Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
Is it possible to agree on the fundamental skills required of all college
graduates independent of discipline? The article below, by Craig
Beyrouty, co-director of the Teaching and Faculty Support Center at the
University of Arkansas, http://www.uark.edu/misc/tfscinfo/TFSC.html
answers the question in the affirmative.
UP NEXT: Managing Your Academic Career
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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MASTERING THE FUNDAMENTALS
by Craig Beyrouty
How often have we heard our students complain, "But this isn't freshman
English," in response to our grading for grammar as well as content? Or
have you experienced the disgruntled senior who resists your efforts to
engage her in classroom group activities because she thinks that exercises
in communication are "only for freshman orientation"? And how about the
student who cannot solve for x in a simple ratio, never expecting that he
will need to know how to do this outside of math class?
As TFSC Co-Directors, we hear from faculty in many disciplines the
recurring theme that the writing, speaking, and critical problem-solving
skills of many students need improvement. Yet students often seem to
regard their overall educational experience at the University not as a
continuum of interconnected concepts and ideas but as a mix of classes in
which discrete, independent blocks of information are taught-some of which
are irrelevant to their chosen professions.
Should, in fact, a student in soil science be accountable not only for the
technical content of what he writes, but also his skill in writing it?
Should a student in psychology be expected to put as much effort into the
delivery and style of an oral presentation as she does into the accuracy of
the information presented?
If we truly believe that educated persons should have a firm grasp of
fundamental skills as well as technical content, we must demonstrate
consistently the professional relevancy and importance of these skills in
the courses we teach. Otherwise, we faculty will contribute to the notion
among students that technical expertise is paramount and that the abilities
to communicate clearly and think critically are secondary-skills only for
high school students or college freshmen.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED...
When each of us learned to ride a bicycle, we spent weeks, months, or (for
some of us) years of riding, falling, riding, falling, riding, and falling
before we mastered the skill. We did not become competent riders
overnight. With coaching from parents, friends, or siblings, we practiced
early and late until our riding skills had become almost second nature to
I suggest that certain academic skills also should be second nature to all
students who graduate from the University, regardless of specific
discipline. Freshman courses in English, communication, and mathematics
expose students to fundamental concepts in these disciplines. But it is
incumbent upon faculty to provide students with opportunities to practice
these skills across the curriculum.
The process of skill-building might include some combination of--
*Models of clear writing, speaking, and communication so that
students have standards for emulation
*Opportunities to refine skills in writing, speaking, developing and
articulating new ideas, and critical and creative thinking
*Feedback from faculty to help students to assess their levels of
ONE EXAMPLE: SHARPENING THE PEN
Several years ago, Dr. Leo Van Scyoc from the Department of English
visited numerous departments around campus presenting a concept called
"writing across the curriculum." He explained that students could improve
their writing only if they were given opportunities to practice this skill
and receive feedback
Dr. Van Scyoc gave examples of simple writing exercises, such as the
two-minute paper and the double-entry notebook, that provide opportunities
for students to articulate or develop an idea in written form. Several
faculty embraced this concept and continue to incorporate writing into
their courses, providing feedback not just on the content of an exercise
but also on the quality of the writing.
Although few of us teach English formally, we all should be able to
provide meaningful responses to each of our students to help them improve
not only the content of their written work but their writing skills as
well. Most of us learned to be better writers by a similar process. We
have spent years since our own freshman English courses refining our skills
by writing dissertations, letters, research proposals, manuscripts, and
class exercises. Over the years we have benefited from the comments and
critiques of reviewers, colleagues, teachers, and students. Helpful
feedback has also enhanced our speaking and critical thinking skills.
NO WAY, YOU SAY?
"Identifying a set of academic fundamentals is impossible! We are too
diverse to reach a consensus on specific academic skills!"
These are real concerns. However, although our faculty represent many
unique disciplines and personal perspectives, I believe that we can agree
on a set of fundamental skills which define an educated individual, and in
which all graduates from this institution can and should be proficient.
For example, complete this sentence: "Every student who receives an
undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas should be able to. . .
Possible answers might include...
* "clearly articulate an idea orally and in writing"
* "critically analyze a situation, written document or concept"
* "provide creative suggestions or solutions to problems"
* "contribute to a group endeavor"
* "work productively in a professional environment"
* "make ethical decisions"
Answers will vary, of course, and should be the subject of discussion.
But once we achieve a broad consensus, we can begin to make clear to
students our commitment to the mastery of certain academic fundamentals.
In time, students will expect some writing assignments in a math class,
group approaches to problem-solving in accounting, and oral presentations
in kinesiology. Faculty will be less frustrated that "they are all alone"
in requiring these activities in their classes, and student resistance and
reluctance to participate may decrease.
It is possible to develop a stimulating and demanding curriculum which is
technically relevant to our disciplines but which also addresses the
academic fundamentals that characterize an excellent education. All are
essential in the professional worlds students will enter.
We owe it to our students at least to begin the dialogue.