Assessment report for:
BL A 415 (Nerve cell mechanisms in behavior)
BL A 615 (Neural bases of behavior)
Fall, 2003 [prepared December 2003].

A total of 14 undergraduates completed BL A415 Fall 2003 (11 seniors, 2 juniors, and 1 sophomore). In addition, 1 biology graduate student completed the graduate section of the same course, BL A615 (Neural bases of behavior). For the purposes of evaluating this course, it seemed appropriate to pool the test scores for these 15 students.11 undergraduate students were in biology, 1 was in psychology (note the relevance of this course to physiological psychology), 1 was a chemistry major (note the relevance of this course as a pre-med elective); (1 clinical laboratory science).

For the midterm, based on 100, the high was 96, the mean was 60, and the low was 33

For the final, based on 100, the high was 91.5, the mean was 65.8, and the low was 31

In 2002, the corresponding numbers were

Midterm: 80, 49, and 15.5

Final: 85, 55, and 30

In 2000, the corresponding numbers were:

Midterm: 85, 60, and 23

Final: 91, 63, and 23

There seems to be substantial improvement in 2003. This could be real, it could be based on easier exams (although my intuition tells me that I wrote difficult exams), or better students; the class size is too small to determine if any differences are statistically significant. If the higher scores are real, the most likely explanation was that I took more time than I could in previous years to prepare and update lectures.

The low scores verify that there is a substantial body of material to learn. The top scores (96% and 91% on midterm and final respectively) show that the material can be assimilated. This assessment, thinking about the performance on tests, is an assessment of the course and its content.

In new documents provided 12/11/02 by a newly-constituted biology department assessment committee, the end point in our assessments (in biology, we are now ordered to do "course assessments" NOT "student outcomes assessments") is to evaluate how "assessment information will be used to improve" the course. I was at a real disadvantage for quality teaching in 2002 and 2000 because of high teaching load. In 2003, I took the time to better refresh my familiarity with the material and delivered livelier lectures. I conclude that the quality of my teaching is negatively impacted by high teaching and service loads and that more time be provided to me in the future, as it was in 2003, for lecture preparation. Although attenadnce is still a problem, it was better than in previous years, and so was performance.

At the present time, the course (exams included) can be found at:

Outcomes Assessment Plan for Neurobiology (Fall, 2003)
(BL A415 Nerve Cell Mechanisms in Behavior and BL A615 Neural Bases of Behavior)
Dr. William Stark
Prepared August, 2003


This is an elective course for upperclassmen (and a few graduate students), about half biology students, the rest from other departments.


For students contemplating or beginning graduate study in neuroscience, this course should orient them. For students going to medical school, this course should offer them the opportunity to take better advantage of several courses in their academic years. For graduate students already engaged in neuroscience research, as well as graduate and undergraduate students in other areas, this course should present a comprehensive survey of the entire field of neuroscience.

Course Goals

Students are expected to learn a considerable amount of information in the field of neuroscience provided by:
(a) A modern and pedagogically advanced text.
(b) A web page providing lecture outlines and past examinations (
(c) Lectures utilizing the web outline and informational diagrams.

The scope of this information is intended to prepare students with the neuroscience background that would be essential for
(a) Graduate studies in neuroscience or a related field.
(b) The relevant medical school courses.


Midterm and final exams are administered, graded, and returned to the students as part of their learning experiences. Special features of the exams are as follows:
(a) All questions are short answer.
(b) They are asked to provide such specific answers to questions that there is little room for subjectivity in the grading.
(c) In many instances, these questions are specifically designed to apply and integrate the information.

For the sake of record keeping, exams are copied before they are returned to the students.

With the semester's course material under their belts, students registered for the graduate section (615) deliver a lecture at the end of the semester in a topic of interest to them that is evaluated on the basis of content and presentation.


To compare background of graduating biology majors with national norms, the policy SLU's Biology Department adopted April, 1998, built around having majors take the Graduate Record Exam, might have been an excellent strategy. In the subsequent two and a half years, the SLU administration did not obtain data from that adopted policy. Instead, in September 21, 2000, "each faculty member" was charged to "develop an outcome assessment tool." I could have watered down my expectations to a level where all students would perform marvelously. However, the simple truths are (1) that many biology courses, this one included, strive to present students with a substantial amount of information; and (2) that the best assessment centers around traditional tests. This stated, separate assessments for each course that each faculty member offers is, and has always been, absolutely essential to grade students. However, to serve that function, the test must be challenging enough to distinguish different performance levels. The difficulty of the exams can be verified by the lowest scores. Applied to determining whether the material was substantial and could be mastered, only the performance of the best students on the test can be a meaningful way to assess outcome. Also, this overall strategy is too chaotic to achieve what was stated above, "to quantify the biology background of graduating majors in a way that could be compared to national norms."

In the old days, we were ordered to do "student outcomes assessment." I composed a convoluted essay such as this one about my assessment, but could only come to the conclusion that I was doing a "course assessment." At a Biology Department meeting in December, 2002, it was made clear that we were no longer doing "outcomes assessment." Now we are clearly required to do "course assessments." There is a considerable amount of confusion for a science course when our objectives are supposed to be typified by "a capacity for understanding and compassion." We were ordered to obtain information, perhaps from a questionaire with items like "Did you develop a capasity for understanding and compassion?" We were ordered to state how we would change the course. If students said "no" to the above question, maybe we could propose a change of objectives to "a commitment to diversity." My objectives (above) start with a no-nonsense statement of what I am doing and are consistent with only a few of the "Saint Louis University Student Learning Outcomes," namely (under "professional development") "Extensive knowledge in an area of study" and "Preparation for advanced study."

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This page was last updated 12/31/03