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Education Reform
In the United States

(Brief Summary)

Background

In response to the decline in the quality of undergraduate education in the U.S., especially in research intensive universities, the National Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, chaired by Ernest L. Boyer, was created in 1995. Consequently, the Boyer Commission published a report in 1998, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities. Subsequently, a report, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: Three Years After the Boyer Report, was published in 2002 which showed the findings of a survey conducted after three years (2001) on all research universities in the U.S. with a response rate of 74% (i.e., 91 institutions). Another follow-up report is due out in 2007.

Although it is now eight years since the Boyer Commission Report was published, and although research intensive universities referred to in this report have a much higher proportion of undergraduate students pursuing a research degree than Hong Kong University, a number of observations and recommendations made in the report are relevant to our deliberation of the new 4-year curriculum. The rest of this document highlights recommendations relating to undergraduate education. In each section, the findings reported in the follow-up report are also included.


1. Research-based (or inquiry-based) learning

  • Undergraduate education in research universities requires renewed emphasis on learning based on discovery guided by mentoring rather than on the transmission of information.
  • Education by inquiry demands collaborative effort; traditional lecturing should not be the dominant mode of instruction in a research university.
  • The basic idea of learning as inquiry is the same as the idea of research; undergraduates beginning in the freshman year can learn through research.
  • For those who do not enter graduate school, the abilities to identify, analyze, and resolve problems will prove invaluable in professional life and in citizenship.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Beginning in the freshman year, students should be able to engage in research in as many courses as possible, and to convey the results of their work effectively both orally and in writing.
  2. Undergraduates must explore diverse fields to complement and contrast with their major fields; the freshman and sophomore years need to open intellectual avenues that will stimulate original thought and independent effort, and reveal the relationships among sciences, social sciences, and humanities.
  3. Inquiry-based courses should allow for joint projects and collaborative efforts.
  4. Professional schools need to provide the same inquiry-based opportunities, particularly in the early years.
  5. Provision of carefully constructed internships can turn inquiry-based learning into practical experience; internship opportunities need to be widely available.
[Findings: Every research university has taken the issues of undergraduate education seriously. “Undergraduate research” is a standard curricular vocabulary in US research universities. Over 60% have included research-based / inquiry-based learning for science and technology students. However, only 25% have incorporated this component for social sciences and humanities students, and only about one-third have included it in a few or many introductory courses. 60% have centralized structures to promote and organize undergraduate research opportunities. About 20% considered research-based learning one of the most important measures taken to improve undergraduate education in the last three years.
The sciences and engineering curricula are well ahead of the social sciences, humanities, and arts in adapting to undergraduate research as a teaching method. Professional programs, such as business and engineering, are outstripping the arts and sciences departments in important areas such as written and oral communications.]


2. An integrated, interdisciplinary and inquiry-based freshman year

The freshman year:

  • Marks a transition in the lives of young people both socially and academically
  • Needs to bridge between high school and home and to excite the student by the wealth, diversity, scale, and scope of what lies ahead;
  • Must be intellectually integrated, so that the student will not learn to think of the academic program as a set of disparate and unconnected requirements;

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. A student should be adequately prepared to meet the intellectual challenges of that program; if remediation is necessary, it should be completed before entering the program.
  2. All first-year students should have a freshman seminar, limited in size, taught by experienced faculty, and requiring extensive writing, as a normal part of their experience.
  3. The freshman year must include opportunities for learning through collaborative efforts, such as joint projects and mutual critiques of oral and written work.
  4. The freshman program should be carefully constructed as an integrated, interdisciplinary, inquiry-based experience by designs such as:
    1. Group together students, staff and graduate assistants to work on a subject or problem for a semester or a year of study
    2. Block scheduling each student into two or three first-semester courses with the same cohort and integrate those courses to enhance peer support and integration in the curriculum. This also enables course professors to plan assignments together.
    3. Integrate those courses with the freshman seminar wherever possible so that there is wholeness as well as freshness to the first year learning experience.
    4. Allow students to explore areas not studied in high school in order to encourage students to range as freely as possible before selecting a major.
[Findings: 80% of the respondents offer academic seminars, attended by half or more of freshman. Two-thirds offer block scheduling programs, that is, each student enrolls on two or three courses with the same cohort, to provide a supportive environment and to enhance integration. Most incorporate collaborative learning, 70% using major courses and 50% using introductory courses as the locus.]


3. Build on the freshman foundation

  • The freshman experience must be consolidated by extending its principles into the following years
  • Every student should be able to feel that some faculty member knows and appreciates that student’s situation and progress and is ready to help.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Inquiry-based learning, collaborative efforts, and expectations for writing and speaking in the freshman year must be consolidated throughout the program.
  2. Advising and mentoring should be provided to help students integrate major fields with supporting courses so that programs do not become collections of disparate courses.


