result, and help them to understand the fragile balance of life. As a recent ESCI 101 student I had specific ideas of what needed to be improved, what worked well, and what could be done to get more student involvement and motivation. I hope the revised course will provide every student with more specific information that applies to their own personal choices and gives them the same opportunity and experience I had in ESCI 101 during the spring of 2003.

Environmental Science 101 Course
Features, Role, Goals and Intended Learning Outcomes

Environmental Science 101 is a 3 credit, large lecture course that meets WWU’s B-Science GUR requirement. The current University Bulletin describes the course as follows:

An introduction to environmental studies stressing a scientific approach toward understanding the nature and scope of contemporary problems in the human environment. The course reflects applications of physical, chemical, biological and geological principles to define ecological change both natural and anthropogenic.

The course goal or purpose, according to the most recent syllabus, is:

To investigate the relationship between human life and the environment from a scientific perspective, illustrating current and emerging problems and potential solutions, while increasing students’ awareness of their individual impacts on environmental systems.

To develop measurable Intended Learning Outcomes consistent with the course description and purpose, we (Scott Brennan and Jillian Martin) first reviewed recent course evaluations to identify the course’s strengths and weaknesses. Several themes emerged from this analysis.

Course strengths:

  • The course makes scientific subject matter relevant to them on a personal level.
  • The course’s subject matter illustrates the connection between individual choices of contemporary problems in the human environment
  • The course’s subject matter is diverse and varied
  • The course uses a variety of media and diverse means of presenting material that are suitable for students of all learning styles
  • The course provides students with opportunities to be involved in class discussions and projects as well as community-based solutions to environmental problems.

Course weaknesses:

  • The course did not provide enough of an introduction to basic science and scientific reasoning
  • The course did not adequately emphasize the systemic nature of environmental problems
  • The course did not provide enough information regarding solutions to environmental problems.
  • The course did not provide enough opportunity to critically evaluate divergent views of environmental issues.
  • The course did not provide enough opportunity for students to apply scientific principles and knowledge of environmental interrelationships to their own lives and their community.

We then critiqued the existing Course Objectives, listed below:

  • To introduce you to environmental science, its central ideas, concepts, models and applications
  • To help you apply the fundamentals of environmental science to important local, regional, national and global environmental problems and potential solutions
  • To give you an opportunity to analyze and discuss the relevance of environmental science to your personal, professional, and academic life
    We concluded that, while useful, these Course Objectives were not easily quantified and that they were teacher-centered rather than learner-centered. To address this problem we decided to restate these Course Objectives as measurable, learner-centered Intended Learning Outcomes prefaced with “Upon successful completion of this course, you should be able to…” We worked to ensure that these Intended Learning Outcomes emphasized the course purpose, embodied existing course strengths and addressed current course weaknesses. The resulting Intended Learning Outcomes and the means of enabling students to achieve them, are given below.

    Upon successful completion of this course you should be able to:

  • Describe the structure and function of significant environmental systems. (readings, lecture)
  • Use scientific reasoning to identify and understand environmental problems and evaluate potential solutions. (L.E.A.D. community volunteer projects, in-class talk shows, readings, lectures)
  • Critically evaluate arguments regarding environmental issues. (online readings, talk shows)
  • See the impact your way of life has on the environment. (ecological footprint calculator)
  • Apply your understanding of environmental issues to your own choices. (change in ecological footprint over the quarter)
Intended Learning Outcomes (Measurable and student-centered) How do students learn to do this? What evidence is there that students are learning this? What additional information is needed to understand how well students are learning this? What possible new or improved assessment techniques might be used?
Describe the structure and function of major environmental systems Readings
Exams Written work Testalator
Minute papers
Use scientific reasoning to identify and understand environmental problems and evaluate potential solutions Readings
Extra credit essays
Written work
Environmental closeups
Talk shows
Critically evaluate arguments regarding environmental issues Online readings Talk shows Guest lectures Readings Exams Talk shows Written work Discussion board  
See the impact their own lives have on their environment Ecological footprint calculator
Exams Change in ecological footprint over quarter Pre-Post footprint calculation and survey
Apply their understanding of environmental issues to their own choices Videos
Ecological footprint
  Change in choices over quarter Pre-Post footprint calculation and survey

Environmental Science 101 Teaching Practices and Curriculum Design Features
The following are a few examples of teaching practices and curriculum design features and the Intended Learning Outcomes they support. Many of these practices and features could be applied to other large lecture courses.

