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December 1, 2005

Committee seeks ‘ideal’ undergraduate experience

News and Information

The ideal undergraduate experience at the UW would engage all students — not just in the classroom, but by extending intellectual life to where students live. The result of this deeper engagement would be a greater understanding of how knowledge is created, disseminated and applied.

This idea was one of the findings of the Committee to Improve the UW Undergraduate Experience, which presented its preliminary report to the November meeting of the Board of Regents. The 22-member committee, appointed just Sept. 22, worked on a fast track to gather information from the best practices of peer institutions and the ideas of stakeholders from the UW community.

The report outlined five goals:


  • Improve navigation of the UW. “Students need help to take maximum advantage of all the UW has to offer. This is a big place, a vibrant place,” said Jerry Baldasty, professor and chair of the Department of Communication and chair of the committee. “Communication with undergraduates needs to be better coordinated, because no one knows everything that’s going on that could be of interest to students. We need to make better use of all the tools available — advising, mentoring by faculty, staff, students, community members and alumni, as well as using technology.” The report suggests the creation of “one stop shopping” for access to services for the variety of students who attend the UW — residential, commuter, non-traditional and evening students.
  • Create a network of University-related learning communities. These communities will nurture academic achievement, encourage enlightened citizenship, promote diversity and support personal growth. “We can encourage the creation of communities that help students develop a life-long affinity for the University,” Baldasty said, “places where students go to talk about school-related issues that concern them.” These can be living communities, such as residence halls or the Greek system, or they can be communities that focus around different forms of knowledge, such as undergraduate research, study abroad or service learning.
  • Foster excellence in general education and provide clear direction toward the major. “The time undergraduates spend here should be used as an opportunity to introduce them to intellectual activity,” Baldasty said. This means engaging them in scholarship beginning with freshman year, creating early on an environment that encourages students in exploration and questioning.
  • Establish the major as an integrated experience that highlights research, scholarship and creative activities in each discipline. Every student should undertake a capstone or cumulative project, Baldasty said. The capstone experience should be in-depth, integrative and reflect mastery of skills and scholarship in the student’s field of study.
  • Invest in faculty. “If we are going to require even more dedication from faculty in support of undergraduate education, we need to offer greater incentives for this work,” Baldasty said. “We want to create an ethos — not a mandate — in which faculty want to become more engaged with undergraduates.”

The report is intended to be an outline and vision, not a detailed plan for implementation, Baldasty said. Provost Phyllis Wise intends to work with the committee over the next month to prioritize action steps arising from the recommendations. “The president and I will analyze the report and consult with the committee as we prioritize and focus on the ones that likely to have the greatest impact on the quality of the undergraduate experience,” she said. “Some we hope to be able to implement in a matter of months. Others may take years.”

The Faculty Senate has been conducting its own review of ways to encourage faculty engagement in undergraduate education, according to Gail Stygall, the senate’s vice chair. Stygall’s committee, composed of the council chairs of Academic Standards, Instructional Quality, Educational Technology, Student Affairs and the Senate’s representative to the former Undergraduate Education Council, is examining such issues as the reward structure for tenure, promotion and merit review; the availability of a paid quarter for developing courses that integrate teaching and research; and the creation of endowed professorships focused on teaching and learning.

“If we want to improve the undergraduate experience,” Stygall said, “we need to make excellence in teaching an explicit criterion by which we evaluate and reward faculty.” The committee also is exploring the formation of a more permanent council on undergraduate education.

Provost Wise expects that the efforts of the Faculty Senate and the committee will merge early in 2006.

The preliminary report of the committee, as well as many of its working documents, are available at http://students.washington.edu/vkh/improve/index.htm.