Faculty Senate to hear report on reimagining undergraduate education
The co-chairs of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford – Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor in the Department of Biology, and James Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History – will present the committee's report and recommendations, and answer questions.
BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN
Stanford University today released The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University, a comprehensive examination of teaching and learning that makes 55 recommendations to prepare students to face the challenges and opportunities of an ever-changing world.
The report by Stanford faculty members proposes structuring the breadth requirements – courses students take outside their majors – with a new "Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing" approach that focuses not only on the content of a particular course, but also on the essential capacities a Stanford graduate should possess.
The co-chairs of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) – Susan McConnell, the Susan B. Ford Professor in the Department of Biology, and James T. Campbell, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History – will present the committee's report and recommendations, and answer questions at today's Faculty Senate meeting.
The report says students need knowledge, but they also need to develop capacities for continued intellectual growth, and the ability to apply the skills and knowledge they accrued at Stanford to the novel challenges awaiting them in the wider world.
Under the proposed model, Stanford will encourage students to develop seven essential skills: aesthetic and interpretive inquiry; social inquiry; scientific analysis; formal and quantitative reasoning; engaging difference; moral and ethical reasoning; and creative expression.
"The SUES report takes apart the traditional components of a liberal education and reassembles them in a scaffold that can better support the structure of modern knowledge and the needs of today's student," said Provost John Etchemendy.
"The study provides a thoughtful and thorough assessment of the goals of undergraduate education, and applies its findings in creative and compelling ways. I expect it to have a major impact both at Stanford and on other campuses."
A key recommendation is that Stanford guarantee that freshmen are exposed to a variety of instructional and learning styles, including lectures, discussion sessions and intimate seminars, so they experience new ways of learning that are a departure from their days in high school.
In an interview earlier this week, Campbell said the report directs attention not only to what professors teach, but also to how they teach, as well as how and where Stanford students learn.
"From our perspective, liberal education is not some roster of required courses to round out the major, but the totality of our students' education," he said. "It encompasses all four years and embraces not only curricula – breadth requirements and courses in the major – but also dorm life, overseas studies, community-based service, and student experiences in laboratories, on athletic fields, in internships and in student groups – all of the places where our students learn and grow."
The study provides a broad and thoughtful assessment about the nature and purposes of undergraduate education in the 21st century.
Its goal was to design an education equal to the unfathomable challenges and opportunities that await students as they make their way in the world as citizens and as leaders, and to equip them to succeed and flourish, and to live useful, creative, responsible and reflective lives.
It also answers a question Provost Etchemendy posed to the committee: How can we best prepare students for local, national and global citizenship?
The study said students need breadth and depth of knowledge; a range of essential skills and capacities – starting with the capacity for effective communication; a deep sense of personal and social responsibility; and the ability to adapt those skills and capacities to new and unforeseen challenges.
In particular, the study emphasized the importance of "adaptive learning," the ability to integrate new and old experiences, and to adapt knowledge and skills to novel circumstances. The committee was surprised by how little attention most departments and programs had given to cultivating this essential capacity.
In an interview earlier this week, McConnell said: "For all their amazing abilities and energy, we found that many of the students we talked to over the past two years lead highly compartmentalized lives.
"The different spheres of their experience – in classrooms, in the residences, through service and out in the world – are separated rather than integrated. If there is a single motivating principle that ties together our recommendations, it's our determination to breach these silos. We want to offer students an education that's more than the sum of its parts, an education that enables students to make connections across disciplines and between the different realms of their lives."
Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford, said the proposals give faculty a license to explore new ways of teaching.
"With its emphasis on student learning, the report encourages faculty to reimagine the classroom experience," Elam said. "The report incites faculty to experiment with new ways of sharing and creating knowledge."
The report recommends replacing the yearlong Introduction to the Humanities sequence, a requirement for freshmen since 1996, with a one-quarter "Thinking Matters" course that would bring freshmen immediately into university-level thinking by engaging them in rigorous consideration of large or enduring questions.
"We do not believe that the humanities provide the sole or necessary vehicle for freshman learning," the report said. "Every discipline asks profound questions about the world and our place within it, and each offers distinctive methods and protocols for answering them. All offer students fruitful pathways into the university, and all should be welcome in the freshman curriculum."
The committee held preliminary conversations with faculty across the university about courses they might be willing to teach if the Thinking Matters program was approved. They responded with descriptions of 26 possible courses, which are included in the appendix of the report, including Brain, Behavior and Evolution; Evil; The Poet Remaking the World; The Nature of Law; The Physics of One; Race Matters; Sustainability and Collapse; and How Quantum Mechanics Explains Our Everyday World.
The report emphasized two innovations that suggest the new requirements won't significantly expand the footprint of general education requirements on student study plans.
"First, we believe that, in contrast to previous freshman requirements at Stanford, Thinking Matters courses will and should routinely satisfy breadth requirements," the report said. "Given the robustly interdisciplinary nature of the courses proposed already, we expect that many courses will potentially satisfy more than one requirement. Second, we expect that many will count for major credit, pending the approval of individual programs and departments."
Other major recommendations
- Require freshmen to take a Stanford Introductory Seminar. Taught by esteemed faculty, these small-group classes currently are optional.
- Expand the September Studies program by piloting additional courses aimed at students in their junior year, as well as programs aimed at developing leadership, civic engagement or innovation.
- Offer sets of related courses that a cohort of students would take together during a single quarter, each course offered in an intensive three-week block.
- Expand the Bing Overseas Studies program by increasing the number and variety of opportunities, and reducing the obstacles that prevent some students – such as athletes with jam-packed schedules – from studying abroad.
- Establish a Stanford in the Bay Area program, modeled on the Bing Stanford in Washington program, to give students another way to integrate community-based learning into their undergraduate experience.
- Increase the number of certified service-learning courses, which are offered under the aegis of the Haas Center for Public Service.
- Increase the number of Academic Directors (full-time advisers whose offices are located in freshman and sophomore residence halls).
- Think creatively about ways to encourage and deepen faculty engagement with residential life through service not only as Resident Fellows but also as non-residential affiliates and mentors, including teaching classes in dorms and establishing eating associate programs.
The senate meeting will begin at 3:15 p.m. in Room 180 of the Law School. Discussion is limited to members of the senate, but members of the Stanford community may request to attend the meeting by contacting the Academic Secretary's Office at 723-4992 or Trish Del Pozzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.