Carnegie Foundation Report: Among Top U.S. Research Institutions, UD's Undergrad Efforts Earn High Marks

May 04, 1998

Carnegie Foundation report:

UD award:

Though the recent Carnegie Foundation report found fault with many U.S. research universities--arguing that undergraduates are too often simply "receiving what is served out to them," mainly by untrained graduate assistants--the University of Delaware was one of only five institutions cited for "making research-based learning the standard."

In a chapter on improving undergraduate education through the use of "real-world" problem solving, UD was among a handful of institutions described as implementing positive changes. The controversial April 20 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching contends that the top 125 U.S. research universities "have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate populations," but it also noted "signs of change" at a total of 18 institutions--including UD.

The report, "Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities," proposed 10 strategies for improving education for undergraduates at large research institutions, and to end to the longstanding division between research and teaching-whether in laboratories or humanities projects. In a case study, UD was recognized for adopting problem-based learning in all basic science classes "to promote active learning and connect concepts to application." In 1997, those efforts launched UD into the elite ranks of 10 U.S. institutions cited by the National Science Foundation for "bold leadership" in classrooms.

Too often at U.S. research universities, "Students are not given all the information they need to solve the open-ended 'real-world' problems, but are responsible for finding and using appropriate sources," says the Carnegie Foundation report, prepared by members of an independent commission, which included Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

Along with UD, other institutions cited for model programs were: Harvard--for peer instruction; Princeton-for junior independent work leading to a senior thesis; Duke-for interdisciplinary programs for freshmen; Stanford-for sophomore dialogues and seminars; University of Maryland-for team-taught world courses; the University of Chicago-for writing courses; and the University of Wisconsin and the University of Missouri-Columbia-for capstone learning experiences. Other institutions favorably recognized in the Carnegie Foundation report were: Carnegie-Mellon; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; State University of New York at Stony Brook; Syracuse University; University of Iowa; University of South Carolina; University of Utah; and University of Virginia.

At UD, President David Roselle noted, interest in undergraduate research has gained momentum campuswide since 1990, so that more than 90 percent of all engineering, biological and physical science professors now actively participating in providing hands-on opportunities for students. Increased support for undergraduate research and other activities that promote lifelong learning is one of Roselle's five key institutional goals, which include: maintaining a student-centered institution; continuing to increase levels of financial aid for students (which have jumped by 107 percent since 1990); physical improvements to support the best possible living and learning environment; and competitive compensation for faculty and staff.

The Carnegie Foundation report says that undergraduates at most U.S. research institutions are taught by untrained graduate assistants and fail to receive a "coherent body of knowledge" by the time of graduation. The 11 commission members suggested these 10 ways to change undergraduate education: (1) make research-based learning the standard; (2) construct an inquiry-based freshman year; (3) build on the freshman foundation; (4) remove barriers to interdisciplinary education; (5) link communication skills and course work; (6) use information technology creatively; (7) culminate with a capstone experience in which all the skills of research should be "marshalled in a project that demands the framing of a significant question or set of questions;" (8) educate graduate students as apprentice teachers; (9) change faculty reward systems; and (10) cultivate a sense of community.

Already, UD is working on a new curriculum plan incorporating many of these goals. The freshman experience will play a critical part in that plan, says Carol Hoffecker, Richards Professor of History. "Interdisciplinary course content, emphasis on writing, speaking and critical thinking, the use of mathematics to solve problems, combinations of collaborative and independent student work and the consideration of ethical, global and diversity issues all will receive greater attention through the curriculum," the UD committee's interim report says.

Graduate teaching assistants at UD benefit from unusually close faculty supervision, as well as the institution's ongoing, campus-wide efforts to improve classroom learning, says John L. Burmeister. Distinguished Alumni Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry. UD's Center for Teaching Effectiveness, for example, provides graduate teaching assistants with orientation and ongoing training, including a teaching handbook. When teaching assistants receive appropriate training and supervision, Burmeister says, they help enhance the learning experience for undergraduates because "a class of 60 quickly turns into four intimate groups of 15." Bright, motivated teaching assistants "put a human face on larger courses that might otherwise be a fairly impersonal endeavor," Burmeister adds.

University of Delaware

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