Assessing the Senior Thesis

The senior thesis is the high point of a Bates education. Because the thesis is both a culmination of learning in the major and the third level of our three-tiered writing requirement, it is an excellent spot to examine student learning and to investigate whether our students are achieving what faculty believe that they should achieve. In 2008, the College began its program to assess the thesis.

After sending an initial explanations of the purpose and process, our thesis assessment begins with an articulation of the goals and objectives that faculty within a department or program have established for their senior majors. We ask the department or program, “What would you like your senior majors to have achieved when they leave Bates and which of these student outcomes might you expect to see in the thesis?” During this stage, each of the departments and programs articulates clearly its objectives for senior majors and the relationship of these goals to the senior thesis. In the assessment pilot, goals ranged from specific objectives such as understanding prominent theories to higher-level learning objectives such as “students should know what they don’t know.”

Because Classical and Medieval Studies (CMS), for example, is composed of faculty from Greek, Latin, Art and Visual Culture, English, History, and Religious Studies, interweaving faculty points of view into commonly held interdisciplinary objectives involved especially rich discussions. The CMS faculty members were particularly inventive when they described as one of their objectives for students “to swoon but knowingly.” In other words, students should appreciate both the aesthetics and intellectual content of the texts and artifacts of the ancient and medieval world.

In a second step, each department or program’s members read three carefully-selected senior theses in common and in a third step discuss the ways in which the theses reach the goals set during the previous discussion. During this final discussion, the faculty in each department and program pinpoint concrete changes to improve student learning and performance. Some of the changes identified in the past were curricular. For example, Math will use the information from the assessment process to fine-tune its new mid-level writing course. CMS discussed the importance of developing a “toolbox” of skills and knowledge which it will integrate into various courses. Other faculty identified changes featuring improved articulation and communication. Anthropology, for example, revamped its theses guidelines and thesis-proposal system and updated the thesis guidelines on its website. The Math department plans to produce a large poster for its hallway and a web page that clearly spell out the learning outcomes it expects for senior theses.

Faculty appreciated the opportunity for intense discussions of student learning and of their curriculum and other practices. They are eager to think about how best to work in ways that foster the outcomes they desire for their students. We look forward to continuing to evaluate and change our process as we work with additional departments and interdisciplinary programs next year.