10 Ways to Reimagine the Undergraduate Learning Experience

It’s past time to break out of the box of three-credit-hour lecture and seminar courses.

April 6, 2022

In a recent tweet, David M. Perry, a medieval historian and journalist, offers the following piece of advice: “every history department should have a ‘what the f**k is happening’ class shell - that counts for the major and gen eds.”

I couldn’t agree more strongly. Only I wouldn’t limit this idea to a specific discipline. The issues that have recently arisen—the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, the rise of populist and autocratic politics, the Russian invasion of Ukraine—require multidisciplinary perspectives.

Any serious understanding of recent events in Ukraine, for example, requires knowledge about the development of nationalism and national identity not just in Ukraine, but far more widely; the controversies surrounding post-Soviet Russian and NATO policy objectives; the disputes between Slavophiles and Westernizers in Russian history; game theory and the role of emotions in international affairs; the fog of war; and much more.

Our campuses are filled with expertise, and it isn’t beyond our ability to make our academic offerings more timely and relevant.

But shouldn’t we go a step further? The idea of current events–inspired courses should only be a first step in reimagining the kinds of learning experiences we offer.

I am of the view that few undergraduates are capable of seriously engaging with five courses simultaneously. Shouldn’t we acknowledge that fact and reconsider the time demands we place on students?

There are various ways we could address the time squeeze. We could:

  • Reimagine three-credit hour courses as four- or even five-credit classes by adding applied or experiential components.
  • Expand the number of courses with alternative formats, including studio classes, workshopping opportunities, maker courses, field- or community-based classes, and mentored internship and research experiences.
  • Create timely communities of inquiry around a current hot topic that students can participate in for credit.

Anecdote is certainly not the singular of data, but my own experience suggests that many students crave academic opportunities that are very different than what we currently offer. Let me suggest 10 alternatives to business as usual.

  1. Award academic credit to students who participate in the development of instructional tools, interactive courseware or resource repositories.
  2. Create faculty-led team- and project-based courses that result in a tangible outcome: an app, a scholarly or popular publication, an online resource, or another public-facing product.
  3. Establish “change leadership” working groups to research a campus or local problem and devise and implement a solution, and count their work toward an appropriate major.
  4. To cultivate cultural literacy, offer for-credit humanities experiences that involve visits to cultural institutions, including museums and performance venues, followed by intensive discussion and analysis of the works that the undergraduates encountered.
  5. Offer skills-oriented courses to better prepare students for the job market. Thus, arts, humanities or social sciences majors might learn the basics of accounting, budgeting, project management and other skills that they’re likely to need postgraduation.
  6. Make service learning an integral part of the undergraduate experience by offering academic credit for participation in in-school, tutoring and after-school programs and other forms of community service.
  7. Expand workshopping well beyond the creative writing and theater programs where it already exists. Every field, I am convinced, has techniques and skills that can be honed in a workshop setting.
  8. Establish and give credit to participation in communities of learning that work collaboratively to research, study and reflect upon timely or controversial topics. For example, students might study how best to incentivize certain forms of behavior or to evaluate the likely impact of a particular public or campus policies.
  9. Set up “design thinking” courses that examine and evaluate problems within particular domains, such as health care; primary, secondary or higher education; or environmental policy, and various proposed solutions.
  10. Create a scaled undergraduate research sequence, in which students learn, first, about the research design and methods in a particular discipline, then undertake their own research (which might be lab-based, but could be archival, quantitative, qualitative, longitudinal, cross-sectional, policy-oriented or survey-, field- or participant-observer based), following by a public presentation of their findings.

What ties all these suggestions together is the value of learning by doing. We frequently speak about the importance of practical and applied learning and translational research. Let’s do more to make these ideas integral parts of the undergraduate experience.

The payoff, in terms of student engagement and connection with faculty, peers and the institution as a whole, will be huge.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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