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Senate approves Thinking Matters courses as freshman requirement, strongly encourages students to take freshman seminars

On a divided hand vote, the Faculty Senate yesterday approved a proposal to revise freshman-year requirements beginning next year.

L.A. Cicero Russell Berman addressing the Faculty Senate

Russell Berman, professor of comparative literature and German studies, told the Faculty Senate that the reason why more students don't take seminars is complex.

After a lively hour-long discussion, the Faculty Senate on Thursday stopped short of requiring freshmen to take freshman seminars and instead voted to "strongly" encourage first-year students to take the seminars.

Starting next year, two courses will be required of first-year students: a Thinking Matters course and a freshman writing class.

"Thinking Matters courses should span the full range of knowledge represented in all seven schools of the university," the proposal said.

"This required course aims to facilitate students' transition from high school to college by focusing on the development of the qualities of mind, and the critical and analytical skills necessary for university-level investigation and discovery. All Thinking Matters courses should be organized around questions or problems, and should demonstrate how university-level thinking could address, answer or solve them."

The three-quarter Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) sequence will no longer be required.

IHUM Director Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and of German studies, presented the proposal Thursday as an amendment to an earlier proposal on freshman-year requirements presented by the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP).

The C-USP proposal, presented to the senate on Feb. 23, would have required first-year students to take one Thinking Matters course and one freshman seminar – along with a writing class – starting in the 2014-15 academic year.  

Both proposals were based on recommendations of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), a comprehensive examination of teaching and learning that was released in January.

The senate approved the amended proposal in a divided hand vote.

Under the approved proposal, a new freshman-year governance board will conduct a self-study and review of the new requirements over the next four years and report its findings to the C-USP and Faculty Senate during the 2015-16 academic year. The review will:

  • Assess student learning in relation to the objectives set forth for Thinking Matters and freshman seminars;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the requirements in meeting goals for freshman education at Stanford; and
  • Make a recommendation to the senate regarding making freshman seminars mandatory.

"During the four years, the vice provost for undergraduate education will work to ensure that all Stanford students can enroll, and choose to enroll, in freshman seminars," the proposal said. "At the end of the fourth year, the senate will consider the requirement of freshman seminars."

Freshman seminars

As in past discussions of the SUES recommendations, much of the discussion at yesterday's meeting focused on its proposal to require freshman seminars, which are offered as part of the Stanford Introductory Seminars Program.

Currently, Stanford offers 120 freshman seminars, small group courses taught by esteemed faculty. Approximately 57 percent of freshmen enroll in the seminars.

"Right now, the answer to the question of why more students don't take seminars is complex," Berman said at the start of his presentation.

"There are lots of different pieces to that. There's not one silver bullet to solve it. So what we're asking for is several years in which we can pursue these strategies more aggressively, taking advantage of the flexibility that students will have received through that reduction from IHUM to Thinking Matters, and working with and advising more effectively in persuading students to take seminars. I agree with SUES that seminars ought to be taken by everyone. I think we ought to get close to full participation on a voluntary basis. I think we should go into this trusting our students rather than mandating our students to participate."

L.A. Cicero Statistics professor Susan Holmes addressing the senate

Statistics Professor Susan Holmes encouraged the university to study why some students don't take freshman seminars.

SUES Co-Chair James Campbell, professor of history and a strong proponent of requiring first-year students to take seminars, described the compromise as "quite Solomonic." He said he appreciated the spirit of the proposal, which accepted the value of freshman seminars and their ability to become a transformative experience.

"What I take this to be is a real sincere commitment to address the scheduling problems that make it difficult for some students to take seminars now, to take action to identify those groups that are currently underrepresented within the seminars system and figure out ways of drawing them, and to assess whether our efforts are working," Campbell said.

In response to a question, Berman said he hoped that in four years more than 85 percent of Stanford freshmen would be enrolled in freshman seminars. He said there may be good reasons why 15 percent of freshmen would choose not to enroll.

