April 30, 2013

The challenge of finding what challenges students

News and Information

When Catharine Beyer embarked on a yearlong project to learn how University of Washington students were being challenged academically in their majors, she hoped she could recruit a few advisers to interview some graduating seniors about their experiences.

Instead, 65 advisers representing 33 degree-granting departments and programs volunteered (representing about half of all undergraduate programs) and since fall quarter they have interviewed more than 1,000 graduating seniors.

A student looks at a computer on the UW Quad.

Vince Stricherz

A student works on a computer while enjoying a sunny afternoon on the UW Quad.

Beyer, research scientist with the Office of Educational Assessment, conceived the UW Academic Challenge and Engagement Study as fulfilling three purposes: gathering information about how undergraduate programs are challenging students, giving students a chance to reflect on their learning and engaging advisers in the assessment process.

Beyer said the project is unique among the UW’s peer institutions.

“The fact that so many advisers volunteered to participate says a lot about how people here care about students’ learning,” she said.

Advisers received training from Beyer and Jon Peterson in educational assessment, after which they posed these questions to graduating seniors:

  • What is the most challenging work you’ve done in your major?
  • What made it challenging?
  • What did you learn to do to meet that challenge and how did you learn it?
  • What did you learn by meeting that challenge?

Results thus far seem to affirm the approaches taken in many majors.

“Our students are generally really happy with what they do in biology,” said Janet Germeraad, biology’s director of academic services.  “They are engaged in the challenges of our upper-division course work.”

“I’ve learned so much about the courses we offer,” said Elizabeth Copland, academic adviser in the School of Art. “It is clear that our students are gaining skills that will serve them in any career. Hearing about projects, papers and critiques … has made me a better adviser.”

“I was surprised at how accomplished our students are and how self-reflective and articulate they are about their educational experiences,” said Megan Styles, program coordinator and undergraduate academic adviser in Slavic languages and literatures. “We have some exceptional faculty who form strong connections with the students, and I think this feedback will help motivate them to continue putting the time and energy that they do into their teaching.”

Rick Roth, director of advising and instructional services in geography, found that his students responded strongly when confronted with an “open-ended moment, when they are forced to exercise some judgment about what ‘next step’ to take.”

For some students, challenging classes are providing a gateway to greater self-knowledge.  A psychology major, in commenting on the impact of a project, wrote: “Previously, I considered myself to be a not-scientific person – more an English major. Doing the project helps me understand [how to] read research – how it is set up and what sections to even skip when I read an article. I learned that research can actually be fun!”

Although Beyer says she was surprised and delighted by the degree of participation from advisers, for most of them this just goes with their role in the educational process. Said Roth, “I love to talk with students about their learning, partly because this is one subject in which they, not faculty, are the experts.”

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