Remarks to the Center for Teaching Excellence: Thoughts on Undergraduate Education
By Finnie Murray
September 23, 2004
Thank you for the opportunity to visit with you about the role and importance of undergraduate education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. I hope and trust that you agree with me that the quality of undergraduate education we provide at UNK is the most important single function of this university.
In my view there is a fundamental, important distinction between education and training. Training is “the process of teaching or learning a skill or job”1. I know that training is very important because I have received a great deal of training since coming to UNK, and I have much more training to undergo to do all the functions of my new job. For example, I’ve been trained to use Lotus Notes, a new tablet PC, a copy machine, and a great many other things since coming to UNK, but I still need to be trained to use SAP and other things. What is more, I’ll need to be retrained every time we have a new version of any of these things. Training, if successful, makes us competent to carry out a specific set of tasks or functions.
Education is “the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through teaching and learning”2. I think that Peter Ustinov describes it well: “After all, what is education but a process by which a person begins to learn how to learn?”3 Education is, therefore, a continuing process of gaining knowledge and enhancing it through experience and reflection with the result of deepening knowledge and thinking in an ongoing cycle of learning throughout life.
Yes, training and education are both important, but they have different purposes. Universities are about education, and it is of enormous importance to our civilization that universities perform that function well. However, not everyone in our society appreciates the distinction between training and education, and often education is under appreciated: I will not quickly forget an event that I observed shortly after assuming my position as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a university in another state several years ago. One of the committees of the state legislature held a meeting on our campus. After hearing a report from our Department of Agricultural Sciences about a student farming experiential learning program, one of the legislators complimented the program in glowing terms and compared it most favorably to the results of the college of agriculture at the flagship university of our system. He said that he owned and operated a large ranch, and for many years he had hired students of that college of agriculture, but he was growing weary of doing so because practically none of the students knew how to drive a tractor or place a fence post! Let me assure you that it required every neuron over which I could muster control to remain seated and quiet! I knew that he meant well; he meant to embrace our university and its accomplishments, but I also knew that he did not understand the value and purpose of a university education.
So, what is so special about a university education? I view undergraduate education as being based on three primary pillars: general education, disciplinary education of the major(s), and education for capacity for life-long learning.
General education as education of free citizens – i.e., liberal education -- is the foundation. Liberally educated people are characterized by “effective reasoning,” “broad and deep learning,” and “[t]he inclination to inquire”.4 I think that most people who think about liberal education would agree in general that “[t]he ability to reason effectively includes certain foundational skills or abilities (e.g., fluency in reading, writing, and oral communication, mastery of the basic principles of logical, mathematical, and scientific reasoning), as well as higher-order capacities for formulating, analyzing, integrating, and applying arguments and information.”4
Above all, general education must develop the capacity for critical thinking. Peter Facione presents in his summary of the Delphi Report the “Consensus Statement Regarding Critical Thinking And The Ideal Critical Thinker,” a portion of which states: “We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.”5 A solid foundation in liberal arts and strong critical thinking skills are the key elements in general education.
Disciplinary education is the educational foundation in the principles of one or more academic majors in preparation for a career and for career opportunities. The key here is that the learner be competent in the basic tenets of the field to which he/she aspires to join and has the preparation for further specific education and training as the job evolves.
Education leading to confident, effective, efficient life-long learning generally takes the form of elective courses, experiential education, student life and extracurricular activities, and leadership responsibilities. Graduates these days must be prepared to change jobs multiple times during their working careers. Many of us have changed jobs several times during our careers, but today’s graduates will see this pattern increase and become more radical. To successfully negotiate a lifetime of such dramatic change will require a robust educational foundation for continuous learning.
Thus, undergraduate education is a deliberate combination of general education, foundation education for disciplinary knowledge, and life-long learning capacities. I consider undergraduate education to be so important that although I spent the first 27 years of my career in research institutions, I have deliberately chosen to devote the remainder of my career to focusing my efforts in undergraduate education.
Lest I sound single-faceted on this matter, I must hasten to point out that our graduate programs and research are vital to the university as well. Nothing is more important to the reputation that a university enjoys than is the research and discovery that occurs on campus. This is indispensable, and it must be encouraged, facilitated, and supported as vigorously as possible … but this talk is on undergraduate education, and I will stick to the topic, after observing the fact that there is no reason for us not to be exceptionally strong and respected in undergraduate education as well as graduate education and research.
How can we assure that we give our students the best possible undergraduate education? I believe that we must always begin with our mission. Each of us has a mission, and collectively we have a mission. Our statement of mission is important because it defines our sense of purpose, the answer to why we are here, and it provides a point of reference that should guide our planning and action.
