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In the Platonic ideal of the university degree there is a synthesis of the participatory and the intellectual life-the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. This is reflected in the BYU-Idaho academic experience, that includes both the acquisition of marketable skills and a broad, liberal education. BYU-Idaho graduates should not only be employable, but also literate, well rounded, cultured, and informed. They should be good thinkers and good communicators. They should be good citizens with strong testimonies. And they should graduate with the passion and skills to make them lifelong learners.
All too often in higher education, professional training and the liberal arts are seen as competing aims. Generally academia has employed a Solomonic solution, slicing the credit load between a profession-oriented major and a liberal general education. Unfortunately, many students see these two divisions as courses that are relevant (important to their future wage-earning potential) and irrelevant (hoops they just have to jump through to get their degree).
It is in the search for synthesis between professional and liberal studies that BYU-Idaho's Foundations program finds its highest purpose. It is a search for relevance. How is biology relevant to a business major? Does Picasso or Brahms have any place in the life of a civil engineer? What do the people and politics of Pakistan have to do with music, or art, or interior design? It is this search for relevance that has inspired many of Foundations' unusual characteristics.
Foundations courses are both multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary, and at their best, they are interdisciplinary. At this point some definitions are in order:
Of these three, the first two are the easiest to achieve, but contribute least to the search for relevance. It is to the true interdisciplinary collaboration that Foundations aspires. As long as a Foundations course remains merely multi- or cross-disciplinary, it will be little better than a traditional GE course. It is in the intersection of the disciplines, in the innovative spaces, that we will find the relevancy. Foundations courses are built to maximize these spaces.
Exploring topics of depth with entry-level students is a hard task. How in a single, short semester do we give students both the background to understand the topic and the depth sufficient to make the topic relevant to the student's needs? Sometimes we are tempted to jettison breadth to focus on near graduate-level topics; at other times we have worried that meaningful depth is a fool's hope and we should continue to teach broad survey courses with traditional delivery and assessment.
The magic happens when we include students in the search for meaning. What are the pressing questions in the world today? What does a great society look like, and how can we bring it about? Of course we won't solve the world's problems with student projects. But we can foster a culture of problem solving, of solution seeking, of asking meaningful questions and searching for answers. We can help our students see apparently contradictory principles, to hold them in suspension in their minds, to examine them through their contrasts, and to carefully make decisions. And we can send them, armed with these virtues, out into the world where they can make a meaningful difference.
To do this we must give them the knowledge necessary to participate in the dialogue. There are things they must know. There are essentials. But we cannot afford to leave them there. We must engage their imagination and even their creativity. We should teach them to experience the ideas of others, evaluate them, and use them as the raw material for original thoughts of their own.
The heart of this search for interdisciplinary meaning is the Foundations teaching team. A university is a community of scholars. The students pass into this community, participate in it, and then go on their way. The more vigorous the community, the more valuable the student experience. Likewise, a Foundations teaching team is a community of scholars searching to study a topic or problem through interdisciplinary collaboration. The success of the course depends on the success of the team.
A Foundations teams meets together often, and each member understands that the team meeting is an essential part his Foundations assignment. In turn, the team lead assures that the time spent in team meetings is cost beneficial to the members-they prepare better and more efficiently for their teaching with team meetings than without them. In team meetings members share teaching techniques, ideas for improving course material, and improved methods for delivering content. Teams should be constituted so as to provide subject matter experts in all areas covered by the course, and these subject matter experts should take turns leading team meetings so that all are edified by their expertise. At the heart of their collaboration lies the search for a level of meaning that team members could not achieve on their own.
Successful Foundations teachers are willing to stretch themselves, learn new things, and make connections between their area of expertise and other disciplines. At the same time teachers are most effective when they get to teach what they are passionate about and model for students their lifelong passion for learning. Foundations courses should have enough flexibility that instructors can bring into class their own personality and expertise, while at the same time maintaining sufficient unity for meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration.
Learning and Teaching
Foundations classes should be a model of excellent learning and teaching at BYU-Idaho. As teachers serve in Foundations they will practice the principles, processes, and outcomes of the Learning Model. The processes of the Learning Model have special application to Foundations courses:
Students in Foundations should acquire life-changing skills and knowledge. The catalogue description, syllabus, and introductory course material should be explicit in why the student will be interested in the course. The course should deal with big questions that have relevance to the student's life. It should help him draw strong connections between the course material and other aspects of his life. It should make a difference, change they way he thinks, and change the way he lives.