Readings, Lectures and the Testalator/Weekly Quizzes
At the end of each week, students have an opportunity to complete an online quiz and self assessment based on that week’s readings and lectures. The results of this self assessment give students an accurate understanding of their comprehension of the relevant scientific content of that section of the course.

Intended Learning Outcome Supported:
Describe the structure and function of significant environmental systems.

In-class Talk Shows
Periodically throughout the term students receive a series of take-home essay questions regarding current, contentious environmental issues. For extra credit, all students have an opportunity to post their responses to these questions on the online class bulletin board. The instructor selects 4-5 of the most thought-provoking and diverse responses and invites their authors to serve on an in-class panel or talk show during the next class session. This facilitated discussion between the panelists and the other students in the class provides students with opportunities to work toward several Intended Learning Outcomes.

Intended Learning Outcome Supported:
Use scientific reasoning to identify and understand environmental problems and evaluate potential solutions.
Critically evaluate arguments regarding environmental issues.

Ecological Footprint Calculator
This online interactive exercise asks students questions about their daily food, housing, transportation and other consumer activities and calculates the total land area required to support their lifestyle. By completing this exercise students are able to better understand the connection between their choices and changes in environmental systems.

Intended Learning Outcome Supported:
See the impact your way of life has on the environment.
Apply your understanding of environmental issues to your own choices.

Environmental Science 101 Selected Assessment Tool, Ecological Footprint Calculator:
The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the Earth’s population but consumes more than 25% of many of its key resources. As a result, the average American requires almost 6 times as much of the Earth’s land area to produce the goods and services and absorb the waste resulting from his or her lifestyle than does the average person outside of the U.S. Quite simply, if everyone on earth were to make the consumer choices that the average American makes, we would need six more planets.

As a result, it is critical that our students understand their Ecological Footprint, or total amount of land required to produce the raw materials and handle the waste products that they produce. The Ecological Footprint Calculator exercise described below will play a key role in allowing students to increase their awareness of the impact of their choices on environmental systems and, hopefully, to begin making different, more sustainable choices.

Students will complete the Ecological Footprint Calculator at the beginning of the quarter and record the total land area required to support their lifestyle. At the end of the quarter, students will recalculate their Ecological Footprint and answer the following questions:

  • What was your Ecological Footprint at the beginning of the quarter?
  • List the land area required to support each category (e.g. food, housing, transportation) of your consumer choices at the beginning of the quarter.
  • What was your Ecological Footprint at the end of the quarter?
  • List the land area required to support each category (e.g. food, housing, transportation) of your consumer choices at the end of the quarter.
  • Did you make any deliberate changes in your lifestyle during the quarter to change your ecological footprint? If so, describe these changes and your reasons for making them. If not, describe your reasons for deciding not to make any changes.
  • What did you learn about the impact of your choices on the environment during this quarter?

Because of the extremely large class size, it is not feasible to analyze the responses from every student. Therefore we will randomly select a group of students and analyze their responses to the preceding questions and we will calculate the total impact of the class at the beginning of the quarter and at the end. If the cumulative class ecological footprint and the mean individual footprint declines significantly during the quarter we will conclude that the Intended Learning Outcome “[s]ee the impact your way of life has on the environment” and “[a]pply your understanding of environmental issues to your own choices. We will use this information together with the random sample of student responses to the question above to determine how successful our assessment tool has been.

Connection to Ongoing Curricular Assessment
Analyzing the data generated over the quarter, including student responses to the questions listed above and the cumulative class ecological footprint, will enable us to understand the extent to which students have achieved two key Intended Learning Outcomes. By analyzing the reasons that some students decided against making lifestyle changes to reduce their ecological footprint we will be able to improve the curriculum in future quarters to increase student participation in our Ecological Footprint reduction exercise.

Unresolved Issues
Additional unresolved issues may present themselves during the quarter but at this time, the key variables will likely be student participation in the ecological footprint calculator and the instuctor’s ability to elucidate connections between personal consumer choices and environmental problems and their solutions.

Environmental Studies 481 Course Features, Role, Goals and Intended Learning Outcomes
Environmental Journalism, ESTU 481, is a four credit, writing intensive course required of all environmental journalism majors. It is also open to all Western students who are interested in environmental journalism. It is a small course, typically enrolling 15 upper division students.

