Greg Hopper-Moore, Tracy Bousselot, and Dr. Kristine Chadwick from the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) presented the following content at the NACEP conference in October 2015.
As part of a study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, EPIC conducted a study of more than 2,200 course documents from entry-level college courses. These syllabi, assessments, and assignments gave us a picture of what students need to know and be able to do when they enter college.
We collected documents for 13 different courses in English, science, and social science from public and private 2- and 4-year colleges around the country. To give you an idea of our document repository, we gathered 105 syllabi from Composition I courses and 102 syllabi each from biology and chemistry courses. At the other end of the spectrum, we had syllabi from only 58 economics courses.
In our document study, we looked at characteristics like the average number of pages students read in each course. We found that English Literature courses had an average reading load of 813 pages, while science courses required roughly half as many.
When looking at assessments, we found that the most common types of assessments in science and social science courses were multiple choice and short answer questions. The rigor level of these assessments was evaluated as primarily Retrieval or Comprehension on Marzano's Depth of Knowledge (DOK) scale (Marzano & Kendall, 2007).
English/language arts courses, on the other hand, used papers and essays as the primary method for assessing students. The majority of English assessments were rated on the DOK scale as Analysis or Knowledge Utilization. The distribution of those assessments is included in the chart below.
The goal of our research was more than theoretical; it was practical. We used the results of our analysis to develop at least two classroom performance tasks in each of the 13 subject areas we analyzed. We partnered with postsecondary instructors to write tasks that require deeper thinking skills.
For example, in our sample, 83% of biology courses covered cell biology. On average, assignments were 2.7 pages in length, and students were most often asked to write an informative/explanatory paper. We used that information to create a performance task called "Water Works: Cells & Osmosis." For this task, students complete a lab on diffusion and osmosis and then demonstrate their understanding of those concepts in a written lab report. In addition to conducting an experimental lab, the task requires students to use critical thinking skills to analyze the information they collected from reputable resources to supplement their lab findings.
We found that 92% of U.S. Government courses addressed the topic of institutions of national government, so we developed a task called "Whom Should We Ask?" For this task, students advise a fictitious nonprofit organization on which branch of government is most suited to help the organization achieve its goals. Students need to conduct outside research on nonprofit organizations and the problems they are trying to solve. They then have to synthesize that information with the roles of the different branches of government.
The most common topic in psychology courses was learning theory, which led us to develop a task entitled "Dogs, Pigeons, and Texts." This task challenges students to explore classical and operant conditioning. Given that a high percentage of psychology assignments at the college level require research, the task has students design an experiment that would allow them to draw some conclusions on different types of conditioning.
EPIC piloted these tasks in a small sample of entry-level courses at 2- and 4-year colleges as well as at exit-level high school classrooms across the country. Instructors felt the tasks required more self-directed learning than most traditional schoolwork, providing students with meaningful opportunities to practice research, analysis, and critical thinking skills. Results were mixed in terms of the quality of student work, but overall, instructors reported that their students found the tasks to be challenging.
For a full description of EPIC's study of entry-level college course requirements, download Understanding Entry-Level Courses in American Institutions of Higher Education.
Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objectives (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.