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Department of English

Knowledge and skill goals for this undergraduate degree program are recorded in the most recent CU-Boulder catalog.

In some summaries of assessment activity, goals are referred to by number (e.g., K-2 is knowledge goal 2).

Since 1989-90 the department has examined upper division students' performance on knowledge goals K-1, K-2, and K-4, and on all four skills goals, by having external experts evaluate randomly selected essays from senior seminars including all sections of the capstone critical thinking course ENGL 4032. The evaluators have included Professors Robert M. Bender, of the University of Missouri at Columbia, Eric White of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Howard Mills of the University of Kent, England, Mark Winokur of Rhodes College, David McWhirter of Texas A&M University, and Kay Cook of Southern Utah University. Through 1993-94 the reviewers provided a summary comment for each essay and for the sample as a whole. Since 1994-95 the reviewers have also rated each essay on specific characteristics of critical thinking and writing.

In addition, in 1989-90 and 1990-91, an internal review committee of faculty evaluated randomly selected final exams from surveys of English and American literature. In 1993-94 and 1994-95, the committee evaluated embedded skills and knowledge questions in randomly selected mid-term exams from sections of English 2012 (Modern Critical Thought) a required introductory English major course. The grades assigned by the committee members were fairly consistent within each year's committee, suggesting that committee members used similar standards.

Overall, the external reviewers have praised the seniors' essays. E.g., "Your students, on the whole, seem to me well served in their courses. Once more, the essays I have read reveal student writers with an awareness of what the study of literature today entails, and an ability to communicate that awareness.(Bender, 1990-91)" "I was impressed with the degree to which virtually every one of the CU students was able to demonstrate at least a passable command of the fundamentals of essay form, critical analysis and interpretive argument. (White, 1991-92)" "All these seminars fulfill the educational aims implied by the phrase 'critical thinking'. It's clear that students have been encouraged to attend to the process of thinking as much as to the thoughts arrived at. (Mills, 1992-93)" Professor Winokur sees unevenness in writing skills: "I find the level of student sophistication extremely varied along every dimension: theoretical background; ability to construct complex, compelling theses; writing ability. (1992-93)" but notes that "the writing is precisely as problematic at Boulder as at other schools. (1993-94)" Professor Bender, reviewing again in 1994-95, noted that he was impressed with the changes that appear to be the result of the critical thinking requirement. Professor McWhirter (1995-96) also praised the students' training and ability in critical thinking: "...for almost all of [these students], the work undertaken here...has been produced out of an understanding that education is an ongoing process of inquiry and self-inquiry, a way of engaging the world rather than simply a body of knowledge to be absorbed." Professor Cook (1996-97) commented that these capstone courses "...challenge upper level students to deepen their critical thinking skills and to understand the multiple and complex issues that surround the texts under study [and] the majority of the students enrolled in these classes meet that challenge."

Professors McWhirter (1995-96) and Cook (1996-97) both found problems in one section of ENGL 4032, although even in that section the best of the students were able to surmount the limits of the course's approach. The faculty, preferring to schedule capstone courses that genuinely involve critical thinking rather than merely being specialized courses, feel it wise to remove that particular class from the ENGL 4032 seminars.

The 1989-91 internal review committees rated half or more of each sample of seniors' exams as B-level work or better. The 1993-94 and 1994-95 committees noted that as a foundation course, ENGL 2012 seemed to be working well. The students showed considerable success in reaching both content and skills goals. The grades in the skill areas were especially strong. Some of the more complex areas appeared to require additional work, but this was not surprising in a course at this level. This foundation course for the major seemed to be doing a good job of introducing the students to fundamental (if difficult) concepts and developing the skills they need for the study of English.

The major was redesigned in 1992-93. Modifications included addition of a new freshman writing seminar in 1994-95. The knowledge and skills goals statements will be reviewed in the light of the new major and the department will continue to evaluate its critical thinking courses and senior seminars. Assessing the effect of the new major on student performance by comparing the work of those in the new program and those in the old was part of a formal program review in l996-97. The department's self-study calls for additional changes in the early years of the major. During 1997-98, a curriculum committee will plan the revisions. After they are implemented, assessment will be expanded to evaluate the freshman and sophomore major courses.

In 1997-98, professor Kay Cook of Southern Utah University evaluated essays randomly chosen from four section of ENGL. 4030.

By the time the students complete the English major, characteristically with the Critical Thinking seminar, a substantial majority of our majors have reached a high level of achievement in the discipline. Since Professor Cook was our evaluator last year, we have an opportunity to compare the results in two successive years. Last year, 64% of the papers submitted were at the A and B levels; this year, 84% were at these levels. As Professor Cook notes, the students overwhelmingly demonstrate the ability to move beyond facile interpretations, and, she continues, the course itself provides rigorous assignments that allow the students to exercise the writing and critical thinking skills that they have developed over the course of the undergraduate English major. The student papers in this sample represent a wider range than in the past: the best are better, and the worst worse. It is, of course, possible that the selection just chanced to provide such a spectrum, but the result is worth pondering, and we will be looking at next year's results to determine if there is a trend. From the standpoint of providing a vehicle for critical thing, the course seems to be clearly doing its job: Professor Cook emphatically praises the sophistication of the arguments in the bulk of these papers, as well as the skill in organization and the general absence of sentence boundary problems. On the other hand, there are a number of elementary errors creeping into these papers (subject-verb agreement, confusion of plural and possessive forms; unnecessary tense shifts). Many of these problems may result from the widespread use of word-processing and the fact that spell-check does not detect certain common errors (its/it's; there/their/they're; lose/loose) resulting from carelessness.

Upon the evidence of the papers from this final English major course, the knowledge and skills goals are being fulfilled.

We are disturbed at the prevalence of minor grammatical errors, even in the best of student writing, and we have added a writing component to our introductory courses (Critical Analysis of Poetry, Critical Analysis of Prose). A revised major is now in place; we hope it will provide a balance between canonical and non-canonical works. Finally, we recommend that the introductory poetry and prose courses be evaluated in the outcomes assessment next year (Spring 1999).

Go to most recent English assessment report

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Last revision 01/24/03


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