When assessment processes connect to the department context and are rooted in the department’s practice and experience, there is potential to uncover important concerns that intersect with student-learning outcomes.
The problem we most wanted to deal with this year is the fact that our comps project seems to generate so much stress and anxiety among our majors. We want to understand why they seek to work more easily with more motivation, a more regular schedule, and more of a sense of enjoyment in class projects than they in a self-designed process like our comps. Our process has the full studio faculty prepared to help in any way that we can and yet this process makes even some of our confident students become frozen with level of anxiety that we don’t understand. If feels unnecessary to us, and yet this year, with a strong class, we all observed high levels of stress in our students. We feel that the independent nature of comps is important, and so we don’t want to solve this by overdoing it in terms of offering too much structure, turning it into a series of narrowly defined assignment.
This issue cuts across a number of the learning goals we defined for our department.
We want to look at our comps process – our outline that we give the students, our internal and external critique process, and the written statements that we require at 3 stages in comps to see to what degree these aspects of our comps foster or undermine the kind of independent working process we hope for our comps to be. That quality of being able to work independently, taking advantage of the guidance offered by the faculty, but still being able to work with some level of enjoyment is something that feels important to us for comps.
… Even among those who excelled there was a sense of constant difficulties of doing the work. Some students who had been very strong through their junior year barely passed, or else did not pass, and several students spoke about becoming disenchanted with the process of making art. Our results turned out fairly well, but we were struck by how the same students who have showed dedication and motivation in our classes were spinning their wheels in comps. We noticed this through the scheduled work reviews that are a part of our comps, as well as in individual critiques. The full faculty has identified this as a problem.
For some years, we have been addressing an anecdotal concern about whether our majors graduate with an adequately consistent facility with the theoretical and critical questions that are basic to the endeavor of religious studies, particularly with respect to questions of the relationship between religion and social power of various kinds.
Specifically, we focused our 2009-10 conversations on a cluster of learning objectives that we identify as related to the sophistication of our senior major’s theoretical fluency and facility. The stated learning objectives include:
- Approach religious authority claims both sensitively and critically.
- Analyze the dynamic relation between religions and structures of gender, ethnicity, and social identity.
- Display a general sense of the development of the field of religious studies over time, including its place in the intellectual, social, and political formations of the modern West.
Skills of Inquiry, Analysis, and Communication
- Apply theories and methods that have been developed within the field.
Skills of Higher Order Thinking
- Recognize and interrogate key assumptions underlying primary and secondary texts.
- Recognize and interrogate key assumptions and the types of arguments scholars make in the field.
- Recognize and interrogate key assumptions underlying their own work in the field.
- Integrate general and specialized learning to ask productive questions and solve problems concerning important issues and topics in the field.
Discussion of a real problem of interest
We noticed a correspondingly larger number of comps processes that did not impress in terms of the level of theoretical fluency and sophistication and critical self-awareness in the study of religion.
A quick glance at students whose comps papers did not reach a desired level of theoretical fluency showed that a good number of those students had chosen comps topics that strayed from their declared three-course sequence and in some cases that did not have the coursework background to support the weight of the comps. Each student had been duly advised that their comps topics ought to spring from previous work, but there was considerable resistance to switching from topics in which the students’ had developed interest.