Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#93 Reinventing Undergraduate Education


Last year an important report was issued by The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. Called, REINVENTING UNDERGRADUATE EDUCATION: A Blueprint for America?s Research Universities, it is a call for linking the undergraduate experience at research universities to the unique nature of such institutions. While some readers have commented that the report is too critical of undergraduate teaching at research universities and that it does not give credit to undergraduate research at liberal arts colleges, I believe it is an important document that speaks to the issue of the relationship among teaching, learning and research. Below is a brief excerpt from the report, a complete copy of which can be found at:

Rick Reis

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Shortchanging Undergraduates

[?..research universities have too often failed, and continue to fail, their undergraduate populations. Tuition income from undergraduates is one of the major sources of university income, helping to support research programs and graduate education, but the students paying the tuition get, in all too many cases, less than their money?s worth. An undergraduate at an American research university can receive an education as good or better than anything available anywhere in the world, but that is not the normative experience. Again and again, universities are guilty of an advertising practice they would condemn in the commercial world. Recruitment materials display proudly the world-famous professors, the splendid facilities and the ground-breaking research that goes on within them, but thousands of students graduate without ever seeing the world-famous professors or tasting genuine research. Some of their instructors are likely to be badly trained or even untrained teaching assistants who are groping their way toward a teaching technique; some others may be tenured drones who deliver set lectures from yellowed notes, making no effort to engage the bored minds of the students in front of them.

Many students graduate having accumulated whatever number of courses is required, but still lacking a coherent body of knowledge or any inkling as to how one sort of information might relate to others. And all too often they graduate without knowing how to think logically, write clearly, or speak coherently. The university has given them too little that will be of real value beyond a credential that will help them get their first jobs. And with larger and larger numbers of their peers holding the same paper in their hands, even that credential has lost much of its potency????.

Why, then, should baccalaureate students give their loyalty and their money to research universities? Because the potential remains for acquiring a virtually matchless education. The research universities possess unparalleled wealth in intellectual power and resources; their challenge is to make their baccalaureate students sharers of the wealth. To realize their potential means a complete transformation in the nature of the education offered.

A New Model

What is needed now is a new model of undergraduate education at research universities that makes the baccalaureate experience an inseparable part of an integrated whole. Universities need to take advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education, rather than striving to replicate the special environment of the liberal arts colleges. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between all the participants in university learning that will provide a new kind of undergraduate experience available only at research institutions. Moreover, productive research faculties might find new stimulation and new creativity in contact with bright, imaginative, and eager baccalaureate students, and graduate students would benefit from integrating their research and teaching experiences. Research universities are distinctly different from small colleges, and they need to offer an experience that is a clear alternative to the college experience.

It is obvious that not every student should, or would wish to, attend a research university. Without attempting to characterize students at other kinds of institutions, it might be said that the undergraduate who flourishes at a research university is the individual who enjoys diverse experiences, is not dismayed by complexity or size, has a degree of independence and self-reliance, and seeks stimulation more than security. A research university is in many important ways a city; it offers almost unlimited opportunities and attractions in terms of associations, activities, and enterprises. But as in a city, the requirements of daily living may be taxing, and sorting out the opportunities and finding like-minded individuals may be difficult. The rewards of the ultimate experience, however, can be immeasurable.