Saturday, December 1, 2012

Toward a New American University (some brainstorming)

Recently, as part of a brainstorming exercise, I compiled some of my more practical ideas aiming to transform the American university experience. The goal is to encourage application of knowledge and a smoother transition into the workplace. Here are the core ideas:

Foremost, I believe that the American university should refocus on individual student learning, application, and creative achievement. I would prioritize programs to help students develop the skills and credentials that they need for advancement, while reducing the overall cost to students and their families. In the following summary, I describe changes along the timeline of learning at "my" university...

Many students enter our colleges unprepared for advanced learning, and spend ~1 year on remedial material, delivered at high expense. My approach would incentivize thorough preparation and phase out “College 101.” Students would be required to demonstrate proficiency within their subject matter area, e.g. by entrance exam, if no suitable standardized exam exists. Guided by their results, some students would be prescribed hybrid online/offline, self-paced courses. Thus, my university would phase out large “101” classes, and make it possible for most students to complete formal study at the university in ~3-3.5 years. This would reduce cost substantially.

To help guide them through the academic experience and beyond, students need short-term and long term advising and mentorship. Upon entrance to my university, students would be assigned three kinds of mentors: a faculty major advisor; a senior student colleague in the 3rd year of the same major program; and a recent alumnus. I would also seek to place students within residential colleges with resident advisors and faculty fellows, providing broadly themed academic programs to foster social and teambuilding skills. No student would be able to "hide" in their specialty.

My university would emphasize experiences that allow students to distinguish themselves. General studies courses would be phased out, in favor of infusing major curriculum with material designed to improve students’ intellectual breadth. For example, students aiming to complete a major in science would encounter history of science, philosophy of science, and scientific writing coursework, rather than curriculum tangential to their interests. This is, I believe, key to reinvigorating the liberal arts approach. Breadth, yes; distraction, no.

Conventional A/B/C/+/- course grades would be abandoned in favor of a far simpler system with three kinds of grades: Pass with Distinction, Pass, and Fail. This system would be designed to eliminate grade inflation and simplify the grading process, while still rewarding distinction.

Completion of a summer practicum would be required of all students, and the university would develop the appropriate matchmaking facilities. Depending on the student’s major, this practicum could consist of assistance to a faculty member, an internship at a company or agency, or work in a research lab, etc. Students would receive credit for the internship via participation in a seminar during the subsequent semester.

An undergraduate thesis would be required of all students, as a means to ensure that they develop and improve written and oral communication skills. The thesis project would consist of ~1 year of research and should demonstrate a synthetic, creative achievement- not merely a book report. The final document would be placed on permanent record as a publication of the university and would bear the student’s final, cumulative grade.

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