Ten ways to reinvent the undergraduate learning experience


In one recent tweetDavid M. Perry, medieval historian and journalist, offers the following advice: “Every history department should have a ‘what’s going on’ f**k class shell – that counts for major and general eds.”

I couldn’t agree more strongly. Only I would not limit this idea to a specific discipline. The issues that have arisen recently – the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the rise of populist and autocratic politics, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – require multidisciplinary perspectives.

Any serious understanding of recent events in Ukraine, for example, requires knowledge of the development of nationalism and national identity not only in Ukraine, but much more broadly, of the controversies surrounding the political goals of post-Soviet Russia and the NATO, Slavophile-Westernist Disputes in Russian History, Game Theory and the Role of Emotions in International Affairs, The Fog of War, and much more.

Our campuses abound with expertise, and it is not beyond our ability to make our academic offerings more timely and relevant.

But shouldn’t we go further? The idea of ​​current-inspired courses should only be a first step in reinventing the types of learning experiences we offer.

I am of the opinion that few undergraduates are able to seriously commit to five courses simultaneously. Shouldn’t we recognize this fact and reconsider the time demands we place on students?

There are different ways to deal with the lack of time. We could:

  • Redesign three-credit hour courses into four- or even five-credit courses by adding applied or experiential components.
  • Expand the number of classes with alternative formats, including studio classes, workshop opportunities, maker classes, field or community classes, and mentored internship and research experiences.
  • Create timely research communities around a hot topic that students can participate in for credit.

Anecdote is certainly not the singular of data, but my own experience suggests that many students seek academic opportunities very different from what we currently offer. Let me suggest 10 alternatives to business as usual.

1. Award academic credit to students who participate in the development of educational tools, interactive tutorials or resource repositories.

2. Create team-led, project-based courses that lead to a tangible outcome: an app, scholarly or popular publication, online resource, or other audience-facing product.

3. Establish “change leadership” task forces to research a campus or local problem and design and implement a solution, and count their work toward an appropriate major.

4. To cultivate cultural literacy, provide credited social studies experiences that involve visits to cultural institutions, including museums and performance venues, followed by intensive discussion and analysis of the works encountered by students. undergraduate students.

5. Offer skills-based courses to better prepare students for the job market. So arts, humanities, or social science students could learn the basics of accounting, budgeting, project management, and other skills they’re likely to need after graduation.

6. Make service-learning an integral part of the undergraduate experience by providing academic credit for participation in curricular, tutoring, and extracurricular programs and other forms of community service.

7. Expand workshops well beyond creative writing and theater programs where they already exist. Each area, I believe, has techniques and skills that can be perfected in a workshop setting.

8. Establish and recognize participation in learning communities that work collaboratively to research, study and reflect on current or controversial topics. For example, students can investigate how best to incentivize certain forms of behavior or assess the likely impact of a particular public or campus policy.

9. Establish design thinking courses that examine and assess problems in particular areas, such as health care, primary, secondary or higher education, or environmental policy, and various proposed solutions.

10. Create a scaled undergraduate research sequence, in which students first learn research design and methods in a particular discipline and then undertake their own research (which may be in the laboratory, but may be archival, quantitative, qualitative, etc.). longitudinal, cross-sectional, policy-oriented or survey-based, field-based or participant-observers), followed by a public presentation of their findings.

What connects all of these suggestions is the value of learning by doing. We frequently talk about the importance of practical and applied learning and translational research. Let’s do more to make these ideas an integral part of the undergraduate experience.

The payoff, in terms of student engagement and connection with faculty, peers and the institution as a whole, will be enormous.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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