Assessment in Action: Student Learning in Criminology

By Keri Franklin

Criminology professor, Brett Garland, teaches students in a classroom.

Identifying a Problem

The Criminology and Criminal Justice Department decided to begin with the end in mind to see if students were prepared for the writing expected in CRM 598, which was a capstone experience that required the completion of a policy analysis paper. Based on a review of student work and a discussion about what writing looks like in the fields of criminology and criminal justice, the department’s faculty decided that “it wasn’t a great idea to assume students knew all that the department wanted them to know about writing.”

Through these departmental conversations, the faculty also realized that it was essential to establish a common language related to policy analysis across the courses leading up to the capstone. Dr. Patti Salinas, Acting Department Head of Criminology and Criminal Justice, noted “We were all talking about policy in our courses, but we needed to get students to recognize it as policy.”

An Action Plan

The Criminology and Criminal Justice Department started the process of improving student writing by first considering the end goals: “We worked backwards to see whether we were adequately preparing them for the capstone paper.” The department began by looking at the 200-level courses and identifying writing goals for students. “The goal is to have a departmental writing guide and identify skills and activities students are able to master in each course.”

Changes to Improve Student Learning

Criminology took several steps to address writing. Beginning with a focus on what students should know by the time they obtain a degree, the department reviewed the courses and writing goals leading up to the capstone experience. As a result of this review and the development of a curriculum map identifying specific writing goals by course, the department made the following changes:

  • revised course descriptions to include writing: the capstone now requires the policy analysis paper and the research methods course requires an extensive literature review;
  • limited enrollment within larger courses so that writing could be emphasized;
  • worked with Writing Fellows that provided tailored feedback and worked one-on-one with faculty teaching the courses;
  • and developed an online module to support student writing.

In fall 2013, the department gave Mike Ramon, a former Deputy Director of the U.S. Marshal Service and current lecturer in Criminology, a course release to create an add-on module that covers what the department wants first year students and transfer students to know about common problems in writing. The module was developed based on the department’s assessment—a review of student work and department conversations about patterns in student writing. The add-on module covers items such as how to cite resources using APA, understanding plagiarism, identifying common mistakes, and finding and using library resources.

The development of the add-on took expertise and collaboration from other areas on campus. The Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning assisted. Crystal Gale, Information Literacy Coordinator and Associate Professor of Library Science, helped develop the add-on for research-specific needs of Criminology and Criminal Justice students.

The add-on was piloted in spring 2014 and will be part of each introductory section of courses in the future. The department goal is for every student to pass the module before entering 300-level courses. Launching the add-on was an accomplishment but the department still has to do some problem solving. For example, when do transfer students take the add-on?

Assessment of student learning in criminology and criminal justice began with discussions about student learning and the identification of a common concern throughout the program: How can a department improve writing? The initial conversations led to a collaborative effort to make changes to improve student learning.

Criminology Department

  • 465 majors
  • Five instructors, five tenured faculty
  • Master’s program with 60 graduate students
  • Graduate certificate in Homeland Security
  • Collaborates with Psychology for a graduate certificate in Forensic Child Psychology

Keys to Success

  • Begin with the end in mind. Work backwards from the final project or goals that you have for students.
  • Share common concerns about student writing across the program and develop a plan of action.
  • Identify expectations for student writing, and map those expectations to specific courses in the program.
  • Provide a course release to help a motivated faculty member move the action plan forward.
  • Collaborate with other departments to utilize resources to help with your plan.
  • Talk about student learning informally and formally, and look for patterns based on faculty observations and feedback from students about their learning.

Methods to Collect Evidence

  • Student feedback
  • Review of student work
  • Faculty observations

Return to Use of Student Learning page—Assessment in Action