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Rethinking undergraduate education

A task force spent the past academic year examining how the University can best equip students for responsible citizenship in today’s world and making recommendations for how to develop a more rigorous and challenging college experience

Sharron Hannon

What should students—and society—expect from a college education? More specifically, what should a University of Georgia diploma mean in terms of the skills and knowledge students acquire, regardless of their field of study?

These were key questions examined by a task force on general education and student learning appointed by Provost Arnett Mace last fall and charged with conducting a comprehensive examination of undergraduate education at UGA.

“Our general education requirements hadn’t been reviewed for more than a dozen years,” says Mace. “Given our rapidly changing world, I thought it necessary to determine our goals and then modify what we’re doing to fit those goals.”

Led by Vice President for Instruction Del Dunn and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jere ­Morehead, the 24-member task force took its ­charge very seriously, meeting frequently throughout the academic year and actively seeking input from ­students and faculty, as well as academic ­advisors and deans of UGA’s 15 schools and colleges.

“We spent a lot of time gathering information, reading various reports and looking at what other universities are doing,” says Dunn. “Early on, we debated about breaking into subcommittees because there was so much to be done, but we decided instead to work as a group.”

By July, finishing touches were being applied to an extensive report that contains more than 40 recommendations for enhancing general education and creating a more rigorous learning environment. According to the ­report, some of the recommendations are ambitious. Most are practical and four have been—or are in the process of ­being—implemented, including hiring more faculty, creating an Office of Service Learning, reducing the period to drop/add courses at the start of each semester, and instituting a policy to promptly notify parents of students who commit two or more alcohol-related offenses.

Another recommendation—institution of a plus-minus grading system—was previously approved by the University Council, but needs approval from the Board of Regents, which has yet to be obtained.

“In my mind, this is the single most important recommendation in the report,” says Morehead. “It’s the one recommendation that needs to be adopted, if we are going to change the culture. With a narrower grading margin, students will have to pay more attention to academic pursuits.”

An appendix to the task force report lists UGA’s peer and “aspirational” institutions across the country that use plus-minus grading and found the practice to be widely employed. UGA’s School of Law has used plus-minus grading for many years.

Other recommendations are aimed at creating a seven-day-a-week university by scheduling more classes on Fridays, encouraging more on-campus weekend activities, and expanding the hours of operation of popular campus venues such as the Student Learning Center, the Ramsey Student Center, and the libraries.

The task force did discuss several controversial topics, including changes to the Greek system, freshmen having cars on campus, and grade inflation. But rather than have the entire report overshadowed by these items, the task force did not take a strong position on them—though all are addressed in the report.

“The recommendations are thoughtful, not radical, and, if embraced by faculty and students, could dramatically improve undergraduate education on this campus,” says Rodney ­Mauricio, an associate professor in genetics, who served on the task force and was one of three authors of the report.

Before constructing any recommendations, the task force first wanted to consider what UGA students should take away from their college experience.

“We thought about what our current students need, ­given that they will have careers that will span to the middle of the 21st century,” says Dunn. “We have to prepare them for a ­future where the world will be more diverse and more connected globally, with continued rapid advances in science and technology. How do we equip them for all the changes they’ll see in their lifetimes?”

After some debate, the group came up with the following list of attributes they felt all UGA students should have developed by graduation:

• The ability to engage in complex thought, analysis and reasoning.

• The ability to communicate effectively in speech and writing.

• An appreciation for lifelong learning and community service.

• An understanding of the world through study of foreign language and international experience.

• The ability to reason quantitatively.

• The ability to learn collaboratively.

• The ability to appreciate and engage diversity in the University community and the community at large.

Task force members agreed that UGA’s current ­general ­education curriculum achieves many of these learning ­outcomes, but concluded in their report that “finding new ways to capture the imagination of both students and faculty can re-invigorate and enrich the undergraduate experience.”

To that end, the report recommends the development of new, innovative courses that will serve as a central core of a new general education requirement—courses that will emphasize depth rather than breadth, and demonstrate how knowledge is constructed in various areas of inquiry.

The goal is to reduce the number of survey courses in the general education curriculum that the report says “engage neither the faculty teaching the courses nor the students taking them.” The task force felt strongly that today’s UGA students need more challenges.

