State funds improve undergrad classroom experience

When UW undergraduates settled into their seats last October, they got the “new, improved” versions of some entry-level courses.

Thanks to $3.8 million allocated by the Washington State Legislature for an “entry-level initiative,” the University is offering a more active first experience in a variety of subjects.

“Essentially, we singled out the courses with the highest enrollment and used the funds to improve them,” says Fred Campbell, associate dean for undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Task forces worked for most of last year coming up with recommendations; last fall, many of their ideas became reality. For example:

  • A number of departments are reducing student/teacher ratios in the introductory classes by hiring more graduate teaching assistants, thus permitting more quiz sections with fewer students in each.
  • Some of those departments are also creating a graduate or instructor position of “course coordinator” charged with maintaining continuity over several sections of a class.
  • Physics and chemistry are offering laboratory sections with their entry-level courses for the first time. This means not only additional TAs, but also new lab equipment.
  • Computer simulations of experiments also are part of the “new” basic science classes.
  • Mathematics has reorganized the content of its entry-level sequence to better prepare students for calculus.

“Active learning is the overall theme that guided our plans,” Campbell says. “A class of several hundred students lends itself well to dispensing information, but not so well to getting students involved in their own learning. That’s what we were aiming for.”

For example, the smaller quiz sections and greater numbers of TAs will permit not only more teacher-student interaction, but also more writing assignments, forcing students to do more independent thinking and analysis.

Campbell credits Provost Laurel Wilkening with the idea for the initiative, saying the provost wanted to use current funding to “rebuild the foundation”—the entry-level courses.