The University Record, January 17, 1994

LS&A efforts to improve undergrad education gain momentum

By Mary Jo Frank

LS&A has come “a long way in raising the priority and presence of undergraduate education over the past four and one-half years,” Dean Edie N. Goldenberg told her colleagues at last Monday’s LS&A faculty meeting.

As part of an update on LS&A’s Undergraduate Initiative, Goldenberg announced two programs designed to improve the educational experience for undergraduates, particularly first- and second-year students:

n Under the Distinguished Visitors Program, teaching units may apply for funds to bring visitors to campus to participate in the intellectual life of the University in 1994–95 and 1995–96. Because it is assumed the visitors will interact primarily with faculty, graduate students and advanced undergraduates, proposals for distinguished visitor funds must be accompanied by a plan for additional First-Year Seminars to be offered by regular faculty. An increase in the number of First-Year Seminars would provide more first-year students an opportunity to enroll in a specially-designed low-enrollment course. The College has set aside more than $500,000 to support the program for each of the next two academic years.

n An annual prize will be awarded to teaching units that are providing outstanding education for undergraduates, especially those in their first two years. Goldenberg said last year she acknowledged the self-generated and important innovations in the chemistry curriculum by awarding the Department of Chemistry a $25,000 prize, from gift funds, to be used in any way the department wished. The dean promised to seek the advice of the associate dean for undergraduate education, who will consult widely in the College, before choosing which teaching unit will receive the next prize of unrestricted funds.

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Michael M. Martin summarized the objectives of the Undergraduate Initiative:

  • To increase student-faculty contact, especially in the pre-concentration years;

  • To offer more small classes that will promote discussion and engagement in intellectual inquiry; and

  • To increase the number of opportunities for students to develop, through practice, the competencies of inquiry, analysis, reflection, and expression that are requisite to active learning and to participation in an intellectual life.

    The Undergraduate Initiative is focusing on courses, programs and activities that reach large numbers of students; that play a crucial role in the transition of students from high school to college; and that emphasize the cultivation of such academic skills as writing, critical thinking and cooperative problem solving.

    It is intended to encourage faculty to think about the relationship between what is taught and what is learned, and to incorporate new knowledge about cognition and learning into their approaches to teaching.

    The Undergraduate Initiative also is designed to integrate undergraduates into the intellectual life and research mission of the University.

    “By facilitating natural linkages among students, and between students and faculty, we propose to bring the full potential of a large research university to bear on enhancing, rather than diminishing, the undergraduate experience,” Martin said.

    He outlined some of the separate initiatives that have been undertaken along seven major themes:

  • Integrating research, scholarship and teaching;

  • Improving writing skills;

  • Revitalizing entry-level science and math courses;

  • Encouraging a multi- and cross-cultural perspective among students;

  • Developing new courses and new concentrations in targeted areas;

  • Creating undergraduate communities; and

  • Encouraging and rewarding effective and innovative teaching.

    Among the initiatives Martin cited:

  • The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which began in 1988 with 14 underrepresented minority and female students, and has grown to more than 500 first- and second-year students and faculty research mentors from 12 professional schools in addition to LS&A.

  • First-Year Seminars Program, a commitment by the College to offer every first-year student an opportunity to enroll in a specially-designed low-enrollment course by fall 1996. Department chairs and program directors have told Martin they will be able to offer nearly 100 First-Year Seminars by next year. He anticipates no difficulty in offering almost 200 by LS&A’s self-imposed deadline of the 1996–97 academic year.

  • Inauguration of a new introductory chemistry sequence for students with good high school preparation (enrolling about 2,000 students per year), revision of the other introductory chemistry sequence taken by about 4,000 students per year, and a commitment by the math department to revise its introductory calculus sequence that enrolls about 4,000 students per year. The Department of Physics also is revising its laboratory offerings that accompany the entry-level physics courses, which enroll about 4,000 students per year.

    “We believe that effective entry-level math and science courses, coupled with the First-Year Seminars, will serve as the keystone courses in engaging our students in the academic enterprise of the University during their first year here,” Martin said. “They carry the crucial message to students that the goal of a Michigan education is not merely to learn, but to learn to learn.”

    LS&A is working to revitalize undergraduate education, Martin said, because it is something that needs to be done.

    He also offered a second, more self-serving reason: “The Undergraduate Initiative is the centerpiece of the University’s strategy for maintaining its privileged status as a major research institution.”

    For the U-M to retain its place as one of the nation’s premier public research universities, he said, it must continue to receive the support of its patrons and benefactors—taxpayers, tuition-paying parents of students, alumni, foundations and other external sources of funding.

    “At the present time all of these various constituencies are demanding that we attend to the very real problems that plague higher education in institutions such as ours,” Martin added.

    Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr., who described the LS&A faculty meeting as “very upbeat,” said he was “pleased to see what LS&A is doing” and concluded that the College’s efforts are gaining momentum.