4. Remove barriers to interdisciplinary education

As research is increasingly interdisciplinary, undergraduate education should also be cast in interdisciplinary formats. However, the university organization of course offerings and departmental confines and reward structures have discouraged young faculty interested in interdisciplinary teaching from engaging in it. Academic advisors are likely to try and fit students’ interests into one of the existing patterns.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Lower division courses should introduce students to interdisciplinary study.
  2. Academic majors must reflect students’ needs rather than departmental interests or convenience.


5. Communications skills and course work

  • Verbal and written communication is inseparable from thought processes. Training in research cannot be considered complete without training in effective communication in dissemination of results.
  • The ability to explain, to convey new information, and to condense materials for easy absorption is essential for any profession.
  • Accommodating grammatical and stylistic errors reinforces the assumption on the part of students that clear communication is not important.
  • All faculty members should make sure that their students have ample practice in both writing and speaking.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. All student grades should reflect both mastery of content and ability to convey content. Both expectations should be made clear to students.
  2. The freshman composition course should emphasize explanation, analysis, and persuasion, and should develop the skills of brevity and clarity.
  3. Courses throughout the curriculum should reinforce communication skills by routinely asking for written and oral exercises.
[Findings: Writing skills are a priority; course requirements are increasing. About 50% of the research universities offer a two-semester course and less than 50% offer a one-semester course. However, writing courses are often taught by teaching assistants and adjuncts, not professors. This diminished the importance of such courses. Students too often feel that passing the writing course is the goal; they do not always understand that the ability to write well is a survival skill.

Oral communication experiences are not yet a priority. Less than 20% incorporate oral communication skills in the introductory courses. 30% do not offer any oral communication courses. Students’ grades in other courses are not affected by oral skills. There is little incentive for students to hone those skills unless oral communication courses are required for their majors or oral presentations are demanded by their professors.]


6. Use information technology creatively

  • Students should have the best opportunities to learn state-of-the-art practices, and learn to ask questions that stretch the uses of the technology.
  • Casual over-use of technological aids can increase the real and psychological distance between living faculty members and living students.
  • The best teachers and researchers should be thinking about how to design courses in which technology enriches rather than substitutes teaching.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Students should be required to frame meaningful questions rather than merely seek answers because computers can provide them.
  2. Students should be challenged to evaluate the presentation of materials through technology.
  3. Faculties should be challenged to create new and innovative teaching processes and materials, and they should be rewarded for significant contributions to the technological enrichment of their courses.


7. Culminate with a capstone experience

Functions of a capstone experience:

  • to ensure that the educational experience is drawn together;
  • to allow the student to understand her or his potential for serious project work and develop the aspiration to do it well;
  • to better prepare students for participation in the team projects they will encounter in professional as well as private life.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Senior seminars or other capstone courses appropriate to the discipline need to be part of every undergraduate program. Ideally the capstone course should bring together faculty member, graduate students, and senior undergraduates in shared or mutually reinforcing projects.
  2. The capstone course should prepare undergraduates for graduate work and the workplace.
  3. The course should be the culmination of the inquiry-based learning of earlier course work, broadening, deepening, and integrating the total experience of the major.
  4. The capstone experience could develop from a previous research experience or internship.
  5. Whenever possible, capstone courses need to allow for collaborative efforts among students.
[Findings: 75% of research universities require a senior seminar or capstone course in majors or programs.]


8. Change faculty rewards systems

  • Tenure and promotion tend to focus almost entirely on research or creative productivity.
  • The reward structures need to reflect the synergy of teaching and research, and the essential reality of university life: undergraduates are the university’s economic life blood.
  • Departments and deans find research productivity a more manageable criterion than teaching effectiveness when conducting academic staff appraisals. However, effective integration of research and teaching should be observable

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Departmental leaders should be faculty members with a demonstrated commitment to undergraduate teaching and learning as well as to traditionally defined research.
  2. A “culture of teaching” within departments should be cultivated to heighten the prestige of teaching and emphasize the linkages between teaching and research.
  3. Sponsors of external research grants can and should promote undergraduate participation, as the National Science Foundation has begun to do, thus facilitating the research experiences of undergraduates.
  4. The correlation between good undergraduate teaching and good research must be recognized in promotion and tenure decisions. Rewards for teaching excellence, for participation in interdisciplinary programs, and for outstanding mentorship need to be in the form of permanent salary increases rather than one-time awards.
[Findings: Only 35% of the research universities indicated undergraduate teaching as a major consideration in promotion and tenure decisions. 45% reported that excellence in teaching was encouraged and rewarded. Many teaching staff do not give teaching a high priority because of lack of recognition for promotion and tenure, insufficient time, and greater interest in research.]