“Expectations for student performance have not increased as rapidly as the quality of our students,” says Morehead, who as vice provost for academic affairs works closely with the undergraduate admissions office and the Honors Program. “These days we’re turning away students who would have been admitted 10 years ago. We have very bright students and we’re not demanding as much of them as they’re capable of doing.”

Mauricio agrees and recently stepped up the research and writing requirements in the evolutionary biology Honors ­section he teaches.

“Working on the task force was a catalyst for me to be more rigorous and demanding in my own teaching,” he says. “I thought the students would rebel at writing a two-page paper every week for a one-credit course, but they took it in stride. As faculty, we can effect a lot of change on our own.”

Mauricio and other task force members have been ­informally polling students on the amount of time they spend studying outside of class and routinely find it’s between 12 and 15 hours a week.

“They’re surprised to learn that faculty think they should be doing at least twice that much­­—two to three hours for each hour in class,” he says.

That many UGA students don’t study as much as students at other comparable research universities was one of the findings from the 2003 National Survey of Student Engagement—a finding noted by President Michael F. Adams in his January State of the University address.

“I want the faculty to join me in making sure the rigor of the UGA curriculum and academic process has kept up with the increased quality of the student body over the past several years,” Adams said in that speech, where he also voiced support for several key recommendations in the task force report.

“The president and I are really on the same page about this,” says Mace, “and about the need to focus on offering a strong liberal arts education at the undergraduate level.”

Mace says he is very pleased with the recommendations from the task force.

“These will take some time to implement,” he says. “We can’t do this all in one year, but this report won’t sit on a shelf. My sense is that faculty and students who have been involved in this project in one way or another are very excited about the opportunity to enhance the learning environment on our campus.”

Highlights from the Task Force on General Education and Student Learning

The 43 recommendations from the task force are divided into two categories: recommendations to strengthen general ­education and recommendations for creating a campus life centered on learning. They can be implemented in a variety of ways. Some are easily adopted, others require energy and commitment. Several require significant resources. But the result can be a dramatic improvement in undergraduate education. Listed below are some additional recommendations from the task force report. The complete report is online in the “Initiatives” section of the Provost’s Office Web site:

• Take steps to ensure that tenured or tenure-track faculty teach more courses typically taken by undergraduate students in the first and second years of study.

• Modify undergraduate major requirements to enhance the ability of students to take courses outside of their discipline and recommend that departments engaged in undergraduate education examine their major requirements to ensure that they are providing their students with a broad, general education.

• Encourage all students, and require all students graduating with honors in their major, to complete a substantive capstone experience in the major.

• Incorporate significant writing assignments into more courses across the University so students are exposed to rigorous writing experiences throughout their undergraduate career.

• Establish the expectation that graduating students will be able to communicate effectively in a second language. Increase the requirement for admission to the University of Georgia from two to three high school courses in the same language no later than Fall 2009.

• Continue to develop and expand international education opportunities such as exchange programs and low-cost ­international classes and trips. Additionally, raise funds to provide scholarships for international education opportunities.

• Institute a new general education requirement in moral reasoning where students must analyze the construction of rules of ethical behavior.

• Expand the scope of the general education requirement in mathematics to two courses with a significant quantitative component.

• Increase the requirements for basic science and make ­science classes for non-majors more engaging by developing the connections between science and society.

• Continue to expand on-campus housing opportunities and improve all campus facilities. Incorporate the latest classroom designs when existing classrooms are remodeled so as to enhance the pedagogical effectiveness of these spaces.

• Expand residential learning community programs like the Creswell Learning Community, the Mary Lyndon language communities, Freshman College, and the Franklin Residential College so that a larger number of students may participate.

• Expand and implement a larger academic component to orientation, including a recommended summer reading list that will thoroughly introduce incoming students to the University’s intellectual climate, the academic expectations for students, and the general education plan.

• Encourage first-year students to participate in the First-Year Seminar Program and other innovative seminars that emphasize the importance of learning and academics as well as introducing students to faculty.

• Foster the development of a more complete teaching evaluation process where both students and faculty colleagues assess the rigor and quality of an instructor’s teaching.

Sharron Hannon is director of public relations for academic affairs.

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