Best Practices of a Student-Focused University

Though heavy research and publishing demands might constrain faculty teaching efforts, many universities are becoming more effective at encouraging undergraduate learning by implementing ‘best practices.’

Research into best undergraduate educational practices by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU)  yielded a list of ten: 1st Year Seminars; Required Common Courses; Learning Communities; Writing Intensive Courses; Collaborative Projects; Undergraduate Research; Global Learning; Community-Based Learning; Internships; and, Capstone Projects. The full list, along with a quick synopsis of each practice, can be downloaded at the AACU website:   

When researching a college, a rule of thumb is the more ‘best practices’ offered, the more engaged its undergraduates are and the better prepared they will be upon graduation.    

Of the ten best practices, five, which might be considered the paramount ‘best practices,’ are frequently found at many schools, at least many of the schools I have researched over the last year, and warrant more detail:

First Year Seminars: While some first year seminars might cover orientation or study skills, most are geared towards small seminar classes consisting of fewer than 15 students, taught by a professor, featuring specific topics or readings that require close examination, discussion, analysis, and extensive writing assignments. The small size encourages participation, frequent encounters with the professor, and again, lots of writing that is carefully developed and critiqued. The 2009 National Survey on First-Year Seminars notes over 87% of universities currently offer 1st year seminars. Brown University, for example, has dozens of 1st year seminars for its freshmen. Many state universities, especially Honor’s Programs such as Barrett’s Honors College at Arizona State University, offer first year seminars as well.

Writing-intensive Courses:   The importance of learning to write well, and extensively, cannot be overemphasized. Richard Light, a professor from Harvard’s School of Education, draws a direct correlation between the amount of writing in a course and its level of student engagement.  Student writing doesn’t need to be restricted to just a course, but can and should be interdisciplinary. Most universities also have writing centers that supply aid to all undergraduates in need: Swarthmore College’s writing center will assist in anything from a 5-paragraph essay to an esoteric physics research paper.

Undergraduate Research:  If you’re planning to apply to medical school, or most graduate programs for that matter, conducting undergraduate research is essential. Learning how research is funded, conducted, and published is fast becoming the rite of passage in many undergraduate schools. Most of the departments in Boston University offer numerous opportunities for undergraduate research. Pomona College and Swarthmore require all undergraduates to conduct independent research with a faculty mentors before graduating.

Internships: Gaining internships with companies or institutions prior to graduation is also fast becoming the rigor at many schools. Over 86% of Clarkson College’s (NY) recent graduating class participated in internships. Some, such as Northeastern (MA) and Kalamazoo (MI), have full-fledged coop programs that integrate work experience into their curriculum. In departments such as communication at Northwestern and Boston College, working in the media is expected by majors before the end of junior year. The more internships/work experience students gain, the better.

Capstone courses and projects:  Mastery of a subject is best demonstrated through an honor’s thesis, comprehensive exams, and independent projects requiring application of core concepts of a discipline. Reed College requires most its undergraduates take a comprehensive exam in their junior year followed by a capstone research thesis that is presented and defended before a panel of professors from Reed and outside universities. In essence a bachelor’s from Reed signifies capabilities similar to those of PhDs.

The more rigorous the ‘best practices’ offered by universities you have under the microscope, the better prepared you will be to meet and surmount the challenges encountered beyond college

Best results arise from best practices: they’re worth looking for in any college under consideration.