Don’t centralize higher-education reform

Matt Daley

UT is capable of reforming its teaching mission on its own, and it should be allowed to do so. Amid a flurry of outside reports and think tank publications suggesting to universities ways to improve how they teach, it may be tempting to the casual observer to assume that UT lacks meaningful in-house ideas or ways to generate them. But that assumption, while somewhat understandable, is demonstrably false.

Indeed, UT is making great strides on its own. The Course Transformation Project, a major new initiative housed in the Office of the Provost, is an exemplary case of UT innovating successfully. The project focuses on introductory “gateway” courses which large numbers of students are required to take early in their degree programs. The Course Transformation Project provides grants to University departments to redesign these courses to better educate students.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the first round of course-revision proposals to be accepted for renovation all seek to improve basic science courses: biology, chemistry and statistics. These classes are guilty of being enormous and have high attrition rates. Students who would otherwise pursue careers in the sciences or medicine are often deterred by this wall of basic biology and chemistry courses, which can make students feel lost and motivate them to drop out. According to the Course Transformation Project website, some 20 percent of students who enroll in these courses do not successfully complete them. Still in their planning phases, these course-renovation projects promise to improve student learning and retention and to keep students interested in the material.

These courses are rightly the targets of reform, and the Course Transformation Project is an excellent way to reform them.

At least two aspects of this project are especially meritorious. First, the approach is bottom-up. Professors who regularly teach these courses — and enjoy doing so — are generating the proposals to improve them based on their direct classroom experiences. This should help ensure that changes are specific and appropriate. Second, the project explicitly endorses a goal-oriented approach to reform. Instead of beginning with a set of material to be mastered, the method begins with a set of goals. These goals, ideally developed with significant student involvement, drive the content and structure of a course.

These two characteristics of the Course Transformation Project give it the structure necessary to generate meaningful innovation. The project is explicitly student-oriented, and the ground-level approach lends itself well to the heavy student involvement necessary for a project like this to succeed. Involving as many students as possible will encourage more attentive engagement in coursework and provide a way to answer the perennial student question: “Why do I need to know this?” Retention of the material taught over the course of a semester will be less likely to be forgotten over the course of a summer, and a cohesive body of knowledge can be developed over time. The first few weeks of a genetics course, for instance, will not need to be spent reviewing basic information about the structure of DNA that was taught earlier in the sequence. Efficiency can be improved and education can be strengthened.

The result of such an approach has the potential to be truly transformative. In another recent UT System-wide effort also in its planning stages, called Transformation in Medical Education, UT System schools are developing partnership plans to reduce the amount of redundancy in education for future health professionals. This will decrease the time it takes for students to earn the credentials required to work in healthcare fields. Reducing time to graduation promises to benefit students by reducing debt loads, benefit institutions by decreasing education costs and benefit the state by providing more doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Building an efficient and effective undergraduate education scheme is critical to this goal, and to do that requires that students be involved.

The newly formed Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education has quickly recognized that student involvement in reform efforts is critical. Certainly, of all groups involved, students have the most at stake.

Even more fundamentally, student involvement is the only way to make reform work. And because local autonomy is the way to get students as involved as they need to be, education reform must not be micromanaged from the top. This is the reason UT and other state universities must be granted the utmost freedom in reforming their teaching missions. The targets of reform are people with goals, interests and opinions. For education reform to deliver on its extraordinary promise, it must be mindful of what students hope to gain from their time at universities and involve students constantly. Students must play the central role. Efficient, effective and real education demands nothing less.

Daley is a biology and government senior.