Thursday, December 6, 2012

Essential Studies Program....some things considered

The University of Alberta offers a 27-hour credit interdisciplinary course for first-year undergraduate students. The one-grade course explores and teaches concepts and foundations of seven scientific disciplines in a unified and integrated manner spanning biology, chemistry, computing science, earth & atmospheric sciences, mathematics, physics and psychology.

Why? The stated philosophy behind the 27-credit hour program includes applying the scholarly research of teaching and learning. Two significant components encompass dissolving the boundaries between disciplines, hence interdisciplinary courses, and using pedagogies of engagement such as problem-based learning and cooperative learning.

What does the scholarly literature tell us about ways to enhance student learning, student engagement, and student retention? Vincent Tinto's recent book Completing College (2012) not only underscores interdisciplinary courses and pedagogies of engagement but also the frequency of assessment provided to students, alignment of faculty and staff actions to achieve the student learning outcomes, and high student expectations (as low expectations tend to foster failure). The number of credit hours, whether 1 or 27, is less than consequential for student learning if these aspects are not infused within the course. As aptly expressed by Naguib Mahfouz, "You can tell whether a man [or woman] is clever by his [her] answer. You can tell whether a man [woman] is wise by his [her] questions." Asking the relevant questions regarding student learning, engagement and retention is vital. Otherwise as Yogi Berra states, "If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else."

Chadron State College is fortunate to have faculty who embarked on the challenging and difficult road to improve the general education program. During the 2010-11 academic year, a faculty learning community reviewed the scholarly literature and wrote an extensive report. This process culminated in the Essential Studies Program (ESP). The six-hour, bookend interdisciplinary courses are high impact elements that abet student engagement and success. As the Making Progress (2012) report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities articulates, too few institutions of higher education offer interdisciplinary and team-taught courses. Such courses require substantial faculty commitment and work, an energetic and caring staff, and support of administration. The First Year Inquiry (FYI) and Capstone learning experiences provided in the ESP are not typically offered at public institutions but are more prevalent in private colleges and universities where the cost of a year of courses is $40,000 to $50,000. CSC offers this experience at an excellent value with outstanding professors. I have worked at three institutions of higher education. CSC faculty members are the most dedicated and conscientious. Their work exemplifies that the higher education experience is not merely instructing a course but rather transforming lives.

What about the student's role? All this effort by CSC has little meaning if a student does not make the most of the ESP. This entails studying 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside class, the minimum expected as stated by the U.S. Department of Education. Equally important is each student's responsibility to the citizens of Nebraska and the USA. Even if a student pays the full CSC tuition and fees, this covers approximately, on average, 38-39% of the cost. A quote from John Wooden sums up best what is required for participation in any endeavor whether it be sports, music, clubs, academics, or even friendships. The successful college basketball coach told his players "Nothing will work unless you do."

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