It is important that an institution have a coherent, brief, and readily understandable statement of mission that has been developed by its stakeholders based on their core values. The mission statement is important to keep us focused on our central purpose, and it must serve to bring all members of the institutional community into the same team. I trust that each of you has read and embraces the mission of the University of Nebraska at Kearney. I have read it, and I embrace it with enthusiasm; however, for me, it is important that the statement is brief enough to be completely absorbed as a single complete thought. To me, this gives the mission statement vitality and utility for everyday -- perhaps minute by minute -- reference. Therefore, I took the liberty in my first week at UNK to create my own version of the UNK Mission Statement:
The University of Nebraska at Kearney is Nebraska's public, residential university -- distinguished by its commitment to be the state's premier institution for undergraduate education and to serve the state with excellent graduate programs, research, and public service. (from UNK Mission Statement)
I think this captures the essence of the university mission statement, and I have it printed on the back of my calling cards and in my e-mail signature. I believe that this mission upholds the central value of undergraduate education to the university, and it is very consistent with my own devotion to undergraduate education.
From such a mission, what can be the future of UNK? I believe that the future depends almost entirely on our vision of how we will meet our mission. Stephen R. Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says, "All things are created twice … a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation."6
Let me try to illustrate this point by paraphrasing a portion of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove7. In the book, we find a number of extremely interesting characters, and, it seems to me, three of these characters illustrate the importance of vision. Texas Ranger Captain (ret.) Woodrow Call is a man powerfully driven by his vision for his future. Almost entirely due to his vision of the promise of wonderful cattle country in Montana, he leads his ranch company, Hat Creek Cattle Company, to Montana in spite of huge challenges along the way. Texas Ranger Captain (ret.) Augustus (Gus) McCrae is a man of principle, entirely dependable in a crisis – but “not afraid to be lazy” if there is no immediate crisis in sight. Ex-Texas Ranger Jake Spoon is a man who seems unable to stay out of trouble. He appears in the story as a fugitive, having killed a dentist in Arkansas. As the Hat Creek Cattle Company is moving to Montana, Jake falls in with a group of outlaws who in due course brutally kill a good number of people to take their horses or just because they are “sod busters.” Learning of the horse thievery and murders, Woodrow, Gus, and several others go to stop them. When they learn that Jake is a member of the outlaw gang, Woodrow says, “Jake just kind of drifts. Any wind can blow him.” Once the murderers had been caught, and were about to be hanged, Gus tells Jake that he is sorry that he (Jake) had “… crossed the line.” Jake replies, “I never seen no line, Gus, I was just trying to get to Kansas without getting scalped.”
If we do not see a future based on our core values and aspirations, where we wind up may be as uncertain as Jake Spoon. I’ll share my vision for UNK with you, and I hope you will share your visions for UNK with each other and with me so that, together, we can plan the path to the future of our shared vision. Here is what I envision:
- UNK will be a community of scholarship and love for learning!
- Our undergraduate programs will be of the highest quality.
- Our graduate programs will be the of highest quality in selected areas.
- UNK will be ranked near the top nationally among Tier I universities of our type.
- UNK will be known and highly respected, not only in Nebraska, but worldwide!
- Mutual respect and support will prevail throughout the university community – and we will employ teamwork and take advantage of all the minds and hearts on campus.
- We will know that we are all contributing in immensely important ways to the immeasurably important job of educating students for citizenship, careers, and life-long learning.
Whatever we agree upon as our shared vision, we face a great many challenges in bringing that vision into reality. Let me mention just a few of the challenges that I can see for us:
- Change will be the constant in our lives and jobs. This concept is so often mentioned as to be trite. However, one dimension of change that we do not speak about very much (other than to sagely agree and lament that students are not the same as they were when we were students) is the
effect of the changes in students on the institution of higher education. The fact is, students change the academy, and they have been doing so for millenia. Now, however, they are changing at unprecedented rates. This is an issue we cannot and should not avoid. Diana Oblinger of Educause presented information on these changes at a meeting I attended in July8, and to illustrate changes in students and their potential impact on the academy, I will include a number of her PowerPoint slides (Figures 1-4 and 6-15) about the new generation of students, the Net Generation, with her permission.
Young people today, i.e, the Net Generation that was born after 1981, use the web differently than the previous or X Generation! (Figures 2 and 3)
They are different in other ways as well!
(Figures 4 and 5)
They even learn differently! (Figures 6-9)
They have strengths and attitudes that we will do well to take into account (Figures 10-12)
So, we must take these issues into account as we plan to deliver our mission in undergraduate education. For example, notice these photos of computer labs (Figures 13 and 14) and reflect on the implications for such facilities given the differences in learning styles and expectations of the current generation.
The evidence indicates that Net Generation students are less likely to be satisfied with online learning than are older generations (Figure 15). This may seem counter intuitive, but if we take into account the strengths, attitudes, learning styles, and expectations of the Net Generation, it does, in fact, make sense the Net Generation is less satisfied with web-based learning. How much higher might their expectations be for more traditional learning styles?
- Another huge challenge we continue to face is US high school graduates’ preparation for college level work – in spite (or maybe because) of the Net Generation’s many positive attributes. To illustrate this point, I will use Data presented at Denver Public Schools Secondary Teaching and Learning Conference10 by Katie Haycock of the Education Trust. National data indicate that American students are gaining less knowledge in fundamental educational subjects than was true a decade ago (Figure 16).