9. Cultivate a sense of community

  • Whereas graduate students may readily gravitate to disciplinary colleagues around common research interests, beginning undergraduates rarely arrive with common intellectual connections.
  • A sense of community is essential in a strong undergraduate education in a research university. A sense of personal identity within both large and small communities at the research university is important and hence the campus must be a purposeful place of learning in which every student feels connected in some way.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The enriching experience of association with people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs must be a normal part of university life.
  2. Residence halls should nurture community spirit.
  3. Commuting students must be integrated into university life by making their participation easy and attractive.
  4. Collaborative study groups and project teams should be used as a means of creating customized communities for residential and commuting students.
  5. Major issues forums, multicultural arts programs, and other extracurricular sharing of ideas, opinions, and arts bring students together, particularly when groups or clubs sponsor or help sponsor the events. They should cater for the interests of as many audiences as possible.

The follow-up Report made a final observation which is highly pertinent to the HKU curriculum reform:

“Many administrators cite financial reasons for not expanding innovative undergraduate programs faster. Budgets are a matter of priorities. Unless improving undergraduate education is considered a top priority by both faculty and administrators, undergraduate education at research universities will evolve slowly at best. The will to improve undergraduates’ experience, supported by the commitment of disciplinary associations and funding agencies, must continue strong if students are to receive the best possible under-graduate education.”

(Reinventing Undergraduate Education, 2002, p. 30)


References

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. (1998). Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities. Retrieved June 22, 2006, from http://www.sunysb.edu/reinventioncenter/Studies.htm

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. (2002). Reinventing Undergraduate Education: Three Years After the Boyer Report. Retrieved June 22, 2006, from http://www.sunysb.edu/reinventioncenter/Studies.htm


(Detailed Summary)

The Boyer Report

Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University

Publication Date: 1998

Background

[Extracts from (Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduate in Research University, 1998, p. 7-8)]

Research universities share a special set of characteristics and experience a range of common challenges in relation to their undergraduate students. If those challenges are not met, undergraduates can be denied the kind of education they have a right to expect at a research university, an education that, while providing the essential features of general education, also introduces them to inquiry-based learning.

What is needed now is a new model of undergraduate education at research universities that makes the baccalaureate experience an inseparable part of an integrated whole. Universities need to take advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education, rather than striving to replicate the special environment of the liberal arts colleges. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between all the participants in university learning that will provide a new kind of undergraduate experience available only at research institutions. Moreover, productive research faculties might find new stimulation and new creativity in contact with bright, imaginative, and eager baccalaureate students, and graduate students would benefit from integrating their research and teaching experiences. Research universities are distinctly different from small colleges, and they need to offer an experience that is a clear alternative to the college experience.

Universities must recognize the urgency of addressing misdirections and inadequacies in the undergraduate experience, sharpen their own plans and timelines, and move quickly beyond the realm of interesting experiments and innovations to that of the institutionalization of genuine reform.

The recommendations made in the report include both general statements on issues of particular importance and specific suggestions for achieving the improvements recommended. Together they envision a major overhaul of baccalaureate education and consequently significant shifts in the balance of relationships of research, graduate, and undergraduate education.


Ten Ways to Change Undergraduate Education

1. Make research-based learning the standard

Inquiry-based learning:

  • Undergraduate education in research universities requires renewed emphasis on a point strongly made by John Dewey almost a century ago: learning is based on discovery guided by mentoring rather than on the transmission of information.
  • The experience of most undergraduates at most research universities is that of receiving what is served out to them. In one course after another they listen, transcribe, absorb, and repeat, essentially as undergraduates have done for centuries.
  • Education by inquiry demands collaborative effort; traditional lecturing should not be the dominant mode of instruction in a research university.

Involving undergraduates in the research process:

  • The basic idea of learning as inquiry is the same as the idea of research; even though advanced research occurs at advanced levels, undergraduates beginning in the freshman year can learn through research.
  • As undergraduates advance through a program, their learning experiences should become closer and closer to the activity of the graduate student.
  • By the senior year, the able undergraduate should be ready for research of the same character and approximately the same complexity as the first-year graduate student
  • The research university needs to make that zone of transition from senior to graduate student easy to enter and easy to cross.
  • For those who do not enter graduate school, the abilities to identify, analyze, and resolve problems will prove invaluable in professional life and in citizenship.

