Outcomes assessment is a process used to continually improve student learning by systematically assessing the effectiveness of and adjusting the curriculum. Outcomes assessment provides a way for students to show their achievement of learner outcomes and their ability to use their gained knowledge effectively in the workplace (Mort and Messerschmidt, 2001). Assessment is most effective as a cyclical process that uses appropriate criteria and standards for learning quality. Data must be gathered and analyzed to determine how well student performance matches the set standards, and steps must then be taken to improve performance (Angelo, 1995). For curriculum assessment, the goal need not be to determine the success or failure of an individual—whether that is a student, course, or faculty member—but the goal is to assess the curriculum as a whole. Outcomes assessment can determine where the successes and failures lie, and can provide direction on how to build upon the curriculum to improve student learning (University of Arkansas, 2007).
Universities are being challenged to improve undergraduate education, to re-examine fundamental values, and to make education the primary goal (Suvedi and Heyboer, 2004). Outcomes assessment has become a required part of higher education, with the overall goal being to improve the quality of student learning (Newcomer, 2000; Pintar et al., 1999).
In 1996, the Iowa State University (ISU) horticulture program was ranked third in the nation (Gourman, 1996). To continue this level of success, regular and systematic assessments must be done to evaluate the curriculum. To this end, the ISU Department of Horticulture has developed a set of learner outcomes for all undergraduate courses offered in the department. These outcomes center on the core skills and knowledge that students need to demonstrate for the undergraduate to have met the objectives of the curriculum.
Learner outcomes for the ISU Department of Horticulture are summarized by the following four broad statements (Iowa State University Department of Horticulture, 2007):
Graduates will have theoretical and practical scientific knowledge, which they will be able to apply to the efficient and sustainable production of horticulture crops;
Graduates will develop professional skills in the areas of communication and leadership;
Graduates will be aware of the many facets of horticulture throughout the nation and the world;
Graduates will possess a sound ethical and value system, which will allow them to recognize moral and ethical conflicts and practice tolerance and celebration of diverse cultures and philosophies.
The ISU Department of Horticulture has implemented multiple methods, including direct and indirect measures, to determine whether learner outcomes are being achieved. These methods include student evaluations of the course and instructor, student portfolios, senior exit surveys, senior exit interviews, instructor curriculum review, and alumni surveys.
Other universities, including Pennsylvania State University, Oklahoma State University, Clemson University, and Virginia Tech, are using a similar approach to assess learning outcomes for their undergraduate programs (Craddock et al., 2003; Kahn, 2006; Scales et al., 1998; Scoggins et al., 2004). According to Kahn (2006), Oklahoma State University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture's website describes in detail their outcomes assessment methods. Included in these methods is a requirement of a minimum grade point average within the major (2.50), student internship requirements, including a student presentation and employer evaluation of intern, and a comparison of how students compete nationally at educational events (i.e., ASHS Association of Collegiate Branches Horticulture Judging Contest).
The purpose of this study was to conduct an outcomes assessment, via an alumni questionnaire, of graduates from the Department of Horticulture at ISU. The questionnaire gathered information on graduate preparedness when entering the workforce, the effectiveness of the ISU Department of Horticulture, and the relevance of departmental learner outcomes. The survey questions were developed based on university, college, and departmental curriculum-based learner outcomes (Iowa State University, 2007; Iowa State University Department of Horticulture, 2007).
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