Exacerbating the issue, international data indicate that students in other countries gain far more in secondary school than do U.S. students (Figures 17 and 18)
Collectively, these results remind us that we are likely to be faced with the challenge of receiving increasingly larger proportions of matriculating students who are less prepared for college work that has been true in the past. Simultaneously, we can expect the students to be very bright and capable of learning but less tolerant of educational processes they do not embrace. Above all, the students we graduate from UNK must be demonstrably more effectively educated than ever before. This is a real challenge that we must face head on. We must succeed so well that objective data and assessment demonstrate the result.
- There are challenges on campus as well. For example, for most universities, examination of the General Education Program is a huge challenge. My guess is that this is true at UNK as well! Yet, our mission reflects our commitment to being the premier institution of undergraduate education in Nebraska, so we must be willing to thoroughly examine our General Studies Program. We must determine whether it is producing the best possible general education that we can at UNK, and we must determine whether with the passage of time, our General Studies Program is keeping up with changes in the world that affect what students need to know to be in the best possible position to succeed.
To be effective in this, I believe we must begin by developing a statement of shared (core) values that define what our students need in the General Studies program. We cannot do this job well if we put disciplinary interests first, and this means that UNK must be successful in establishing an environment in which quality of the curriculum is more important than quantity of credit hours produced, as important as that is. Because discussion of general education tends to be so affected by the disciplinary territoriality of the academy’s landscape, it is often difficult for faculty to truly address the issue of what students need. Yet, it is imperative that we rise above this distraction and decide together what we should provide to our students and what we will expect of them. We must be willing to do this over and over again over the passing years because the world is changing – rapidly. When we have done this as well as possible, we will have taken the most difficult step in moving toward a future in which UNK is positioned at the very top among baccalaureate/masters institutions.
- Similarly, determining the effectiveness of our educational programs is a challenge we cannot put aside. This is a challenge that we must face directly and with enthusiasm. We will not be able to convince ourselves or anyone else just how good we are until we assess our programs objectively and well. The crucial, central question is what have students learned? We must insist that our assessment programs provide clear answers to this question for our own sake so we can discover what students are getting and what they are missing in what we teach them, especially in relationship to what happens at universities we want to emulate.
I realize that it is hard to make these sorts of comparisons because our colleagues at other universities are just as reluctant to measure and make public such data as are we. However, the sooner we accept this challenge, the sooner we can benefit from the results. I suspect that no one really likes to do assessment, but assessment is the reality of the world in which we live, and we can either get down to it and reap the benefits, or we can complain – further convincing our stakeholders of the merits of more rigorous assessment. It will not go away.
One thing we know is that there is a major effect of good teaching and poor teaching on learning in young students. I suspect that this is just as true for college students – but we don’t have the data. Therefore, I share data presented by Katie Haycock of the Education Trust in Princeton, NJ this year.11 Katie Haycock says, “Good Teachers Matter More Than Anything Else”! (Figures 19 and 20)
Fortunately, UNK is blessed with many excellent teachers who are dedicated to our students, but even the best of us can improve. That is why I am so happy that we have The Center for Teaching Excellence under the direction of Jeanne Butler. She is enthusiastic about good teaching, she is exceptionally well prepared to provide leadership in this most important program, and she is devoted to helping us all become better teachers. Given the challenges our newest students will be bringing to us, I suspect that even the finest teachers at UNK will benefit from the Center for Teaching Excellence – indeed, I would be surprised if the very best teachers we have were not among the very first to seek the benefits the Center provides!
Clearly, the scope and quality of UNK’s undergraduate programs are vital to the university’s success. We have enormous opportunities before us. I hope you agree, and I hope you will join me in working to take full advantage of them.
1MSN Encarta Dictionary. 2004. <http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_1861607550_
2MSN Encarta Dictionary. 2004. < http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_/training.html>
3Ustinov, Peter. Dear Me, Penguin Books Ltd; New Ed edition, London. 1979.
4Standards of The American Academy for Liberal Education. Washington, D.C. <http://www.aale.org/
5Facione, Peter A. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus forPurposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. “The Delphi Report.” The California Academic Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990. <http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/DEXadobe.PDF>
6Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Fireside Books. Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1990.
7McMurtry, Larry. Lonesome Dove. Pocket Books, New York. 1985.
8Oblinger, Diana. “How Students Change College: The Next Generation Learner,” presentation at the AASCU Chief Academic Officers Meeting, Albuquerque, NM. July 2004.
9Beloit College's Class Of 2007 Mindset List®. <http://www.beloit.edu/%7Epubaff/mindset/2007.htm 2003.>
10Haycock, Katie. “Improving Achievement and Closing Gaps Between Groups,” presentation at the Denver Public Schools Secondary Teaching and Learning Conference, Denver, CO. July 2004. <http://www2.edtrust.org/edtrust/Product+Catalog/recent+presentations>
11Haycock, Katie, “Improving Achievement and Closing Gaps Between Groups,” presentation at the Principals’ Center for Educational Leadership. Princeton, New Jersey. 2004. <http://www2.edtrust.org/edtrust/Product+Catalog/recent+presentations>