Specific recommendations to implement this model include:

  1. Beginning in the freshman year, students should be able to engage in research in as many courses as possible.
  2. Beginning with the freshman year, students must learn how to convey the results of their work effectively both orally and in writing.
  3. Undergraduates must explore diverse fields to complement and contrast with their major fields; the freshman and sophomore years need to open intellectual avenues that will stimulate original thought and independent effort, and reveal the relationships among sciences, social sciences, and humanities.
  4. Inquiry-based courses should allow for joint projects and collaborative efforts.
  5. Professional schools need to provide the same inquiry-based opportunities, particularly in the early years.
  6. Provision of carefully constructed internships can turn inquiry-based learning into practical experience; internship opportunities need to be widely available

2. Construct an inquiry-based freshman year

The freshman year experience:

  • Marks a transition in the lives of young people both socially and academically
  • Needs to bridge between high school and home;
  • Needs to excite the student by the wealth, diversity, scale, and scope of what lies ahead;
  • Must be intellectually integrated, so that the student will not learn to think of the academic program as a set of disparate and unconnected requirements;
  • Should provide new stimulation for intellectual growth and a firm grounding in inquiry-based learning and communication of information and ideas.

Recommendations:

  1. A student embarking upon a degree program at a research university should be adequately prepared to meet the intellectual challenges of that program; if remediation is necessary, it should be completed before entry to the program.
  2. All first-year students should have a freshman seminar, limited in size, taught by experienced faculty, and requiring extensive writing, as a normal part of their experience.
  3. Every freshman experience needs to include opportunities for learning through collaborative efforts, such as joint projects and mutual critiques of oral and written work.
  4. The freshman program should be carefully constructed as an integrated, interdisciplinary, inquiry-based experience by designs such as:
    1. Combining a group of students with a combination of faculty and graduate assistants for a semester or a year of study of a single complicated subject or problem.
    2. Block scheduling students into two or three first-semester courses and integrating those courses so that the professors plan together and offer assignments together.
    3. If possible, integrating those courses with the freshman seminar, so that there is wholeness as well as freshness to the first year.
    4. Taking advantage of time freed by advanced placement to explore areas not studied in high school in order to encourage students to range as freely as possible before selecting a major.

3. Build on the freshman foundation

The following years:

  • The freshman experience must be consolidated by extending its principles into the following years
  • In a successful research experience, a relationship of trust and respect exists among the members of a team; shared goals and community often follow.
  • Every student at a research university should be able to feel that some faculty member knows and appreciates that student’s situation and progress and is ready to help that progress.
  • Research universities may accept into their upper-class majors students who have begun their educations elsewhere. These students need to be integrated into the atmosphere of the research university and given as much as possible of the kind of inquiry-based experience that they missed.

Recommendations:

  1. The inquiry-based learning, collaborative efforts, and expectations for writing and speaking that are part of the freshman experience need to be carried throughout the program.
  2. Thoughtful and attentive advising and mentoring should integrate major fields with supporting courses so that programs become integrated wholes rather than collections of disparate courses.
  3. Mentorships should begin as early as possible and should be maintained, whenever possible, throughout a student’s academic career.
  4. Newly transferred students need to be integrated into the research experience with special seminars or similar courses comparable to the freshman seminar.


4. Remove barriers to interdisciplinary education

Barriers to interdisciplinary education:

  • As research is increasingly interdisciplinary, undergraduate education should also be cast in interdisciplinary formats. However, departmental confines and reward structures have discouraged young faculty interested in interdisciplinary teaching from engaging in it.
  • The principal barrier to interdisciplinary research and study has been the pattern of university organization that creates vested interests in traditionally defined departments. Students who find that existing majors do not suit their interests often encounter discouraging barriers; advisors will likely first try to fit those interests into one of the existing patterns.

Recommendations:

  1. Lower division courses (high school) should introduce students to interdisciplinary study.
  2. Academic majors must reflect students’ needs rather than departmental interests or convenience.
  3. Customizing interdisciplinary majors should be not only possible but readily achievable.


5. Link communications skills and course work

Needs for promoting communication in every course:

  • No idea is fully formed until it can be communicated and the organization required for writing and speaking is part of the thought process that enables one to understand material fully.
  • Training in research cannot be considered complete without training in effective communication for dissemination of results.
  • The abilities to explain, to convey new information, and to condense materials for easy absorption will be essential for any profession.
  • An essential component of all faculty members’ responsibility is making sure that their students have ample practice in both writing and speaking.
  • Forgiving grammatical and stylistic blunders reinforces the assumption on the part of students that clear communication is not important.

