Assessment report for BL A 415 (Nerve cell mechanisms in behavior) [prepared September 2001].

A total of 14 undergraduates completed BL A415 Fall 2000 (1 5th year undergraduate, 9 seniors, 2 juniors and 1 sophomore). In addition, 2 students, one a senior (*) and the other a first year unclassified graduate student later accepted as a biology MS student (**) completed the graduate section of the same course, BL A615 (Neural bases of behavior). For the purposes of evaluating this undergraduate course, it seemed appropriate to pool the test scores for these 16 students, but the students in the graduate section are marked (* or **). 12 students were biology majors, 1 was a psychology major (note the relevance of this course to physiological psychology), and 2 were chemistry majors (note the relevance of this course as a pre-med elective).

The scores for these students out of 88 points total for the midterm exam were:

The scores for these students out of 125 points total for the final exam were:

The grim reality is that pupils at an average of senior level in relevant majors spread out in a distribution with 2/16 students scoring less than 1/3 on each test. This is exactly what was expected when the assessment strategy was written and submitted. It would have been possible, within the framework of our assignment of assessing each biology course, to come up with a strategy that would have rendered happier though less honest information and to have presented these statistics in this report. ("There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics" - Benjamin Disraeli [quoted in Mark Twain's autobiography, Chapter 29]). Each time I teach a course, it is a source of melancholy to witness pupils who waste such educational opportunities.

On the other side of the coin, the performance of poor students is a metric to exhault the performance of the top students. The top scores (85% and 91% on midterm and final respectively) are outstanding considering how clearly challenging the informational content of the course was. The top scoring student for the final was Carla Engelke who won the College of A & S's outstanding senior award (biology department). I am so proud of the performance of these students. As you can see, the assessment is as much of the course and its material as it is of the top-notch students.

At the present time, I retain the exams for record. It is amazing how much the top students learned.

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

Below, I reproduce the assessment plan:

Outcomes Assessment Plan for Neurobiology
(BL A415 Nerve Cell Mechanisms in Behavior and BL A615 Neural Bases of Behavior)
Dr. William Stark
Prepared October, 2000


This is an elective course for upperclassmen, mostly senior biology majors, and graduate students.

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) Students are presented with figures they have seen in text, lecture and web site.
(c) They are asked to provide such specific answers to questions that there is little room for subjectivity in the grading.
(d) 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. Applied to determining whether the course goals were met, 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."

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