Senior assessment

By Janet Davis

A distinctive component of Whitman’s curriculum is the senior assessment in the major. Indeed, Whitman claims to be “the first college or university in the nation to require undergraduate students to complete comprehensive examinations in their major fields.”

In this post I address the design of the senior assessment in computer science and reflect briefly on my first experience with that assessment.

From the catalog:

Every candidate for a bachelor’s degree must, in his or her senior year or subsequently, complete with a passing grade a senior assessment in the field of the major study.The examination may be entirely oral, or it may be part written and part oral.

With this much leeway, the form of senior assessments varies dramatically across majors, ranging from a thesis defense (e.g., in sociology) to a general examination in which students may be called upon to solve problems from any course in the major (e.g., in physics). In between lie other forms of examination in which students prepare materials in advance, for example, a brief presentation on one of “ten theorems every math major should know” or an analysis of texts selected by the faculty that students have not read for their previous courses. Several majors require the Major Field Test for the written portion of their exams, while the Geology department conducts oral examinations literally out in the field.

Moreover, most if not all majors require a senior seminar or thesis, even though the College as a whole does not.

In designing a senior assessment for computer science, we drew inspiration from Carleton’s integrative experience (or “comps”), which my colleague Andy Exley experienced both as a student and as a professor. I also thought about my experiences in Harvey Mudd’s Clinic program, as well as the software development course I designed for Grinnell College

The CS Capstone is somewhat of a compromise amongst the faculty. We agreed to require a team project, rather than an individual thesis. While this is unusual for Whitman, it’s a common thread in all three of the programs named in the paragraph above. The rationale is clear: most work in the field – not just industry software development but computer science research as well – is carried out in teams. A small team can accomplish so much more than any one individual. As a practical matter, the workload for supervising teams seemed much more manageable than supervising individual students (though scheduling has proved difficult).

Another common thread among those three programs is that projects extend beyond a single term. We designed a 1.5 semester capstone experience. Students begin their projects in the fall with CS 495 (two credits) and complete them in the spring (one credit), culminating in oral examinations just before spring break and a presentation at the Whitman Undergraduate Conference a few weeks after spring break. Students who are eligible for honors have the option to carry out an individual extension of the capstone project, in lieu of a full-blown thesis.

Where we disagreed was in goals and emphasis: serving a real-world client, engaging with current research, integrating ideas from across the curriculum? In the end, we agreed to disagree, leaving this up to individual project supervisors.

For the oral component of the senior assessment – which is required by the College – we begin with a discussion of the capstone project and then examine students on two additional 300-level core courses, as well as CS 270, Data Structures, relating these courses to the project whenever possible.

None of us wanted to administer a two-hour oral examination to each student in the major, so we decided to include a written component. Following Biology, Economics, and Psychology, three of the largest majors on campus, we decided to administer the Major Field Test as our written examination. First, this lets us assess our students’ performance in comparison to a standard beyond our institution, which is important for us as a new program. Second, it is an assessment that we have only to administer, not to write or score. We scheduled the MFT for the second Saturday after the break, before the semester gets too busy.

Although three students took senior exams last year – our first two CS majors and an independent major – I was not involved because I was on maternity leave. It’s also hard to draw any conclusions from such a small cohort. So what did we learn this year, with our first full cohort of 15 majors?

  • Our students’ performance on the Major Field Test compared favorably with that of students nationally. A few students did quite well, which suggests there is not a gaping hole in our curriculum.
  • The oral exams were surprisingly rewarding. I really didn’t know what to expect beforehand, since I didn’t experience anything comparable as an undergraduate or as faculty at Grinnell. It was actually kind of fun to engage in technical conversations with individual students, particularly when we were able to guide them to integrate ideas from different parts of the curriculum. It was also rewarding to see what concepts students retained from their course work – and occasionally concerning to see what they did not retain, which tells us what we need to work on. Although we may need to make some adjustments, I think the overall approach worked well.
  • One adjustment we have already decided on: next year, we will schedule the oral exams after spring break rather than before. Conducting 15 exams in one week, on top of regular teaching duties, was fairly grueling. I will be on sabbatical next year, so I won’t get to personally evaluate the disadvantages of this approach. I have a feeling there is really no good time.

I will have more on the capstone projects in a few weeks, as the Whitman Undergraduate Conference approaches.