Recommendations:

  1. All student grades should reflect both mastery of content and ability to convey content. Both expectations should be made clear to students.
  2. The freshman composition course should relate to other classes taken simultaneously and be given serious intellectual content, or it should be abolished in favor of an integrated writing program in all courses. The course should emphasize explanation, analysis, and persuasion, and should develop the skills of brevity and clarity.
  3. Writing courses need to emphasize writing “down” to an audience who needs information, to prepare students directly for professional work.
  4. Courses throughout the curriculum should reinforce communication skills by routinely asking for written and oral exercises.
  5. An emphasis on writing and speaking in graduate courses will prepare teaching assistants for research, teaching, and professional roles.

6. Use information technology creatively

Opportunities and dangers in using information technology:

  • Because research universities create technological innovations, their students should have the best opportunities to learn state-of-the-art practices, and learn to ask questions that stretch the uses of the technology.
  • Casual over-use of technological aids can increase the real and psychological distance between living faculty members and living students.
  • The best teachers and researchers should be thinking about how to design courses in which technology enriches teaching rather than substitutes for it.

Recommendations:

  1. Faculty should be alert to the need to help students discover how to frame meaningful questions thoughtfully rather than merely seeking answers because computers can provide them. The thought processes to identify problems should be emphasized from the first year, along with the readiness to use technology to the fullest advantage.
  2. Students should be challenged to evaluate the presentation of materials through technology even as they develop an increasing familiarity with technological possibilities.
  3. Faculties should be challenged to continue to create new and innovative teaching processes and materials, and they should be rewarded for significant contributions to the technological enrichment of their courses.
  4. Planning for academic units, such as block-scheduled courses for freshmen or required courses for individual majors, should include conscientious preparations for exercises that expand computer skills.
  5. Active interchange between units on campus and through professional meetings should encourage and inspire faculty to create new computer capabilities for teaching and to share ideas about effective computer-based learning.

7. Culminate with a capstone experience

Functions of a capstone experience:

  • to ensure that the educational experience is drawn together;
  • to enable the student to bring to a symbolic conclusion the acquisition of knowledge and skills that has preceded this final effort;
  • allow the student to understand her or his potential for serious work and develop the aspiration to do it well;
  • to better prepare students for participation in the team projects they will encounter in professional as well as private life

Recommendations:

  1. Senior seminars or other capstone courses appropriate to the discipline need to be part of every undergraduate program. Ideally the capstone course should bring together faculty members, graduate students, and senior undergraduates in shared or mutually reinforcing projects.
  2. The capstone course should prepare undergraduates for the expectations and standards of graduate work and the professional workplace.
  3. The course should be the culmination of the inquiry-based learning of earlier course work, broadening, deepening, and integrating the total experience of the major.
  4. The major project may well develop from a previous research experience or internship.
  5. Whenever possible, capstone courses need to allow for collaborative efforts among the baccalaureate students.

8. Educate graduate students as apprentice teachers

Redesigning graduate education to prepare students for teaching and other professional roles:

  • Many students go directly from their bachelor’s degrees into graduate school and are expected to know how to teach with little more than a few days or weeks of casual training and with little or no supervision throughout the year.
  • It creates great stress at the time the new graduate student is most vulnerable, sometimes leading to early burnout and often to poor teaching.
  • The situation creates the greatest possibility for poor teaching at the time that the freshman needs the best teaching and mentoring.
  • There is a striking discrepancy now between the nature of graduate work and the nature of the professional careers for which graduate students are being prepared.
  • The skills of writing and speaking are by and large ignored in graduate education. When graduate students become teaching assistants, this can have a profound effect on undergraduate education.

Recommendations:

  1. All graduate students should have time to adapt to graduate school before entering classrooms as teachers.
  2. Graduate apprentice teachers should be assisted by one or more of the following means: seminars in teaching, thoughtful supervision from the professor assigned to the course, mentoring by experienced teachers, and regular discussions of classroom problems with other new teachers.
  3. Graduate students should be made aware of their classroom roles in promoting learning by inquiry. They should not be limited to knowing the old modes of transmission of knowledge without understanding the role of student and faculty as joint investigators.
  4. Graduate courses need particular emphasis on writing and speaking to aid teaching assistants in their preparation for teaching as well as research functions.
  5. Graduate students should be encouraged to use technology in creative ways, as they will need to do in their own careers.
  6. Compensation for all teaching assistants should reflect more adequately the time and effort expected.
  7. Graduate students should be encouraged through special rewards for outstanding teaching. Financial awards should be established for outstanding teaching assistants. The permanent faculty should make it clear through these awards and through all they do that good teaching is a primary goal of graduate education.


