Russell Berman in front of the Senate

Professor Russell Berman, chair of the Planning and Policy Board and director of Thinking Matters and Introductory Seminars, speaking to the Faculty Senate on Thursday. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

The Faculty Senate on Thursday recommended that Stanford create a task force to find new ways to promote and enhance a broad education at Stanford, using eight recommendations contained in a 2017 report by the Planning and Policy Board as a starting point.

On a voice vote, the senate approved a resolution recommending that Provost Persis Drell and Senate Chair Debra Satz appoint a task force to promote two goals in collaboration with the university’s long-range planning process:

  • To ensure that each student has the opportunity to explore the intellectual riches that Stanford has to offer; and
  • To reaffirm the faculty’s commitment to the value of a broad education that cultivates students’ capacity to think, speak and write critically, clearly and imaginatively, and that contributes to the development of human beings open to the world and to the challenges of local, national and global citizenship.

The vote followed a brief presentation by Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and of German studies, about the major recommendations of the Planning and Policy Board’s Report and Recommendations on Students’ Curricular Choices and the Critical Role of a Liberal Arts Education. The senate discussed the report at its Jan. 26 meeting. A link to the report can be found on the Faculty Senate website.

At the March 9 meeting, the senate also heard a presentation on the interim findings of a committee studying the experience of first-year students at Stanford, and heard presentations on the success and effectiveness of two programs designed for them: Thinking Matters and Introductory Seminars.

Sarah Church, a professor of physics and senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education, presented the interim findings of a committee charged with identifying important features of the first-year experience – curricular and co-curricular – that enhance or impede the pursuit of Stanford’s educational mission.

She said the committee hopes to release its report and recommendations by the end of the 2016-17 academic year.

“We are looking at the first year from the students’ point of view to a very large degree,” Church said, adding that the committee has gleaned insights from a survey of first-year students in the Class of 2019, and from a qualitative report on the first-year experience based on interviews and focus groups with students, student services staff and student advisers.

She said the committee is focusing on three themes: health and well-being; equity and inclusion; academic choices and culture.

“The majority of first-year students report that they are extremely happy with their decision to attend Stanford – so that’s wonderful,” she said. “Also, the majority of students feel like they’re the kind of person who thrives at Stanford.”

While two-thirds of students are very happy at Stanford, one-third of students said they were not sure they were going to thrive at Stanford.

“This number is not uniform across different groups of students,” Church said. “There are some groups of students who are more anxious about their ability to thrive at Stanford. First-generation students, for example, are less likely to feel they will thrive at Stanford and this is cause for concern.”

Church said students reported that the “best parts” of their first year were relationships, involvement in extracurricular activities and academic pursuits. When asked to write about the “worst parts,” students most frequently cited academic pressure, a lack of belonging and feeling overwhelmed.

Thinking Matters and IntroSems

Berman returned to the front of the meeting room to talk about a study assessing two key programs for first-year students: Thinking Matters and Introductory Seminars.

First-year students are required to take one course in Thinking Matters, a program designed to teach students how to think at a university level about important questions. Introductory Seminars, which introduce students to Stanford’s research mission, are optional.

Berman said the study found that Thinking Matters courses are effective as a transition to college-level work through development of transferable critical thinking skills, and also enable the exploration of questions and multiple perspectives. He said Thinking Matters courses that also fulfill the university’s breadth requirements are especially popular.

He said 77 percent of first-year students are participating in Introductory Seminars, “Education as Self-Fashioning” seminars and other small courses taught by Academic Council members.

“We’ve reduced from 33 to 22 percent those students who do not participate in a small group course taught by an Academic Council member, and we need to look more carefully at this,” he said. “I believe strongly that this is very much connected to the de facto requirements of majors; that is, students are instead taking courses that prepare them for STEM majors and are not small courses.”

The full minutes of the March 9 meeting, including the discussion that followed the presentations, will be posted on the Faculty Senate website. The next senate meeting is scheduled for April 13.