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Accelerating Assessment Skills and Understanding

Cornell University is undertaking campus-wide and discipline-specific initiatives to provide graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with practical experience in planning for, stimulating, and assessing undergraduate learning. Through a collaboration of the Graduate School, the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), and the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CU-CIRTL), Cornell is developing a series of lunchtime workshops and targeted events on developing assessment skills, with tracks for both new teaching assistants (TAs) in large introductory STEM courses, and more advanced graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Another initiative includes creation of a semester-long grant program supporting graduate instructors of first-year writing seminars in conducting classroom research on assessment.

This project addresses a nationally identified need by enhancing future faculty assessment skills through campus-wide dialogue and opportunities for in-depth practice and reflection. The project also catalyzes discipline-specific TA and faculty dialogue about learning assessment through strategic partnership with targeted STEM and humanities courses. As described in the "Fundamental Pedagogical Change in the Core Biology Curriculum" and "Cornell University Physics Initiative in Deliberate Practice" summaries of new STEM initiatives at Cornell, we are providing support to teaching assistants for introductory Biology and Physics courses during course overhauls from 2013-2018. In partnership with the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, we have established a grant program and workshop series to support graduate instructors of First-Year Writing Seminars in conducting small-scale classroom research studies on teaching, and graduated our first cohort of 10 students.

This project enables us to investigate disciplinary differences in graduate student teaching professional development needs and ways to adapt assessment training accordingly. Engaging TAs in gateway STEM undergraduate courses has been challenging, because TAs for these courses tend to be early in their graduate studies, whereas receptivity to learning about assessment seems to occur more strongly in later-year graduate students. In contrast, humanities students appear to focus earlier in their graduate studies on practical teaching skills, and TA positions offer students more opportunities to design and instruct small seminar courses. We found high self-reported understanding of assessment and classroom research methodologies among graduates of our first one-semester cohort of humanities assessment fellows approaching that of STEM students participating in a yearlong program. We hypothesize that our emphasis on discipline-specific, cohort-based support structures, including pairing first-year writing instructors with similar interests, helped overcome potential hurdles.

Funding is from a two-year, $50,000 grant from the Council of Graduate Schools as part of the Preparing Future Faculty to Assess Student Learning Initiative, with funding from the Sloan and Teagle Foundations (Principal Investigator: Barbara Knuth). Sustainability of promising STEM-related assessment training beyond the grant period is assured through CU-CIRTL program funding from the Graduate School and from a three-year NSF grant to the national CIRTL Network.