Title: How Can Undergraduate Programs Contribute to Student Success in Preparing for Graduate and Professional Entrance Exams?



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Summer 2009 Learning Circle –Status Report (August 2009)

Title: How Can Undergraduate Programs Contribute to Student Success in Preparing for Graduate and Professional Entrance Exams?

Format: Group Exploration

Facilitator: Theresa Westbay (Biology)

Participants: Ed Freeman (Biology), Maryann Herman (Biology), Eileen Lynd-Balta (Biology), Virginia Maier (Health Professions Advising, Biology), Eileen Merges (Psychology), Laura Phelan (Psychology), Dawn Rager (Psychology), Zach Shirkey (Political Science)
Original Proposal

Preparing students to be successful in graduate and professional schools are among the goals of Fisher’s undergraduate academic programs. The application process for graduate and professional schools generally involves completion of an entrance exam (e.g., Medical College Admission Test [MCAT], Graduate Record Exam [GRE]). In the Biology and Psychology Departments, we have noted that the performance of many of our students on these entrance exams falls short of expectations arising from students’ undergraduate academic records. We are therefore interested in investigating why this is the case and in exploring ways in which our undergraduate programs can facilitate student preparation for these exams. We intend to



  • Define the characteristics of ideal preparation versus the actual preparation conducted by our students;

  • Identify skills and content knowledge required for/assessed by the exams and determine where/how these are addressed in the Biology and/or Psychology programs;

  • Investigate other factors, such as test anxiety, which potentially impact student performance on exams.

  • Consider programmatic modifications (e.g., related to advising, curriculum) informed by the above.


Description of Activities

Our approach involved working in subgroups (Psychology, Biology, Political Science) to address discipline-specific concerns associated with the professional/graduate exams relevant to our particular student populations. The broader learning circle met periodically to share information and discuss topics of common interest. Subgroups then reconnected with departments to apply what was learned to various programmatic initiatives that will be ongoing throughout the 2009/2010 academic year and beyond. The nature of our work is summarized below.


1. Investigated exam formats, question formats, content coverage, when exams should be taken, etc., for MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), PCAT (Pharmacy College Admission Test), OAT (Optometry Admission Test), DAT (Dental Admission Test), NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam), LSAT (Law School Admission Test), GRE (Graduate Record Exam, psychology subject test).
2. Investigated recommended preparation for each exam, nature and value of test prep resources (review books, on-line tools, test prep classes), and actual preparation on the part of Fisher students.
3. Developed and administered surveys (Psychology and Biology) to May 2009 grads to gather information about student preparation for specific professional/graduate school exams. Students were asked about how they prepared for exams, the amount of time they spent preparing (total hours as well as how many months prior to the exam), whether they felt their coursework adequately prepared them for the exam, and their actual performance on exams.
4. Investigated actual student performance on exams. Sources include self-reporting by students (e.g., on the surveys mentioned above, via graduate/professional school advisors) and reports generated by the testing agencies. MCAT scores for Fisher students are available to the Health Professions Advisor (Ginny Maier) who maintains in-house records and tracks student performance . As a result of the activities of our learning circle, GRE scores for all Fisher students who took the GRE (general portion) since 2004 have been acquired by the College. Interested parties can access these reports through Liz Lachance in the Office of Institutional Research.
5. After determining the content addressed by the exams (the Biology subgroup looked at the MCAT, OAT, DAT, PCAT, NCLEX; the Psychology subgroup looked at the psychology subject test of the GRE; the Political Science subgroup looked at the LSAT), subgroups mapped coverage of this content within the curriculum of their respective departments. The subgroups will report their findings to their departments to inform ongoing curricular/program development work.
6. The Biology subgroup is developing assessment tools (a standardized set of quantitative and qualitative questions) that will be administered in biology core courses to evaluate student mastery of content relevant to Biology program learning goals as well as the MCAT and other professional school exams. In addition to providing a means for doing some programmatic assessment of student learning, these assessment tools will expose students to the question formats they’ll encounter on professional school exams.
7. All of the subgroups are considering how the information acquired through this learning circle can improve academic and professional school/graduate school/career advising within their programs. Reports will be made to the relevant departments/programs.


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