UB - University at Buffalo, The State University of New York Chemical and Biological Engineering

Program Outcomes

Our Program Outcomes exist in a space of individual outcomes in which each outcome has three “coordinates”.

  • Topic tree. Each PO can be mapped onto a specific topic of relevance in science and engineering. These topics are organized into a tree-like hierarchy, in which each node of the tree has a coarse-grained parent and (potentially) several children that characterize the node in greater detail. Depending on the circumstance, a particular outcome may be better expressed in greater or less detail. For example, when mapping outcomes onto courses, it is appropriate to work with a more coarse-grained description, but when trying to assess student achievement, it is more useful to work with a finer, more detailed characterization.
  • ABET Outcome. Another dimension of the PO is expressed in terms of the ABET Outcomes [(a)-(k)]. This dimension describes the manner in which the topic is used. Thus, knowledge of a shell-and-tube heat exchanger in a lecture-based classroom (described as an ABET Outcome (e)) may be slightly different from that demonstrated in a laboratory setting (an ABET Outcome (b)). That is, a student who demonstrates ability to solve a well-posed problem in a textbook may falter when applying that knowledge in a laboratory setting (for example). Thus we gauge our PO in relation to this dimension. Note then that a particular topic in the tree may map onto more than one PO when combined with different ABET (a)-(k) choices.
  • Bloom level. The third dimension of our PO space expresses the level of understanding that the student is expected to attain for that outcome. We express this in terms of a “ Bloom level” that corresponds to a cognitive learning level as established by Bloom’s taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) or a generic “attitude” label for skills that fall within Bloom’s affective learning domain.

Each of the courses in our curriculum has associated with it a set of outcomes from this space, and which constitute the formal set of learning outcomes expected to be achieved by students taking that course. The sum total of all such outcomes across all courses in the curriculum forms our Program Outcomes.

The strength of this framework is that it works both from the standpoint of specifying the PO as well providing the information needed to assess them and pinpointing deficiencies. The key to using it effectively is modern information technology. The entire system is encoded in a database, and several tools (described elsewhere) have been established that permit us to view the PO from different perspectives. We can for example examine the PO at a coarse-grained level if desired (looking at general topics covered in the curriculum), or instead see it from the perspective of the ABET Outcomes if that is of interest. Further, these IT tools facilitate the use of the outcomes framework as a basis for the assessment of our PO (as described elsewhere). They also permit us to revise the PO with ease, ensuring that any changes are propagated automatically to the curriculum documentation and the assessment tools, much of which are generated on-the-fly from the same database.

This system may appear overly complex at first glance, but we have found that it has greatly aided the organization and implementation of our assessment efforts. It admits the detail needed to track PO across the curriculum, and provides a framework for collecting information from disparate sources. Moreover, the facility has enabled us to develop web applications that simplify the work required from the faculty in contributing to the assessment process. Thus this framework is an important element in our effort to involve all faculty in program assessment and planning. The process is sustainable precisely because it has been designed in a manner to facilitate broad faculty participation.

We note again that our goal is not to explicitly cover each topic that appears within the tree, but rather to use it as a guide for distributing knowledge areas amongst courses within our curriculum (it is part of our space on which the PO are defined; the PO are specified from the course learning outcomes that are defined in part using this tree). Our assessment procedures also make extensive use of the topic tree.

Information regarding our Program Outcomes is provided on our undergraduate improvement website (here). We use this portion of our departmental website to describe and implement processes that promote continuous improvement of our undergraduate education program. The site consists of a “public” section that is generally accessible and a password-protected “private” section that contains internal documents.