The course description, according to the most recent WWU Bulletin is

Goal is to equip students to report and write clearly, critically and constructively on environmental and natural resource issues. Emphasis on writing articles for publication involves reading, discussion and much research and writing.

The course purpose and objectives as of Winter 2003 were:

The purpose of this course is to enhance your ability to write effectively about environmental issues and to teach you the skills you need to ensure that your work is published and reaches a wide audience.

Course Objectives:

  • To write environmental news and feature stories.
  • To learn how to work as a freelancer and sell your work.
  • To study and critique the work of other environmental journalists.
  • To discuss techniques, business, ethics and other issues with working environmental journalists.
  • To complete a final project emphasizing one aspect of environmental journalism of particular interest to you.

As a result of our reflection on this course, its strengths and areas for improvement, we have revised the existing learning objectives to reflect a learner-centered, assessment-oriented approach.

Revised learning objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course you should be able to:

  • Write effective query letters.
  • Conduct effective interviews and investigations.
  • Craft compelling environmental stories built around real places and real people.
  • Write effective environmental and natural resource-related news and feature stories.
  • Sell your work as a freelance environmental journalist.

Environmental Studies 481 Teaching Practices and Curriculum Design Features
The Intended Learning Outcomes work we devoted to this course during the summer of 2003 was much narrower in scope than were our efforts related to ESCI 101 (above). The primary objective of our work on this course was to address the most common complaint evident in student evaluations of the course in recent years. While the course as a whole has received extremely positive course evaluations, many students have expressed frustration with the evaluation of their work and the difficulty they have had understanding and applying evaluative creteria. Students have cited unclear and insufficient evaluation criteria and a lack of clarity regarding faculty expectations.

Because defining “good writing,” beyond, of course, the fundamentals of sound composition, can be as challenging as defining what is “good food,” this is a common and perhaps expected complaint regarding such writing intensive course. In past years I have attempted to refine the evaluation criteria and express them in a variety of ways but during the summer of 2003 I have decided to draw upon the strengths of evaluation rubrics and democracy to develop a new evaluation paradigm, and accompanying assessment tool for the environmental journalism course.

Environmental Science 481 Selected Assessment Tool: The Stakeholder Driven Rubric
In past quarters, students were presented with a series of criteria that define “good writing” in the context of this course. These criteria have been presented in writing (both in and outside the syllabus), verbally in lectures, and through in-class critiques of student and professional writing. During the next offering of this course (Winter 2004) students will collaborate with faculty to develop and implement their own criteria through what we have decided to call Stakeholder Driven Rubric Development (SDRD).

The SDRD process will work as follows:

  • During the first week of classes each student will find two examples of what they define as excellent works of environmental journalism.
  • Students will bring these examples of excellence to class and discuss their reasons for classifying them as such.
  • The instructor will facilitate an in-class discussion of the nature of excellence in environmental journalism and, out of this discussion, will assist the students as they define excellence in the context of measurable criteria.
  • The students and instructor will come to consensus on the criteria defining excellence in environmental journalism and assemble a rubric that they will use to peer-edit drafts of assignments and that the instructor will use to grade final drafts of these stories.

Environmental Science 481 Summary
It is our hope that by engaging the students themselves in the process of defining excellence and codifying criteria through a Stakeholder Driven Rubric Development process that student learning will be enhanced and that students will better understand and implement the characteristics defining excellence in environmental journalism. The Stakeholder Driven Rubric that was developed during Fall Quarter, 2003, is shown below:

Environmental Journalism Writing Rubric

Instructions for use:
Please use the following scale to evaluate drafts of your own work and the final articles and essays shared with you by your peer review partner. Please print this sheet out and rate each essay using these criteria and this scale.
0-Fails to accomplish
5-Achieves fully

Material is fair, balanced, well-researched and properly represented
The piece is creative, lively, innovative and inspires personal interest.
Audience Awareness
The piece exhibits humanity and respect while educating the audience in a manner free of stereotypes.
The piece tells a local story in a global context, conveys a sense of place, is timely and offers solutions to the problems addressed.
Technical Aspects
The piece exhibits sound grammar, spelling, punctuation, organization, flow, cohesiveness and some modicum of journalistic style.