9. Change faculty rewards systems

Current rewards system:

  • Discussions concerning tenure and promotion are likely to focus almost entirely on research or creative productivity.
  • Department head when making salary recommendations may look almost exclusively at the grants or publication record.
  • The reward structures in the modern research university need to reflect the synergy of teaching and research – and the essential reality of university life: that baccalaureate students are the university’s economic life blood and are increasingly self-aware.
  • Departments and deans find that for passing judgment on peers, research productivity is a much more manageable criterion than teaching effectiveness.
  • Evaluating good teaching will always be difficult, but effective integration of research and teaching should be observable, as should the development of interdisciplinary approaches to learning.

Recommendations:

  1. Departmental leaders should be faculty members with a demonstrated commitment to undergraduate teaching and learning as well as to traditionally defined research.
  2. The correlation between good undergraduate teaching and good research must be recognized in promotion and tenure decisions.
  3. A “culture of teaching” within departments should be cultivated to heighten the prestige of teaching and emphasize the linkages between teaching and research.
  4. Prestigious professional research meetings such as national disciplinary conferences and the Gordon Conferences should contain one or more sessions that focus on new ideas and course models for undergraduate education.
  5. Sponsors of external research grants can and should promote undergraduate participation, as the National Science Foundation has begun to do, thus facilitating the research experiences of undergraduates.
  6. Rewards for teaching excellence, for participation in interdisciplinary programs, and for outstanding mentorship need to be in the form of permanent salary increases rather than one-time awards.
  7. Teachers capable of inspiring performance in large classes should be recognized and rewarded appropriately.
  8. Committee work at all levels of university life should be greatly reduced to allow more time and effort for productive student-related efforts.


10. Cultivate a sense of community

Needs to foster a community of learners:

  • The complexity of research universities can also be baffling and overwhelming to students, making them feel lonely, remote, and too anxious for optimal learning.
  • A sense of community is an essential element in providing students a strong undergraduate education in a research university.
  • Whereas graduate students may readily gravitate to disciplinary colleagues around common research interests, beginning undergraduates rarely arrive with common intellectual connections.
  • It is important to have a sense of personal identity within both large and small communities at the research university and hence the campus must be a purposeful place of learning in which every student feels special connections.

Recommendations:

  1. Research universities need to cultivate a sense of place through appropriate shared rituals that are attractive to the widest possible constituencies within the student population.
  2. The enriching experience of association with people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs must be a normal part of university life.
  3. Residence halls should nurture community spirit.
  4. Commuting students must be integrated into university life by making their participation easy and attractive.
  5. Collaborative study groups and project teams should be used as a means of creating customized communities for residential and commuting students.
  6. Common interests, such as that in maintaining the beauty of the campus setting or supporting charitable or service projects, should be cultivated by creating teams that build community as they work toward a shared goal.
  7. Major issues forums, multicultural arts programming, and other extracurricular sharing of ideas, opinions, and arts bring students together, particularly when groups or clubs sponsor or help sponsor the events.
  8. Campus programming, such as lectures and performing arts programs, taken as a whole, need to touch the interests of as many audiences as possible.

The Boyer Report Follow-up Survey

Reinventing Undergraduate Education: Three Years After the Boyer Report by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University

Background

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University issued recommendations in 1998 for Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America’s Research Universities. This follow-up report describes the extent to which research universities are dealing with some specifics recommended in that report, based on a survey of administrators responsible for undergraduate programs. A total of 91 institutions, 74% of all research universities, responded.


1. Make research-based learning the standard

The Boyer Commission called for making research-based learning the standard in research universities, and university programs reflect this goal. Opportunities to participate in research and creative activities are now an established component of undergraduate programs

Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities

  1. All research universities offer undergraduates opportunities for supervised research or creative activities, but the number of undergraduates engaged in research and creative activities varies among campuses:
    • 16% of research universities have all or 75% of their undergraduates participating.
    • 26% engage about 50% of their undergraduates.
    • 48% have less extensive programme, involving only 25% of their undergraduates.
    • 9% are lacking of such quantitative information about their undergraduate programs.
  2. To continue to develop opportunities for research-based learning, universities need to focus greater attention on the social sciences and humanities:
    • 62% universities reported participation by half or more of their laboratory science students, 44% reported for engineering, 25% for social sciences and 21% for humanities.
  3. Survey respondents view the development of undergraduate research opportunities as an important recent achievement; 21% of the survey respondents cite this as one of the most important actions their campuses have taken to improve undergraduate education in the last three years.

