SUES gives update on undergrad curriculum changes

May 13, 2011, 2:06 a.m.
SUES gives update on undergrad curriculum changes
History professor James Campbell '83 Ph.D. '89, who co-chairs the Study on Undergraduate Education with biology professor Susan McConnell, addresses the Faculty Senate with the SUES committee's second update. The meeting focused on the shortcomings in undergraduate education and proposed solutions. (Courtesy of Linda Cicero)

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) served as the focal point of Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting. History professor James Campbell ‘83 Ph.D. ‘89 and biology professor Susan McConnell, who jointly chair SUES, delivered a presentation on the shortcomings of the undergraduate curriculum and general solutions to these shortcomings.

Campbell noted that institutions of higher learning have seen an increase in the rigor of their undergraduate majors — specifically, an “escalation of what we expect per unit.” This change in rigor is particularly “acute in the so-called STEM fields” and “has been most acute at Stanford,” he said.

Undergraduate requirements bring an added challenge by reinforcing a culture of instrumentality in which students strategically choose classes to check off general education requirements (GERs). “Many students here simply game the system” by basing their class selection on courses that count for multiple GERs and “the likely percentage of A’s,” Campbell said. Detailed data on students’ course selections demonstrated “a very strong culture of instrumentality,” he added.

Another danger in current Stanford trends is the foreclosing of opportunities as students isolate themselves in “silos” rather than exploring different areas of study.

According to Campbell, at the crux of the SUES agenda is a push to “reclaim a vision of liberal education.” More specifically, SUES maintains that the GERs should be modified to introduce students to a wide array of areas in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, applied sciences and technology. This aim goes hand in hand with an underlying commitment to cultivate students who are responsible and well-informed members of society, according to the SUES co-chairs.

Under the current GER system, undergraduates must complete a three-part Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) series, a two-part Program Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) series, five Disciplinary Breadth courses, two Education for Citizenship courses, one Writing in the Major (WIM) course and a foreign language component.

But one of the problems with this system, the co-chairs argued, is a front-loading of GER requirements. Many of these requirements are completed freshman year. This frontloading can be especially detrimental to the humanities, since some students view humanities GERs as “something you need to get through” before proceeding to “real” courses, Campbell said.

“There’s no need to frontload the humanities in the freshman year,” McConnell said.

Campbell detailed the “ideal arc” of an undergraduate’s four years on the Farm: exploration for freshman year, focus for sophomore year, reflection for junior year and synthesis for senior year.

“We are thinking very hard about the senior year,” McConnell said, alluding to potential capstone projects.

She noted that a reform of undergraduate education comes with “a lot of trade-offs between freedom and structure.” On the one hand, the SUES committee wants students to have the flexibility to pursue their academic passions; on the flip side, it sees the need for structure to guide and provide freshman with a shared, first-year experience.

McConnell stated that SUES was “drawn to the idea that every freshman take a big ideas course.”

This course would provide a meta-dimensional look at how knowledge is created and transition students toward university-level thinking. The strategy is to promote “the use of pedagogical strategies that are specific to freshmen” and move forward with what works. She also alluded to possible development of new courses on topics such as sustainability and global warming.

McConnell also underlined the important role of introductory seminars. Two-thirds of freshmen take these seminars and, by the end of sophomore year, this statistic goes up to 75 percent. SUES is still deliberating the pros and cons of requiring students to take a seminar.

The co-chairs cited another successful model for undergraduate education.

“In the freshman year, we can capitalize on the success of SLE,” McConnell said.

Given the fact that 96 percent of students live on campus, the SUES committee considered further “integrating learning into the residences,” as SLE currently does.

Other notable recommendations include a lasting commitment to breadth, an appreciation of diversity and difference and a new commitment to scientific analysis. The latter objective would ensure that all students — not only those in “techie” fields — have an understanding of scientific fact, theory and inductive and deductive reasoning.

Throughout the report, Campbell and McConnell both referenced the Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE), a predecessor to SUES that reevaluated the undergraduate curriculum in 1994. According to Campbell, the CUE study found that “Stanford was a premier research university and a body of undergraduates that had no idea what that meant.” The latter statement no longer applies, Campbell said, but more should be done.

Thursday’s presentation was the third report by SUES to the Faculty Senate this year. A full report — with more definitive recommendations — will be made in the fall of 2011.

“Between now and next fall, one of the things I’d like to see is very, very clear elevator speeches,” Etchemendy said, referring to the need for clearly delineated goals that could be retained by both faculty and student over time.

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