Eric Roberts, computer science, endorsed the Berman proposal.

"At the beginning of the SUES process, one of the things I said was that it's best for a great university such as Stanford to show its values by what it supports, rather than by what it requires," he said. "I think that's still true."

Susan Holmes, statistics, encouraged the university to collect data on students who don't take freshman seminars to find out why they don't take advantage of the opportunity to work closely with faculty in small classes, and figure out what Stanford can do to "cater to the population we're missing."

Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, said Stanford will need more freshman seminars – whether they are required or not.

"We're going to need about 30 more freshman seminars," he said. "We'll be thinking hard about how we do that."

In a Friday interview, Elam said more seminars are needed in the social sciences and in engineering in order to meet student demand in those particular areas. The existing seminars in those fields fill up quickly and many students are turned away. Elam said one of the big concerns about Freshman Seminars is scheduling, especially for student athletes.

"In addition to adding more seminars, we need to diversify the times we teach them to enable athletes to take them," he said.

Elam said he hopes to increase the number of seminars to 150 by the 2013-14 academic year.

In a Friday interview, Elam said more seminars are needed in the social sciences and in engineering in order to meet student demand in those particular areas. The existing seminars in those fields fill up quickly and many students are turned away. Elam said one of the big concerns about freshman seminars is scheduling, especially for student athletes.

"In addition to adding more seminars, we need to diversify the times we teach them to enable athletes to take them," he said.

Elam said he hopes to increase the number of seminars to 150 by the 2013-14 academic year.

Martha Cyert, biology, asked if the senate should be "legislating us," by dictating that the number of freshman seminars must increase to the target number of 150.

"Would that put the required pressure on us as a faculty and the administration to provide the resources and the incentives we need to grow the program to the point where we either don't need to require them or would feel more comfortable requiring them?" she asked.

In response, Provost John Etchemendy said Stanford currently offers 120 freshman seminars and close to 100 sophomore seminars.

"There's nothing in the undergraduate program that requires that any freshman seminars be taught or any sophomore seminars be taught, and yet the institution has been able to put on 220 of these small seminars," he said.

Etchemendy said he was optimistic that academic departments can boost the number of seminars.

"We have to work hard to get them offered in the right areas," he said. "Yes, we will have to use some incentives. Yes, we'll have to use some moral suasion on departments. But I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that it will even be hard to do, once we set that goal."

Regarding the one-quarter Thinking Matters requirement, Carolyn Lougee Chappell, history, urged the senate to keep in mind the reason for freshman requirements – that students have a "very large leap" to make from high school education to university education. She said three quarters of IHUM gave students the skills they needed for their entire university education.

"I'm skeptical, on the basis of teaching Stanford freshmen for almost 40 years, that one quarter can really bring their skills up – with the kind of attention that the freshman-requirement courses pay to student needs – that one quarter is sufficient."

In response, Berman said faculty do need to pay attention to the "step up" from high school into college.

"The question is, are requirements the only way to meet the educational challenge," he said. "I think we've done great things in great courses taught by some people in this room right now. But, as SUES has identified, there's a big problem with our learning culture here. I don't think that requirements have solved that problem. So let's try something other than requirements. Let's address the learning situation of undergraduates not by the courses that we require them to take but what we require of ourselves in the courses that we offer. I don't think the way to solve the learning issues that you correctly identify is by compelling students into courses they would not take otherwise."

Faculty conflict of interest and outside consulting

In other action, the senate approved revisions to two university policies: Consulting and Other Outside Professional Activities by Members of the Academic Council and Medical Center Line Faculty and the Faculty Policy on Conflict of Commitment and Interest.

Revisions to both documents were approved on voice votes.

Both document are available online as attachments to the senate's March 8 agenda.

Minutes available next week

The full minutes of the meeting, including the question-and-answer sessions that followed the presentations, will be available next week on the senate's website.

The next senate meeting will be held April 19.