Will an exit interview tell the truth about the biology major?

It’s graduation! We are launching the 2016 model of biology majors out into the world, or to medical and graduate schools. Whatever we as faculty tried to achieve in teaching and mentoring our students, it is over.  Did we do a good job, individually and collectively? One way to find out is to talk to the students. This is what the exit interview is for. At Wash U biology multiple faculty members give this to a sample of students.

It always makes me uncomfortable when biologists delve unguided into such endeIMG_0549avors because we are not trained in this kind of science. We are not sociologists or psychologists, so we do not understand how to get at the truth of the experience. Circumventing bias is perhaps the most important thing about interviews. No doubt there are areas that we are more and less likely to get truthful answers. For example, a student sitting across a table from their intro biology teacher is very unlikely to say that intro was useless. A student sitting across from me is likely to tell me what a great class behavioral ecology was and so they did. If the people teaching the intro labs do more of the interviews, we might never learn that students think these 2 hour labs are extremely basic, for example. What to do?

We could have the data collected by on-line surveys that are professionally designed. If we wanted personal interviews, we could have staff collect the data that did not teach the students. We could have students interview each other from a list of questions. Social scientists could easily tell us exactly what we might do best given our goals and constraints.

I Googled around a bit to see what different places do for their exit interview. I was happy to find that the American Sociological Association has a National Survey of Seniors Majoring in Sociology. If there were to be a good questionnaire, this is likely to be it. It asks about why the student majored in sociology and what kinds of proficiencies were attained, like creating a hypothesis with independent and dependent variables. It asks about what skills attained the student would list on a resumé. It asks about specific concepts at a general level, then about participation in various activities related to the major. It went on to ask about how satisfied the student was with advising, teaching, getting into courses, seeing faculty, and the like. I could easily imagine it might be useful to add questions about specific courses in a university specific survey. The survey then goes on to ask about the students, gender, race, parent’s educational status aIMG_0548nd the like. It ends with asking if the student wants to see the results of the study. It seemed pretty good to me. It was very different from the pages of questions I was given to use.

After doing the survey with the questions from my department I got really curious about these things. I asked my friends in film, English, and African American Studies what they did. They had exit surveys consisting of a handful of questions. One that came up a couple of times involved asking what the student might tell a beginning student about the major.

This is a topic I hope I have time to delve into more and perhaps even recommend a list of questions or a site with good ones, but not now. I guess every one’s goals with these questions are different. I suppose they are essential ultimately for accreditation. If this is the case, though, then it should also be mandatory that they meet some level of standards. The list of questions I was given was 5 pages long. I might have a lot to say about these questions, but am not sure how useful that would be. I can tell you that apart from the questions I drew a large circle with a dot in the middle and one ray. I then asked each student to make sectors of the pie that reflected the importance of different activities in IMG_0558their learning of biology. I did not predefine either how many sectors there might be, or what should be included. Both students had half the circle dedicated to research, sometimes breaking it down into multiple categories. One gave the smallest section of the circle to the intro courses. The other did not put them in the circle at all. They both liked small discussion sections that focused on primary literature. I suppose I could summarize this tiny sample by saying they bore out what the big studies say about hands on, inquiry based learning. So why don’t we do more of it? Why do we continue to fire hose first years? Why do we have so many large fact-based classes? When will biologists stop ignoring social science?


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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1 Response to Will an exit interview tell the truth about the biology major?

  1. Pingback: Friday links: women-only faculty positions, chatbot TA, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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