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Arid Lands Resource Sciences Graduate Interdisciplinary Program

Overview: 

The Arid Lands Resource Sciences (ALRS) GIDP is a unique program designed to examine the ecological, economic, and social factors that determine the long-term sustainable use of arid and semiarid lands. Because of its multifaceted nature, sustainable use cannot be adequately defined nor understood through the tools available in any single discipline. Rather, it must be considered from several disciplinary perspectives. Thus, students in the ALRS program are trained in two or more of the physical, biological, resource, agricultural and social sciences, as they relate specifically to the sustainable use and management of arid and semiarid lands.The new curriculum recently implemented requires each student take a common core of classes plus four semesters of a 1-unit colloquium, which provides both an in-depth and practical examination of the physical and human aspects of arid lands research. These common core courses are then complemented with an individually designed set of course work that provides the student with the opportunity to establish a truly interdisciplinary curriculum appropriate to their research needs. To assess experience with the topics that should be covered in the student’s curriculum we have put together a set of common learning goals that have been translated into learning outcomes. These outcomes will be iterated and utilized to develop and assess the content of the ALRS core courses and student learning.Unlike most other programs, ALRS has also retained a language requirement because many of our students carry out their research in an international setting. This has served to reinforce the international (outward looking) part of our program. Our program also emphasizes our need to understand the linkages between environment and society. We strive to provide an in-depth understanding of the linkages and interactions between the physical environment and the people that inhabit it.

Expected Learning Outcomes: 

General OutcomesThe ALRS EC recognized five broad common learning goals (competency areas), and translated these into five learning outcomes that a student is expected to attain during his/her studies in the program.  Thus, a student completing a PhD in the ALRS GIDP will:

  1. Recognize and discuss the key natural and social processes in arid and semiarid environments that contribute to sustaining these regions and their inhabitants today and in the future.
  2. Devise interdisciplinary research frameworks for the study of arid and semiarid regions of the world by integrating at least two of the following disciplines: physical-, biological-, natural resources-, agricultural-, and social sciences, and policy studies.
  3. Identify and apply appropriate research methods to collect, analyze, interpret and critique scientific data on arid and semiarid environments and the societies of these regions.
  4. Contribute to innovative solutions focused on the sustainable use of arid and semiarid environments through participation in interdisciplinary research teams.
  5. Communicate effectively the results and the policy implications of his/her research in writing and orally, in a manner that is sensitive to cultural norms and pertinent to present-day and emerging challenges in arid and semiarid regions of the world.
Assessment Activities: 

The ALRS GIDP requires a student to complete a Plan of Study Review; a written and oral Comprehensive Exam based upon coursework and the student’s proposal for research; and a Defense of the doctoral dissertation.  Students also fill out an Exit Survey.  These assessment activities are used to gather program level assessment data related to the expected learning outcomes, as shown in Table A.

Table A.  Assessment activities used to measure the expected learning outcomes

Assessment Activities

Outcome 1: Recognize and discuss key processes

Outcome 2: Devise interdisciplinary research framework

Outcome 3: Identify and apply appropriate research methods

Outcome 4: Contribute solutions by participating in teams

Outcome 5: Communicate effectively research findings

Plan of Study Review

x

x

 

 

 

Written and Oral Comprehensive Exam

x

x

x

 

 

Written Dissertation and Oral Defense

x

x

x

x

x

Exit Survey

x

x

x

x

x

Learning outcome assessment forms, available at the program website, are used by each faculty member making up the students’ committee at each assessment event. The forms are submitted by each faculty member to the Program Chair and the Program Coordinator.  The ALRS faculty involved in these assessment activities uses their knowledge and expertise to judge the level of the students’ performance in relation to specific measures which, in their turn, correspond to the specific learning outcomes as shown above. The scores determine how well the students meet our expectations relative to their particular stage in the PhD program. We thus DO NOT expect students entering the program to score lower than students finishing the program.  The ALRS EC considered asking faculty to grade students in these surveys relative to a PhD graduate, but realized that this would only cause unnecessary confusion.  For example, faculty who have just passed a student in a comprehensive exam with flying colors would then be expected to grade a student much lower for the survey instrument (since our expectations for a graduate are obviously higher). In addition, it is important to note that the scores obtained by the assessment activities are considered indirect measures of learning outcomes, because they are not strictly comparable or quantifiable.

Assessment Findings: 

Once each year, summarized data from the assessment activities will be reviewed by the ALRS EC.  Depending on the number of graduates from the program, the ALRS EC may decide to report rolling averages for scores to avoid the possibility of over-interpretation due to the low number of data points.

