Located just south of 5th and South Street, the Mostly Books bookstore houses a diverse and varied set of books, movies, and music. The building itself offers a eccentric setting for a store Credit: Pete Lodato

With dozens of courses fulfilling each requirement, the College of Arts and Sciences’ sectors are not particularly constraining — but administrators still want to ensure that each one does its job.

In the continuation of a several-year evaluation process of the seven sectors required in the College curriculum, the school is currently focusing on the efficacy of Sector III, or Arts and Letters. In the past two years, administrators have evaluated the Society and History and Tradition sectors.

Using focus group responses and faculty feedback, the evaluation process is highly qualitative and subjective. But College administrators don’t see a better option.

“When we began this, we really wanted to resist the notion that students were widgets, and that we could precisely measure with multiple-choice tests what somebody may have learned,” Assistant Dean and Associate Director for Academic Affairs Eric Schneider said. “That verges on the idiotic, and it really doesn’t tell you very much in the end. If a student has memorized a bunch of facts, what does that tell you about how well they can articulate the value of something?”

Although the difficulty and subjectivity of such evaluations may leave some students wondering if sector requirements are worthwhile, these problematic elements of re-evaluation stem from an integral aspect of the College’s academic program: choice.

“The sectors themselves reflect our culture of choice. It’d be so much easier to evaluate if there were four courses everyone had to take, but our faculty opted not to do that, and I think our students like having choice,” Schneider said.

In order to gauge and ensure the effectiveness of the current standards — which have been in place since 2006 — administrators have developed a two-pronged approach to examine the first four sectors. A separate panel analyzes the final three, Living World, Physical World and Natural Sciences and Mathematics, utilizing a slightly different method.

The first component of the evaluation process is centered on student focus groups. The College sorts randomly-selected students into three groups: students who haven’t taken a course in the sector, students who have just finished one and seniors who fulfilled the requirement several years ago.

Once the groups have been assembled, data is gathered in a surprisingly simple way. Each test group is presented with an artifact — a painting, a piece of music or a short novel, for example — and asked to discuss it.

The responses from each group are then analyzed, in order to determine whether the sector courses have had any effect on the students’ responses to the presented materials.

“We ... work through it to just sort of see whether students bring something beyond personal prejudice to bear on whatever this is,” College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck said .

The second aspect of the regulatory process is the College’s constant line of communication with faculty.

“We try to be very self-conscious about what the sectors are with the faculty who are teaching sector courses,” DeTurck said. “We want them to be aware they’re teaching a sector, and for some students this may be their only exposure to, for instance, history.”

This method is particularly vital, because change is implemented through faculty if sectors are found to be lacking.

“We continue to meet with faculty to talk about what their objectives are, and we periodically will ask departments to re-evaluate their contributions to general education,” Schneider said.

Ultimately, college administrators believe the combination of faculty and focus-group evaluation gives an adequate picture of what’s really happening within the general education requirements.

“We’re hoping with this sort of discursive, not-really-precise, and sort of fuzzy method we’re using, we can sort of refine what’s in the sectors,” Schneider said.

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