Spanish Discipline Assessment Report

Fall 2009


The focus of assessment for the 2008-09 academic year was the Research Symposium (Span 4001), our senior level capstone course, which includes a general introduction to critical theory and, for each student,  the design and completion of an independent research project related to a particular area of critical theory, accompanied by a public presentation of their research. As a result of our work and discussions last year, we came to some agreement as to ways to improve the course for both the students and the instructors, and potentially make changes to the earlier stages of our curriculum to better prepare students for the capstone experience.


We were, overall, pleased with the results of the course and feel it is achieving the goals and objectives we have set for the program and for our graduates. There is, however, room for improvement.  All discipline faculty members attended all of the students’ final presentations, and we were able to compare and evaluate the group as a whole. All faculty members also looked at sample written work from the group. Only one student was deemed to have produced less than satisfactory work on the paper and presentation, though in combination with the other components of the course (in class participation and brief writing assignments over the semester) she was able to pass the course. In a group of 14 students, two of the papers and presentations were judged outstanding, two were judged acceptable, if average, and the rest were judged above average.


The majority of the students in the group needed a considerable amount of assistance with the execution of a research project: choosing their topics, collecting resources, and writing and, more importantly, revising their drafts to produce a quality final product. We primarily expected this to be the case, but have begun discussing ways to facilitate the process by providing clearer models of research and writing in the earlier components of our curriculum. Span 3101, Introduction to Hispanic Literature, is a logical place to begin this process. Students in this course are already asked to produce scholarly writing that incorporates effective use of secondary sources and are introduced to basic tools of research in language and literature. In this course, however, students are working with literature in a second language for essentially the first time, and there is often a disconnect between the skills they have developed (to differing degrees) in their first language and their implementation in the second language. There are a number of English language sources available to help develop and enhance research and writing skills, written at a reasonably simple level, that may prove useful in helping students apply the skills they have (or improve them if needed) to their work in their second language. These resources can be introduced at an earlier stage in our curriculum and reinforced over the course of the upper division offerings, so that students reach the capstone level with a level of competence and confidence with regard to research and writing. We have discussed the possibility of introducing some principles of critical theory at this stage, but have not yet reached a consensus on the value or feasibility of this strategy.


The discipline faculty members were somewhat more concerned that a number of students had reached their final course in the major still lacking an appropriate level of grammatical precision, and needed a considerable amount of assistance with revision at this “micro” level. In addition, a number of students had clear difficulty with oral expression. A certain amount of this was likely due to the nervousness often experienced in public presentations, but all the faculty members noted some deficiencies in our students’ oral skills, even in cases where the research and writing aspects of the project were above average. We are considering ways to begin addressing this issue in earlier stages of our curriculum. This year, for example, in our intermediate courses, we will be making use of WebVista and Wimba technologies to begin better monitoring and providing feedback to our students regarding their oral communication in Spanish. Naturally this is a normal part of classroom activities in all of our classes, but with groups of 20-25 students, individuals have limited opportunities for oral communication and feedback on a day to day basis. The incorporation of these technologies will allow us to efficiently collect samples of spoken Spanish from students outside of class. The instructors will be able to monitor students on a more “one on one” basis, and students will also have the opportunity to listen to and assess (and ultimately improve) their own work, which will give them more of a sense of accountability and self-motivation in this regard. We have discussed the possibilities of adding a phonetics course to our program, and the addition of modified OPI interviews like those required of students on the Twin Cities campus would be ideal, but neither of these options is feasible at this time given the discipline’s current staffing limitations. Finally, we have discussed the option of videotaping selected student presentations this year (on a voluntary basis) and maintaining a file of exemplary work for future students to view.


We have also begun discussion of ways we might modify our 3xxx level language courses to better prepare students for progression of courses in the major. This is a discussion to be continued this year (as the focus of our assessment will be our 3xxx level courses), but at least in a preliminary sense we have considered whether the present structure of a two-part, year-long “Composition and Conversation” course, which uses a text that in some ways de-emphasizes grammar, is the best preparation for our students, since this is the last language/grammar based course in the curriculum. We have discussed the possibility of re-structuring the current course into two clearer components—one course devoted more to writing and oral communication, with less emphasis on structured grammar, then a second course more specifically focused on formal grammar and writing. There is some feeling among the faculty that this might result in students accepting more responsibility for grammatical precision earlier in the program.


One final area of discussion in our assessment of Span 4001 was a faculty work load issue, which affects not only the instructor of the course but ultimately the experience of the students. In Spring 2009, there were 14 students enrolled in the only section offered of the course. In many instances, a group of 14 would be considered relatively small. Given the nature of this course, however, as a collection of individual projects, requiring a considerable (at times inordinate) amount of individual consultation, the work load became overwhelming and excessive. We did an informal comparison with the comparable course (Graduation Seminar) at the Twin Cities Campus, and found that sections there were limited to an enrollment of 10, and in addition, it was made clear in the course description that students are not to expect assistance from the instructor with the editing of the paper. This is, of course, not the kind of model we would suggest adopting for our program, as it runs counter to our goals and the nature of our campus in general. But we do feel that it indicates the need to be realistic about the expectations on the work load of our faculty if we are to continue to maintain our curriculum and include the important capstone component. We feel that, if we continue to have groups of this size in the future (though this year it appears that will not be the case), we need to consider placing a reasonable enrollment cap (8, ideally) per section, and either assigning two faculty members to the course, or allowing one faculty member to fulfill two of his/her required classes toward the yearly teaching requirement. This manageable work load will create a better experience both for the instructor and the students, who will receive needed time and attention from a less burdened instructor.