Soul Searchers Print
Written by Catherine O'Donnell   
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If you kept changing your major and rethinking your career options while your were a UW student, you had lots of company, according to the first truly comprehensive study of undergraduate education in the nation—UW SOUL.

When freshman Chris Flores arrived at the University of Washington in 1999, he made sure his schedule included a computer science course. He planned to major in business information systems. That was his thing—or so he thought. “I made my high school’s first Web page,” he says. But when he graduated five years later, his degree listed neither business nor computer science.

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Leah Schrager rehearses her performance art piece, “Getting Undressed,” with dance partner Ben Rapson. She and student Shannon Narasimhan won a Mary Gates Endowment Venture Scholarship to stage the piece. Photo by David Sosnow.
When Rachelle Rochelle started at the UW that same year, her favorite course was in communication. “I loved it,” she recalls, “so I decided to major in communication.” But the following year, she realized that studying history challenged her more—and that she liked being challenged.

And when Jeff Eaton arrived at the UW at age 16, he was keenly interested in math. That interest continued, but soon he was also doing serious work in the arts and social sciences, and studying abroad as well.

In their years at the UW, all three students changed in ways they couldn’t have predicted. That’s not unusual. But in the late 1990s, UW Research Scientist Catharine Hoffman Beyer and her colleagues wondered which parts of the college experience exert the most positive and negative influences. So they spent four years testing, talking with and otherwise learning about Rochelle, Flores and 302 other UW undergraduates.

The result is the University of Washington Study of Undergraduate Learning (UW SOUL), the first four-year, comprehensive assessment of learning among a large group of American college students. Educators have researched college learning for years, but none with the same breadth and depth—or with so much student input. “Frequently lost in the myriad of statistics was the authenticity of student voices and experiences,” says educator and author Peter Ewell.

Now that its findings are public, UW SOUL is changing the way students learn at the UW. Nationally, it’s influencing debate about standardized testing of college students.

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Flores and Rochelle were freshmen when they entered the UW, part of the 64 percent of UW SOUL participants who were first-year students when the study began (the remaining 36 percent were transfers). As a group, UW SOUL students were similar to their UW peers except for somewhat higher test scores and grade point averages, and with minorities better represented.

Each participant completed more than a dozen Web-based surveys and answered approximately 24 open-ended e-mail questions about his or her experience. Probing went beyond the surface: What kinds of writing and quantitative reasoning were faculty members asking for? How did students deal with their assignments? How did they experience diversity? How were they using information technology? What experiences outside the classroom were most important? To what extent were faculty members asking them to reflect on their learning?

About half of the students participated in initial and end-of-year interviews as well as focus groups. This group also submitted annual portfolios of their work, along with essays reflecting on their learning. The other half responded to the same e-mail questions and quarterly surveys. Depending on tasks requested and completed, students were paid either $100 or $300 per year.

The study revealed some striking similarities in the way undergraduates develop, and some equally striking differences. Every student changes in his or her own way over the course of the four years—but they all change. Interviewed during their senior year, about 85 percent of UW SOUL participants identified at least one decisive moment or influence, what the researchers call a “turning point,” in their educational development. These frequently involved internships, service learning, travel abroad or research with faculty members. Many students responded favorably to situations that challenged them. But they needed time to choose the right challenges.

Flores, the son of a retired Navy supply chief and an at-home mom, entered the UW at 18. He liked his courses, particularly in computer science, but also business. As a sophomore, Flores decided to major in business but couldn’t meet the grade requirement. Disappointed, he switched to informatics, but was again rejected because his grades weren’t strong enough. “It made me feel pretty bad,” Flores would later recall.