Initiative sets educational standards . . . the Berkeley way

Helping schools and departments think through what their undergrads should know

| 03 December 2008

A campuswide plan requiring academic departments to establish learning goals for their undergraduate-major programs might have some faculty fretting that it's a higher-education version of the test-focused No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 federal law aimed at improving learning in primary and secondary schools through standards-based education reform.

Visit the Teaching and Learning website for additional information about the Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative.

Not to worry, says Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer. Breslauer, who helped initiate the fledgling Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative, views it as a way to get departments to provide an overview of the intent behind undergraduate-major programs and to delineate learning goals, explaining how they link to core curricula and how students will be evaluated in relation to them.

Breslauer notes that the federal Department of Education, state legislatures, and accrediting agencies are all exerting pressure on higher-education institutions to implement standardized testing.

"We have never bought into that approach. For quite a while, we have been searching for ways to engage in continuous improvement in the delivery of undergraduate education," he says. "Our approach to this initiative is very different from what's happening at hundreds of universities across the country that are submitting to standardized testing as the way to demonstrate the value added of getting an education at their college or university."

The roots of the new initiative reach back to the 1990s when former Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ charged a task force to assess the campus's academic-program-review process. One of the task force's key findings was a lack of attention to undergraduate education. The review process has since been substantially revamped, and the Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative is intended to provide the additional impetus and support that departments need to address undergraduate-education issues as part of their self-studies, conducted every eight years when they are reviewed by a team of visiting scholars from peer universities.

Launched last fall, the Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative grew out of a joint recommendation from Berkeley's administration and Academic Senate, and a resolution by the Senate's divisional council. The initiative coincides with a directive from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the campus's accreditor, which has asked Berkeley's leaders to show progress on establishing learning goals and assessment procedures by November 2009.

With Berkeley's decentralized culture, a dictate from on high was unlikely to win over faculty. The Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative was designed to be "locally defined, discipline-specific, and faculty-driven," wrote Breslauer in a mid-November campus e-mail.

Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Christina Maslach's office is supporting the initiative. "Our approach is to provide a framework and support to allow departments to generate their goals organically, as part of their ongoing dialogues about the curricula," says Maslach, who also serves as co-chair on the faculty advisory committee that reviews and provides feedback on departmental learning goals. "Ideally, these conversations will be sustained and continued long after the initiative is complete as these ways of thinking about teaching and learning become a part of the department's and the campus's culture."

In the initiative's first phase, faculty representatives from each of the campus's 70 undergraduate programs attended workshops to learn about the effort, then returned to their departments to flesh out what they expect their majors to know or be able to do by the time they graduate. Then they linked those program-level goals to their existing curricula. To date, 70 percent of the departments have submitted drafts of their learning goals, which connect the knowledge and skills their majors are intended to possess with specific courses.

Case by case (studies)

Clair BrownClair Brown

Professor of Economics Clair Brown co-chairs the faculty advisory committee that reviews and provides feedback on departmental learning goals with Maslach. Initially, Brown was skeptical about the new initiative. "For me the question was, 'Is this going to be a meaningful exercise, or is it only bureaucratic?' If it's only bureaucratic, let's kill it."

Brown reports that there's been "great buy-in from departments, because they own their learning goals." The goals are seen as "living documents" that the departments can fine-tune and adjust over time.

Faculty across campus have told Brown that formulating learning goals has helped them identify weaknesses in their curricula. Her own department is a case in point. "In economics, we would like our [graduating] students to be able to present a written argument," she says. Before setting pen to paper, though, students need to conduct research, collect data, and do an analysis of their findings. Although students learn various parts of the process, only 10 to 20 percent of majors take seminars that require them to write a research paper. To address that shortcoming, the department plans to restructure some of its courses to give students the opportunity to develop and present written arguments, even if only for a short paper.

The Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative "makes the implicit explicit," says Brown, who now is looking at how to implement such efforts systemwide. "Students may not be able to make the leap between what they are learning in class and the broader learning goals that faculty take for granted as part of the educational process. Making explicit the goals and how students achieve them is extremely useful to the students, and helps departments improve their undergraduate programs," she says.

John ArnoldJohn Arnold

The initiative provides the opportunity to highlight the work that's already being done, adds John Arnold, professor of chemistry, who chairs his department's curriculum committee. "An important part of what we do here [in chemistry] is send students off to good graduate schools to do research, and our students typically do really well," says Arnold, explaining that his department's undergrads are highly sought-after. "This fact is a key indicator of the quality of our program, and it obviously validates a number of our learning goals and outcomes."

Arnold anticipates that his department's learning goals will provide a clearer picture of the cumulative nature of a chemistry degree, which typically culminates in a research project, either as part of an upper-division laboratory course or in a research group. For students to succeed, they need to know how to use databases to conduct literature reviews of their intended research area, and plan experiments and conduct them safely. They're expected to understand research ethics and conduct, and also how to write up their results for a report or publication.

"To me, the importance of the Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative is that it helps us see where we are, but also where we need to go next," says Arnold. "I hope it will help in making the case that in this university we do an exceptional job of teaching people."

Other departments are using the initiative as way to shape discussions about their undergraduate curricula. Such is the case for the architecture department, which two years ago began examining its wide-ranging curriculum, which includes architectural design, building sciences, research disciplines, and critical writing.

Jill StonerJill Stoner

Associate Professor of Architecture Jill Stoner serves on the Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative advisory committee as the representative from the Academic Senate's Committee on Teaching. She helped author her department's first draft response to the initiative. In architecture, "it's quite clear what the goals are of each individual class," she says. Addressing the initiative's questions helped "get the understanding of those [departmental] goals to transcend the boundaries of individual classes." In her role on the initiative's advisory committee, Stoner heard similar feedback from representatives from other undergraduate programs.

Some goals, says Stoner, embrace the entire curriculum of a department and apply across a spectrum of courses. Take, for instance, the notion of critical thinking, a key goal of undergraduate learning. "What is critical thinking and how is it demonstrated and measured?" asks Stoner.

The Undergraduate Student Learning Initiative gives faculty "an opportunity to address pedagogical questions for which there are not such clear answers," she says. The initiative "is not about finding a formula" to assess student learning. Instead, "using this initiative as a kind of 'prod' engenders self-inquiry into the way we teach and helps us figure out how we can continually strengthen our teaching strategies."

Stoner emphasizes that the initiative should not be seen as a veiled critique of teaching at Berkeley. "I think if you ask any faculty member on this campus, they are always looking for ways to be innovative with teaching," she says. "In academia, we are having critical conversations among ourselves all the time. The learning environment is not a fixed entity. The more we can become re-impassioned about what we're doing, the better the students will learn."