Inquiry-Based Learning

  1. Faculty and administrators are developing inquiry-based techniques and thinking and talking about inquiry-based learning:
    • 65% of the survey respondents indicated that their campus encourages and helps faculty develop techniques for inquiry-based learning.
    • Among these universities, 17% reported significant curricular change as a result, 56% reported some instances of change, and only 19% reported a limited effect or no effect.
  2. Despite this attention, the use of inquiry-based teaching is limited:
    • Only 20% of the survey respondents reported its use in many introductory courses, 21% in ‘several key introductory courses’ and 38% in ‘a few’ introductory courses.

Expanding Opportunities for Research-Based Learning

  1. Many research universities have made the commitment of a full implementation of research-based learning in undergraduate curriculum, but only to selected students, such as honors students.
  2. Research universities are using a variety of techniques to promote undergraduate research activities:
    1. Offering public events or symposia for the presentation of projects;
    2. Offering opportunities for undergraduates to publish research papers or abstracts;
    3. Emphasizing research-based learning in student recruitment;
    4. Special programs for high-achieving students;
    5. Giving faculty incentives to develop opportunities for undergraduate research and creative activities.
  3. Approximately 60% of all research universities have established centralized structures to promote and organize undergraduate research opportunities:
    1. 21% reported a strong centralized organization, such as an office that controls funds, sets campus-wide policies, and has broad responsibility for promoting undergraduate research and creative opportunities.
    2. 38% reported that departments control funding and policies, but a loosely structured administrative organization provides coordination.
    3. 33% reported that opportunities for undergraduate research and creative activities are organized at the departmental level.

2. The freshman experience

The Boyer Commission called for a first-year experience providing stimulation for “intellectual growth and a firm grounding in inquiry-based learning,” with seminar learning to open new intellectual horizons and block scheduling to provide a supportive atmosphere.

Developing or expanding freshman seminars and developing or expanding learning communities or block scheduling programs are two of the most frequently cited actions research universities have taken in the last three years to improve undergraduate education.

Freshman Seminars

  1. More than 80% of the universities offer academically oriented seminars, which are mostly taught by regular full-time faculty, to their first-year students. 42% of which enroll half or more of their freshman class in these seminars

Block Scheduling

  1. To provide a supportive environment for adjustment to university life, two-thirds of all research universities have a program that schedules freshmen so that each student has two or three courses with the same cohort.
  2. Some universities use their block-scheduling initiatives to offer an integrated freshman curriculum.

3. Building on the freshman foundation

According to the Boyer Report recommendations, the freshman year is the introduction to an education that should be replete with opportunities for research, inquiry-based learning, opportunities to work collaboratively with other students, writing and speaking experiences, and a capstone experience embodying all of these aspects. Undergraduate education should be designed as a continuum that prepares students for continued learning and professional work through developing their individual talents to formulate questions and seek answers.

  1. Collaborative learning experiences are being developed through departments, not as a university-wide initiative:
    1. 43% reported that collaborative learning is promoted in some departments or programs.
    2. 13% identified it as a significant curricular issue.
    3. 11% reported it to be frequently discussed.
  2. Most faculty do not incorporate collaborative student work into their pedagogy:
    • 70% of the survey respondents cited majors courses as locus of collaborative learning.
    • More than 50% reported its use in introductory courses to engage entering students.


4. Communication skills

The Boyer Commission called for undergraduate programs that provide graduates with strong written and oral communication skills. Research universities devote considerable attention to writing, but much less to oral communications.

Teaching Writing

  1. Almost all the research universities included in the survey sample have freshman writing courses: about half (52%) offer a two-semester sequence, while 43% offer a one-semester course.
  2. In addition to freshman writing requirements:
    • 38% survey respondents offer other lower-division writing courses;
    • 51% offer upper-division writing courses;
    • 32% have other upper-division writing requirements;
    • 22% have some other way of infusing extended writing projects into the undergraduate curriculum.

Teaching Oral Communication

  1. Few universities have implemented campus-wide requirements to develop good oral communication skills:
    1. 19% reported that oral communication skills are taught in their university’s introductory courses.
    2. About 30% reported that they do not offer any courses or activities to promote development of these skills.
  2. Teaching of oral communication skills are more commonly identified in specific programs, particularly in professional programs:
    1. 46% survey respondents reported opportunities for students to make oral presentations in special settings, such as reporting on their undergraduate research initiatives.
  3. Some universities observed that rhetoric and public speaking courses are increasingly popular electives.


5. Capstone experience

The Boyer Commission called for completing students’ undergraduate education with a major project to utilize and further develop the research and communications skills students have learned throughout their university careers.

  1. Capstone courses are generally established as departmental, rather than university-wide initiatives: almost 75% of the research universities represented in the survey require a senior seminar or capstone course in some majors or programs.

