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“it’s just incredible,” Dunbar said. “The depth of my
understanding of a topic is improved tremendously by
engaging with people outside my discipline. And that
manifests itself in the classroom.”
Also like his colleagues, Dunbar acknowledged that
the interdisciplinary approach is a lot of work. “It can be a
pain,” he said. “It can be much more labor intensive than
doing it on your own.” Just as the students sometimes
struggle with working in groups, so, too, do the professors,
he said.
In fact, it has been more challenging than anticipated
to coordinate the curriculum, said Vice Chancellor
Neuhauser. Initially the plan was to have all students take
the same courses for the first two years, and for learning
modules or units to be taught across all the classes students
were taking. That has proven to be unwieldy, because some
students—transfers, for instance—might not need some
of the required courses. And it is too difficult for faculty to
coordinate subjects across the entire curriculum. Classes
are still designed and taught in modules, and faculty still
endeavor to know and reiterate what their colleagues are
teaching. And they continue to design interdisciplinary
assignments—just not in every course that students are
taking. “Obviously, building a totally new program is a
challenge,” Neuhauser said. “But overall I think it’s working
quite well.”
At this point, Neuhauser’s conclusion is based on
anecdotal evidence and retention rates. Only 43 of 57
students who enrolled at UMR in the fall of 2009 returned
the next fall; the sophomore class is now down to 35.
But this year, 98 of 102 freshmen who started in the fall
returned to campus for the spring semester, where they
were joined by seven new students, for a net gain of three
students. Chancellor Lehmkuhle said he believes that the
retention rates have improved, in part, because UMR is
getting better at identifying and recruiting students whose
interests and academic abilities are suited to the program.
Soon, UMR hopes to have more sophisticated means
to assist its students. Typically, an institution records
only student grades. UMR is capturing not only grades
but all of its students’ assignments, which are preserved
electronically, in essence saving a portfolio of work that
the entire faculty can analyze, the same way doctors look
over a patient’s entire medical record to diagnose them
and prescribe a course of treatment. “Over time, we will
begin to mine that data to look for relationships between
how students perform in different concepts in different
courses,” said Lehmkuhle. That, in turn, will enable UMR’s
administration and faculty to adapt its teaching techniques
to be more responsive to the needs of individual students,
he explained.
Both students and faculty appear acutely aware that they
are involved in what could be an important experiment.
“I feel a little bit of responsibility to this university,” said
student government president Doyle, who plans to become
a doctor. “I feel if I don’t succeed, then this university won’t
succeed.” So while the constant course evaluations students
are asked to fill out can sometimes
be “annoying,” Doyle and his peers
take them seriously. “Students want to
impact the success of the program as
much as the faculty do,” he said.
“What really attracted me to
this job was that they were trying
so many unique and creative things
with teaching,” said Molly Dingel,
an associate professor who teaches
sociology. Not everything has been
successful, she said. But, she added,
“When you’re trying new things, not
everything is going to be successful.”
Chancellor Lehmkuhle agrees.
“We’re building and flying the plane
at the same time,” he said. He does
hope that as higher education is redesigned, as he believes
it will have to be, UMR will be able to serve as a model for
other institutions looking to deliver education tailored to
the needs of the modern world. But to be effective, higher
education must continue to adapt. So ideally, UMR will be
a constant work in progress. Said Lehmkuhle: “Once we
think we have it figured out, we’re doomed.”
Freelance writer KathyWitkowsky lives inMissoula, Montana.
“I don’t feel like I’m missing out at all on the things a large school
has,” says Hannah Salk, a sophomore who decided to attend UMR
in large part because of its ties to the Mayo Clinic.
UMR is capturing
all of its students’
assignments, which are
preserved electronically,
in essence saving a
portfolio of work
that the entire faculty
can analyze.