In the classroom, and online, the teacher is active in the discussion. The teacher leads, inspires, pushes, and engages all students. She makes special effort to engage the quiet or less attentive students. She should pose powerful questions that direct the course of the discussion and challenge the students to stay engaged.
Many Foundations courses have strong reading and writing components. A substantial portion of a student's education is the ability to read and comprehend progressively more demanding texts. Foundations courses should provide opportunities for deep reading and critical thinking about text material. Additionally, students are required to regularly express themselves both orally and in writing, with the aim of improving the student's precision of expression. The student should also strive for accuracy in grammar, spelling, and other details in all written communication. Teachers should give students both formative and summative feedback of their writing.
For every semester credit hour, two hours of preparation outside of class is required per class hour per week. Teachers need to understand that BYU-Idaho students come from a diverse variety of academic backgrounds and should endeavor to reach, touch, and instruct each student, but they need to hold the bar high. Student evaluations should not be the only measure of acceptable course rigor.
Outcomes, Rigor, and Deep Learning In any course a teacher must balance the depth of the subject with the breadth sufficient to understand it. One of the first and hardest lessons a new teacher learns is that he cannot teach the students in a course everything he knows about the topic. He has to make choices, and those choices are governed by time. Time forces us to choose, to prioritize, to rank, to evaluate, and to organize.
To choose wisely, we must choose with outcomes in mind. All too often university course material is inherited, from a course the teacher had while he was in school, or by what is included in a standard textbook. This will not work with our Foundations courses. Teams must consider what they will teach, select learning activities according to the desired course outcomes, and carefully assess student learning. This process is guided by three important questions:
We should not think of outcomes and assessment as administratively-imposed busywork, or an activity that only applies to the accreditation process. Instead, outcomes and assessment is a continuous reexamination of the purposes and methods of our courses. It is an optimistic process, the hope that things can be better than they are, that the joy in the task comes with improvement in performing it.
In Foundations we look for evidence of "deep learning": rather than simply require a student to master a given amount of information, we seek a permanent change in the way the student thinks, communicates, and acts. For deep learning to occur, it is critical for students to be motivated by other forces than grades. Too much emphasis on summative assessment (assessment that is used to determine a grade) directs the students into a "what's on the test?" mode. Formative assessments (feedback that is used to hone the student's skills without affecting a grade) from the teacher or from peers should first be given to the student on any activity that will eventually receive a summative assessment. Formative assessment should be a rehearsal for summative.
Assessment is a time-intensive process. Teachers can mitigate this by using student self-assessments, peer assessments, and assessments by student TAs. However, the faculty member should bear in mind that students crave and need feedback from, modeling by, and a personal connection with the course instructor. Teachers should employ creative ways to get to know and interact with each student as much as possible.
Foundations as Innovation
Foundations is a manifestation of President Eyring's charge for BYU-Idaho to "be a place of educational innovation-permanently." (Eyring-A Steady Upward Course, 18 September 2001). This innovation is rooted in the doctrine of hope. Mormon tells us: "Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope" (Moroni 7:42). His son Moroni writes: "Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God" (Ether 12:4). If these two men, who witnessed the tragic end of their civilization, could hope for a better world, we with all the blessings that have been showered upon us can surely lift up our heads and rejoice at the opportunity to participate in BYU-Idaho's steady upward course.
In our eagerness to help our students get jobs, we must not let the idea of a moral and liberal education disappear from the landscape of our university. It is well that students be schooled in professional training while they are in college. It is well that they develop the ability to think critically, to read, to write, to think quantitatively and scientifically, and to collaborate. But education is more than any of those things. Knowledge is worth possessing for what it is, not just for what it does. Like most things of enduring worth, education has both practical and intrinsic worth.
Foundations seeks to bridge the gap between the practical and the intrinsic. If we do this, we will do more than help our students get a job. We will help them find a vocation, a purpose in life, a hope for a better world and a vision to do something about it. Blessed with such an abundant life of the mind, we often forget what a rare opportunity college offers to engage the great questions. Contemporary society has little sympathy for these questions and little time to ponder them. For most of the rest of their lives our students will not have the time and resources to learn what they can learn while they are here. College is an oasis of learning; we invite our students to pause and drink deeply from its waters.