6. Educate graduate students as apprentice teachers

The Boyer Commission emphasized the importance of preparing students to teach undergraduates as part of their graduate education, and research universities have a variety of programs to achieve this goal.

  1. Most research universities (70%) provide mandatory orientation programs to train teaching assistants, and 66% provide special programs for teaching assistants whose native language is not English. Most of those that do not offer mandatory orientation provide optional orientation.
  2. To extend teaching-assistant training throughout the academic year:
    • 60% of the respondent universities offer an on-going series of optional programs and short courses;
    • 63% offer semester-long programs in some departments;
    • 11% offer semester-long seminars for all teaching assistants.

7. Change faculty reward systems

The Boyer Commission called for faculty reward systems that promote excellent undergraduate education, including an emphasis on teaching in promotion and tenure criteria and other rewards for teaching excellence.

  1. There is a significant and increasing emphasis on teaching, although faculty incentives remain a complex issue in research universities:
    • 35% of the survey respondents characterized undergraduate teaching as a major consideration in promotion and tenure decisions.
    • 30% reported that it is a limited consideration or varies by department (23%).
    • 45% reported changes in the last three years to encourage excellence in undergraduate teaching.
  2. Teaching excellence can be encouraged by rewards beyond the tenure system:
    1. Teaching awards for classroom instruction;
    2. Rewards for undergraduate activities other than classroom teaching;
    3. Curriculum development grants;
    4. Salary supplements for teaching key courses.
  3. Despite administrative efforts, many faculty do not yet give teaching a high priority because of:
    • Insufficient time;
    • Greater interest in research;
    • The perception that the promotion and tenure process does not really value undergraduate teaching;
    • Simply not knowing what to do.

Recent developments and next step

  1. Important initiatives taken by research universities in the previous three years to improve undergraduate education:
    1. Revising the general education curriculum, including increasing the emphasis on teaching writing, communication, and math skills (37%);
    2. Emphasizing first year curriculum, including creating or expanding freshman seminars and establishing or expanding learning communities (27%);
    3. Expanding undergraduate research opportunities or programs, including creation of a central office to administer programs and increased funding (21%);
    4. Encouraging and supporting faculty efforts to improve undergraduate education, Creating or strengthening a teaching and learning center (11%), faculty development initiatives (9%), and new faculty incentives (7%).
  2. Important action research universities could take to make further improvements:
    • Changing faculty incentives and increasing the integration of research and teaching (15%);
    • Hiring more faculty/decreasing class size (11%);
    • Administrative changes, including creation of an undergraduate college, better integration between academics and student affairs, and institutional commitment to undergraduate education (8%);
    • Curricular development, including revising the general education curriculum and writing programs, expanding inquiry-based and experiential learning, improving pedagogy, improving first-year experiences, and developing capstone experiences.


Observations

[Extracts from (Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduate in Research University, 2001, p. 29-30)]

In the last several years, universities have dramatically increased the attention paid to undergraduate education, and disciplinary associations and funding agencies have shown growing interest. First, every research university is approaching the issues of undergraduate education seriously. The pace of action has accelerated, and the rhetoric has changed: “undergraduate research,” for example, is a staple of most universities’ curricular vocabulary.

Second, institutions have not yet fulfilled their ambitions for undergraduate programs although many offer special opportunities such as research and freshman seminars to the best students.

Third, the sciences and engineering curricula are well ahead of the social sciences, humanities, and arts in adapting to undergraduate research as a teaching method. Further, professional programs, such as business and engineering, are outstripping the arts and sciences departments in important areas such as written and oral communications.

Fourth, oral communication experiences are not yet a priority. Oral communications courses are not deemed important across the university; students’ grades in other courses are not affected by oral skills. There is little incentive for students to hone those skills unless the courses are required for their majors or oral presentations demanded by their professors.

Fifth, writing skills are a priority; course requirements are increasing. But writing is often taught in ways that diminish its importance in the eyes of students. The courses are often taught by teaching assistants and adjuncts, not professors. Furthermore, if professors do not require extensive written work in their majors, students will not think writing skills matter for their professional life. Students too often feel that passing the writing course is the goal; they do not always understand that the ability to write well is a survival skill.

Sixth, many administrators cite financial reasons for not expanding innovative undergraduate programs faster. Budgets are a matter of priorities. Unless improving undergraduate education is considered a top priority by both faculty and administrators, undergraduate education at research universities will evolve slowly at best. The will to improve undergraduates’ experience, supported by the commitment of disciplinary associations and funding agencies, must continue strong if students are to receive the best possible under-graduate education.

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