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September 21, 2012

Stanford freshmen start school Sept. 24; first class to experience university's new Thinking Matters requirement

Stanford University's 1,768 freshmen, who start school Sept. 24, will be the first class subject to a new set of undergraduate requirements, including Thinking Matters courses, which are designed to help students develop the critical and analytical skills they will need for the future.

When they report for their first classes on Sept. 24, Stanford University's 1,768 freshmen will quickly learn that their faculty members believe thinking matters.

In fact, Thinking Matters is the name of a new general education requirement passed by the Faculty Senate last academic year. The requirement is designed to help Stanford freshmen transition from high school to college by focusing on the development of critical and analytical skills.

Thinking Matters is the first of a broad range of new general education requirements to be rolled out at Stanford over the next several years. The new requirements are based on the recommendations of the two-year Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), which completed its work in early 2012. Stanford last conducted a full-scale reexamination of its undergraduate requirements 18 years ago.

Each Thinking Matters course is organized around a question that is explored from the perspective of different disciplines. Freshmen, accustomed to the definitiveness of high school learning, are often surprised to learn that most societal questions don't have just one answer, said Ellen Woods, associate vice provost for undergraduate education. But that's exactly the lesson Thinking Matters is intended to impart.

Earlier this summer, Stanford's new freshmen were asked to rank their preferences among the 35 Thinking Matters courses being introduced this fall. If their preferences are any indication, freshmen are eager to explore the premise that the purpose of education is to develop a satisfying conception of life.

Five new seminars called Education as Self-Fashioning were among the top fall choices. The seminars, which include readings from thinkers ranging from Plato to John Stuart Mill to Simone de Beauvoir, are intended to help students reflect on ways they can fashion satisfying lives for themselves through education.

Among the other fall Thinking Matters options that attracted freshmen are The Science of "MythBusters," which asks how science functions as a way of understanding the world; Breaking Codes, Finding Patterns, which asks why humans are drawn to making and breaking codes; and Constituting Justice, which asks how justice incorporates the ideals of freedom, equality and security.

Thinking Matters is one of the cornerstones of Stanford's new approach to undergraduate education. That new approach stresses the development of intellectual growth through critical thinking rather than accumulation of knowledge through course content.

Next up for implementation are new breadth requirements – courses taken outside the major – in eight new areas: aesthetic and interpretive inquiry, social inquiry, scientific analysis, formal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, engaging difference, moral and ethical reasoning, and creative expression. This year's freshmen will continue to meet the current breadth requirements. The new breadth requirements will affect students who enroll as freshmen in 2013.



Kate Chesley, University Communications: (650) 725-3697,


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