Freshmen eager to learn purpose of education through new Thinking Matters

The university's first new undergraduate requirement, Thinking Matters, will be rolled out this fall. Freshmen are now choosing among the 35 courses the university will be offering this year as part of a new approach to undergraduate education.

If their course preferences are any indication, Stanford's incoming freshmen are eager to explore the premise that the purpose of education is to develop a satisfying conception of life.

L.A. CiceroEllen Woods portrait

Ellen Woods, associate vice provost for undergraduate education, oversees the Thinking Matters program.

In fact, five new linked seminars based on the premise and called "Education as Self-Fashioning" are among the top fall choices of freshmen for satisfying the new Thinking Matters undergraduate requirement. The seminars, which include readings from such thinkers as Plato, Newton and J.S. Mill, are intended to help students reflect on ways they can fashion satisfying lives for themselves through education. (See related list for top choices by quarter.)

Among the other fall Thinking Matters options attracting freshmen are "The Science of MythBusters," which asks how science functions as a way of understanding the world, and "Breaking Codes, Finding Patterns," which asks why humans are drawn to making and breaking codes.

All three options reflect the intent behind the new Thinking Matters requirement, which was approved by the Faculty Senate in March, based on the recommendations of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES). The new, one-quarter requirement is designed to help freshmen transition from high school to college by focusing on the development of the critical and analytical skills necessary for university-level study.

A new approach

Thinking Matters is the first of the university's new undergraduate general education requirements to be rolled out. Earlier this summer, freshmen were invited to rank the 35 Thinking Matters courses the university will offer this year. This week, they are making their selections.

Thinking Matters is one of the cornerstones of the university's new approach to undergraduate education. That new approach stresses the development of intellectual growth through critical thinking rather than accumulation of knowledge through course content.

Each freshman will take at least one Thinking Matters course in either fall, winter or spring quarter. During their freshman year, they also will continue to be required to take a Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) course.

Freshmen who enter the university next year also will have to meet new breadth requirements—courses taken outside the majors—in seven new areas: aesthetic and interpretive inquiry; social inquiry; scientific analysis; formal and quantitative reasoning; engaging difference; moral and ethical reasoning; and creative expression. This year's freshmen will continue to meet the current breadth requirements.

After a two-year examination of Stanford's undergraduate education, SUES members also proposed—and the Faculty Senate approved— elimination of the one-year Introduction to Humanities (IHUM), which had been required for 15 years.

Although Thinking Matters was introduced the same year as IHUM was dropped, to say one replaces the other is not precise, according to Ellen Woods, associate vice provost for undergraduate education. Woods oversees the Thinking Matters program and the more than 40 postdoctoral scholars who serve as discussion leaders, as well as Freshman and Sophomore Introductory Seminars.

"Thinking Matters is intentionally a successor to IHUM, with some of the same purposes," said Woods. "It can't replace IHUM because it is only one quarter, but it does succeed it in that it is designed for freshmen as a transition between high school and college."

Through a remarkable act of prescience, Russell Berman, the faculty director of IHUM and professor of comparative literature; Woods; R. Lanier Anderson, associate professor of philosophy and other SUES faculty members; and administrators with the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education last year developed the 35 Thinking Matters courses in anticipation of Faculty Senate approval and in time to be introduced this fall. An outline of courses was ready last fall, followed by meetings in December and January among faculty—many previously involved in IHUM—about what the courses should encompass and how they should be taught.

"Those meetings were fun and quite inspiring," said Woods.

Woods is excited about the resulting new pedagogical approaches to be pioneered with Thinking Matters, but realistic about the challenges of introducing freshmen to college-level learning in just 10 weeks.

"You can't do the same thing we did in IHUM in 10 weeks, so we knew we had to come up with something different," she said.

A new structure

The new structure emphasizes individualized learning around a deep engagement with critical thinking. In many ways, the structure follows the model of PWR, which also focuses on individualized learning.

"We reduced the sizes of the sections and the number of sections per post-doc," she said. "Instead of 45 students per post-doc, we have 20 to 30 students. In a 10-week period, if you factor in the individual sessions, then we end up with more time per student and more time to individualize learning."

Each Thinking Matters course is organized around a question that is explored from the perspective of different disciplines. Freshmen, accustomed to the definitiveness of high school learning, are surprised to learn that most questions don't have just one answer, Woods said. That's exactly what Thinking Matters is intended to impart, and there is no limit to how many students can take, even though only one is required.

"What I loved about autumn IHUM was that students would be introduced to two or three professors with competing interpretations. The students would have to find evidence in support of or disagree with the interpretations. Or they found that the faculty members were all so convincing that they had to make peace with the fact that the subject was more complex than right versus wrong," she said.

Woods is optimistic Thinking Matters will work, partly because of the post-doctoral scholars selected from almost 500 candidates to help teach the courses. Woods said Stanford tends to attract exceptional post-doctoral scholars. Some 167 scholars, for instance, have taught IHUM over the past 15 years, with 93 now in tenure-track positions worldwide.

"We've launched a lot of careers," she said, "We have good teachers who know how to teach 15 to 20 students, how to work individually with them and how to create the dyads and triads that encourage mutual learning."

Woods said the postdoctoral scholars will also be used help assess freshmen at the start of each quarter, providing baseline data for evaluating student learning.

Emphasizing seminars

The Faculty Senate stopped short this year of also requiring all students to take at least one introductory seminar, a program also under Woods' purview. Instead, Woods and her colleagues have four years to see if elective enrollment in freshman seminars can be increased to 85 percent. The goal, she said, is not to make seminars required, but rather to make them universally elected.

Given that 75 percent of students currently have taken a seminar by the end of their sophomore year, she is cautiously optimistic that the 85 percent freshman enrollment goal can be met. In addition, without the three-quarter IHUM requirement, freshmen should find themselves with more time for electives.

"When we surveyed students last year, asking why they didn't take a seminar, the overwhelming comment was that it didn't fit into their schedule," she said.

Kate Chesley is associate director of University Communications.