Taking the lead on learning

We hear talk on this campus and at other universities about the importance of educating the citizens and leaders of tomorrow. But what does that really mean?
By
March 29, 2007

We hear talk on this campus and at other universities about the importance of educating the citizens and leaders of tomorrow. But what does that really mean?

As a public university, we need to be accountable to our students for the education they receive. Students, faculty and parents should know at the outset what skills students should expect to master by the time they graduate. That's why a critical step in our strategic-positioning effort is the development and adoption of well-articulated and carefully considered student learning outcomes.

With input from students and extensive consultation among faculty and staff - including recent discussion at the University Senate - the University of Minnesota has taken the lead in developing two distinct but complementary sets of outcomes: one for learning that takes place in the classroom and one for learning that takes place outside of the classroom.

Our proposed classroom student learning outcomes expect that at the time of receiving a bachelor's degree, students:

• Can identify, define and solve problems

• Can locate and critically evaluate information

• Have mastered a body of knowledge and a mode of inquiry

• Understand diverse philosophies and cultures within and across societies

• Can communicate effectively

• Understand the role of creativity, innovation, discovery and expression across disciplines

• Have acquired skills for effective citizenship and life-long learning.

While these concepts have been embedded in our academic programs through the leadership of faculty, articulating them in a coherent way will help guide faculty in the future across the University as they develop curricula, plan individual courses, design syllabi, construct learning activities and assess the student learning that occurs in every aspect of student experience.

Importantly, these outcomes will help students see the connections among individual courses and will provide a framework for students, teachers and advisers in discussing the goals of undergraduate education.

The University is committed to the principle that learning takes place throughout a student's university experience - within the classroom and beyond. In this regard, we have identified a set of characteristics that we expect our students to demonstrate and develop as they work toward their degree:

• Responsibility and accountability by making appropriate decisions about behavior and accepting the consequences of their actions

• Independence and interdependence by knowing when to collaborate or seek help and when to act on their own

• Goal orientation by managing their energy and attention to achieve specific outcomes

• Self-confidence/humility by knowing their personal strengths and talents and acknowledging their shortcomings

• Resilience by recovering and learning from setbacks or disappointments

• Appreciation of differences by recognizing the value of interacting with individuals with backgrounds and/or perspectives different from their own

• Tolerance of ambiguity by demonstrating the ability to perform in complicated environments where clear cut answers or standard operating procedures are absent.

What does articulating these outcomes mean for students and the University? First, it makes explicit our expectations regarding the skills our students should demonstrate and further develop through their co-curricular experiences. Second, the developmental outcomes provide common language which students, facwulty and staff can use in discussing the impact of both curricular and co-curricular experiences.

Taken in tandem, the learning and developmental outcomes frame the learning environment we seek to provide for University undergraduates. For instance, as a student, consider how these outcomes might relate to these questions: What groups should you join, and why? What classes should you choose and why? Where should you study abroad and why? How might you demonstrate "tolerance of ambiguity" in the context of student employment, undergraduate research experiences, service-learning opportunities, internships and learning abroad?

The learning outcomes form a part of a new University partnership and experience. Students, faculty and staff will work together, using a standard set of outcomes to support and monitor learning in its broadest sense.

We will continue to align outcomes with our values. We're on our way - through strategic planning - to creating a new undergraduate learning experience at the University of Minnesota. We believe such an approach might be unique and a model for universities around the world.

E. Thomas Sullivan is the senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost at the University. Please send comments to letters@mndaily.com.

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