The University Record, April 24, 1995

Undergraduate education has seen a “major overhaul”

Undergraduate education has seen a "major overhaul"

By Jane R. Elgass

When LS&A Dean Edie N. Goldenberg took office in September 1989, she vowed to make reform of undergraduate education a top priority. Though some at first had a "this is only lip-service" reaction to her announcement, the process began that year and has flowered since. "There is no other research university in the United States engaged in this kind of effort," said Michael Martin, LS&A associate dean for undergraduate education.

Martin updated members of Senate Assembly at their meeting last Monday on the progress to date in addressing problems in undergraduate education, including inadequate contact between students and faculty, the lack of small classes and insufficient development in students of transferable skills.

The focus of changes so far, in what is now called the Undergraduate Initiative, has been on activities for first- and second-year students and such national issues as entry-level science courses.

Citing grassroots efforts by faculty members, Martin noted that any reform of undergraduate education must be done on a "brick-by-brick basis."

Among the pioneering efforts were conversion of chemistry courses to lab-rich, collaborative learning environments, cited as a model for the nation by peer evaluators.

The use of calculators in calculus classes prompted "a major change in pedagogy" in the Department of Mathematics, assessed as changes were being made by a rigorous evaluation process. The work in this area was cited in Science magazine.

These changes, Martin noted, represent "a major curricular overhaul that affects some 25,000 student enrollments each year. These are grassroots efforts nurtured by the dean, not just pilot programs."

Other initiatives cited by Martin:

• First-year seminars have expanded from about 25 in 1992, taught as overload or by emeritus faculty, to 700 offerings accounting for 2,200 enrollments, with 75 percent of the instructors lecturer IIIs or on the tenure track. "Students really love it," Martin said. "They talk about their classes in the residence halls." The faculty also like it, he said. Once offered the opportunity and given a chance, they find "they want to teach small-enrollment classes to first-year students." Martin anticipates 2,700-2,800 enrollments in 1995-96.

• The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), begun not to offer remedial work but to present challenges from which students could learn, has expanded from 14 students to 650 first- and second-year students. Martin says UROP students are more confident and adjust better to University life. They also have proven to the graduate and professional schools that undergraduates can successfully participate in research projects, "destroying the myth that only honors seniors are capable of working in labs."

Attrition rates have been cut by 50 percent, GPAs have gone up and the total number of hours students devote to the program has increased. "The students are happy and confident, and identify with the educational mission of the University," Martin noted. "No other university does this on this scale."Underscoring the success of the program, Martin says there has been a 98 percent return rate for faculty involved in UROP.

• In conjunction with the Information Technology Division, LS&A has undertaken 68 projects that incorporate new instructional technology, at a cost of about $650,000. Martin noted that most have originated with faculty in the humanities and that they are "absolute models to increase the engagement of students."

Martin said faculty involved in these activities have been able "to see the diversity of the types of information available, have been able to ask 'What should students learn?' rather than 'What do I want to teach?' They're learning to be coaches, to create a learning environment."

The challenge now, he said, is to determine how to continue to support the new approaches once they are embedded in the curriculum, to make sure the infrastructure is there to ensure continued success.

• Offering "languages across the curriculum"--content-based courses taught in a foreign language--is a small-scale project now that is a major LS&A priority. So far, two history courses and one film course have been offered in Spanish, a history course is available in German, as are several mini-courses and one section of calculus.

Citing a need also for invigorating entry-level language sequences, Martin said proposals have been submitted by the faculty in German, classical studies (with respect to Greek and Latin) and the Residential College "that I hope we can brag about in five years."

• Noting that the U-M once was considered a leader in residential living/learning communities--the Residential College and Pilot Program--Martin said programs initiated in the past four years are now "ripe for expansion."

These are the 21st Century Program, with a focus on multicultural learning with 250 participants, and the Women in Science and Engineering project, supported by LS&A, the College of Engineering and the Center for the Education of Women.

"These are the best ways for students to integrate their social and academic life. We have to do more."

In addition, LS&A has instituted two new requirements (one related to race, racism and ethnicity and the other to the development of quantitative reasoning skills) approved six new concentrations and seen total reorganization of eight concentrations.

The new concentrations include one in classical civilizations, demonstrating, Martin said, "that one of our finest departments has found its special niche, enabling it to appeal to a wide range of students." The new "Psychology as a Natural Science" concentration, as well as curricular changes in English, "model low-enrollment, early-contact-with-senior-faculty approaches."