The learning outcome assessment forms were used for the first time in the Spring semester of the 2015. The findings for each calendar year are presented below in Table B.  For each year, there was variation in participation within events (all faculty filling out the forms, vs. only some providing feedback).  All PhD graduates filled out an exit survey and provided suggestions and observations relevant to the program.

Table B. Learning outcome scores (LOS).  Data are shown averaged for each calendar year, starting in 2015.  Each event was for a different student.  For each student/event evaluated by a committee, the average scores of the committee are calculated first for each learning outcome across all relevant questions for a particular LO, with 3-5 faculty reporting for each student/event.  These averages are then used to calculate the mean LOS shown in the table for each learning outcome across all events for the assessment period. A score of 1 represents “needs improvement”, 2 is defined as “fair”, 3 is “average”, 4 is “good” and 5 represents “superb” performance.

2015

Event

Reporting

LOS 1

LOS 2

LOS 3

LOS 4

LOS 5

Plan of Study Review

Graduate committee (n=1 committees)

5.0

5.0

N/A

N/A

N/A

Comprehensive exam

Graduate committee (n=2 committees)

4.8

4.8

4.3

N/A

N/A

Dissertation defense

Graduate committee (n=3 committees)

4.3

4.8

3.9

4.6

3.6

Exit survey

Student self-assessment (n=3 students)

4.7

4.7

4.0

3.7

4.7

 

2016

Event

Reporting

LOS 1

LOS 2

LOS 3

LOS 4

LOS 5

Plan of Study Review

Graduate committee (n=7 committees)

4.1

3.9

N/A

N/A

N/A

Comprehensive exam

Graduate committee (n=0 committees)

--

--

--

N/A

N/A

Dissertation defense

Graduate committee (n=3 committees)

4.1

4.5

4.5

4.5

4.4

Exit survey

Student self-assessment (n=3 students)

5.0

5.0

4.3

4.7

4.7

 

2017, Spring and Summer semesters

Event

Reporting

LOS 1

LOS 2

LOS 3

LOS 4

LOS 5

Plan of Study Review

Graduate committee (n=0 committees)

--

--

N/A

N/A

N/A

Comprehensive exam

Graduate committee (n=7 committees)

3.9

4.0

4.0

N/A

N/A

Dissertation defense

Graduate committee (n=1 committees)

4.8

5.0

4.7

4.6

4.9

Exit survey

Student self-assessment (n=1 student)

5.0

4.0

4.0

5.0

5.0

Given the small sample size, means are highly sensitive to variation among the performances of particular students as well as faculty judgments, all of which may obfuscate program strengths and weaknesses. However, our record of successful examinations indicates that our students are attaining the breadth of knowledge we expect for someone conducting research at the PhD level. The number and quality of scientific articles published and integrated into their PhD theses by our students indicate a mastery of experimental design, technique, analysis and the synthetic thinking expected of successful science professionals. 

Exit surveys. Apart from scores, the Exit Surveys allow students to provide comments related to their experiences and opinions relevant for each measure.  Students can also offer suggestions on how the program may be improved to provide better learning opportunities.  These comments and suggestions are reviewed by the Program Chair and summarized for the EC during the discussion of the assessment findings. 

The students highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of program as one of its greatest strength, and were highly satisfied with the program being able to broaden their scientific horizons by exposing them to disciplines they knew little about.  They considered it very positive that the program encouraged them to realize the interconnected nature of the physical and the societal factors affecting arid lands.  They praised the flexibility of the program, allowing them to build their own curricula and to make direct and tangible connections with their own research topic.  They were generally content with their ability to learn about appropriate research methodologies, although a few comments suggested that such knowledge should be acquired more early during their study programs.  One student praised ALRS faculty as “passionate about their research and open to a team approach”, although another indicated that some faculty are “less willing to work in an interdisciplinary team”.

Several students indicated that increased funding for students to attend scientific conferences and to submit scientific papers could have strengthened their abilities to communicate and defend their own research in front of peers.

Students emphasized the need for the ALRS program and the university in general to provide more resources for career development and networking.  This would be especially important for finding jobs in today’s competitive environment. Some students emphasized the need for ALRS to offer its core classes more reliably.  The idea for ALRS offering a seminar series is repeatedly mentioned, although the students realize that the small cohort size of the program makes this very challenging.

Change in Response to Findings: 

Due to the relatively low number of students enrolled in and graduating from the program, it will take 2-3 years to generate enough data to assess relative performance for each Outcomes, and to establish trends.  Thus, ALRS anticipates that appropriate responses to the Program Outcomes Assessments can be formulated and changes may be implemented by the Fall semester of 2018.  These responses might include changes in the core curriculum, changed emphasis on particular electives, modified requirements for graduate teaching or thesis research publications, as deemed necessary by the Executive Committee.

Updated date: Tue, 07/25/2017 - 10:04