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Quality Education Task Force to assess student educational experience

By Tina Nazerian     10/17/14 8:33am

The Quality Education Task Force Committee was discussed at the most recent Faculty Senate meeting and will be reaching out across campus to get input from undergraduate and graduate students on the student educational experience.

“The twin objectives are to assess how we are doing right now and to look to the future about what we need to be able to do to maintain the excellence of our program going forward,” Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson said.

According to Hutchinson, the task force will look at the experiences and teaching approaches Rice creates and uses for both its undergraduate and graduate students inside and out of the classroom.

“[We will be asking], what are other people doing?,” Hutchinson said. “What should we be thinking about for the future? Where are the areas that we're doing really well right now? Where are the areas that we would like to improve? That could be inside the classroom, outside the classroom, curricular, co-curricular and so forth."

Hutchinson cited class sizes and classroom teaching practices as a result of different class sizes as two examples the task force can examine.

"Those [examples] could be some very specific cases,,” Hutchinson said. “It could be the types of experiential learning that our students have access to, things like internships, research experiences, scholarly opportunities, opportunities for civic engagement. The goal is to see where our resources for those things are doing well, where are the things where the experience could benefit from the infusion of resources and where are things that, in the future, we might be looking forward to doing.”

According to Hutchinson, the goal of the task force is not to try predicting what Rice needs to do in the next five years.

“The goal is to make sure that we have in place appropriate policies and programs to ensure the continuity of our excellence,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said the task force, which has met twice this semester, will produce a report on its findings by this May.

“At this time we don't know what will be in the report, so we have no idea what will be required for the implementation,” Hutchinson said.

According to Hutchinson, during the first meeting, the task force decided how they were going to gather the information and tried to identify all the stakeholders it needs to have conversations with.

“Of course that would include the Student Association and their representatives,” Hutchinson said. “It would also include the college masters and other members of the college personnel. It would include, of course, faculty, GSA, department heads, school deans, alumni. The goal is to try to find everybody who has a stake in the excellence of Rice's programs and make sure that we hear from them. What are the things that we're doing well, what are the things that we could do better and how are the ways that we should look to the future?"

The task force is not intended to be a representative body, according to Hutchinson. Instead, it is made up of people willing to go out and ask the necessary questions to answer the questions in the task force’s charge.

“We were trying to keep the group small,” Hutchinson said. “That was number one. Number two was folks who have expressed a significant interest in the area of the quality of the education for undergraduates. Clearly, there is an enormous number of people who would qualify, but not everybody would want to devote their time to that. So we wanted to make sure we picked people who were sort of actively working in that area. Three, I think we wanted to balance people who were in administrative roles with people who are in faculty roles.”

Hutchinson said he thinks the task force is similar to the Student Association’s Education of the Future initiative.

“It’s also important to recognize though that these arose independently,” Hutchinson said. “[The Rice Education of the Future was an initiative of [SA President] Ravi [Sheth] and his executive committee, who simultaneously and in parallel looked to the future of what will make an outstanding education for a student at Rice in the next decade. So it's fantastic that simultaneously the student body is interested in exactly the same interests that the president and faculty are interested in."

Hutchinson said his personal observation as both Dean of Undergraduates and a professor of Chemistry, is that Rice does a number of things so well that they end up in competition with each other for students.

“What we don't do well, then, is design our curriculum in such a way as to reward those things we believe are valuable for our students to do,” Hutchinson said. “Therefore, our students want to to do them all. Not only is it not healthy, it's counter-productive. It doesn't actually produce what anybody wants, because you don't have the time to really devote yourself to any particular activity, and you don't have the time for reflection on what you learned from those activities.”

Hutchinson said he thinks there has been more understanding of the value non-classroom experiences hold for students.

“But there hasn't been a change in the curriculum reflected in [that],” Hutchinson said. “There has been a change in our investment in those curricular opportunities for our students. We've done a great job of creating those opportunities, and our students have done a wonderful job of signing up for, and participating, in those opportunities. What we are looking for are ways to make sure that our students benefit maximally from those without overcommitting and being counter-productive in their choices." 

Hutchinson said the task force is interested in the input of students across campus to have the most complete report possible. He said hopefully input will happen this semester, but if not, then early next semester, and will include the opportunity to both submit written comments and participate in face-to-face forums.

“In my case, I'll certainly be talking to the Student Association, but now the Student Association is creating the Rice Education of the Future,” Hutchinson said. “That will be a direct interface for us. I don't know that we'll do surveys. I think we're more interested in conversations." 

Duncan College junior Eric Lee said he thinks the task force is covering a broad scope.

“To me it doesn’t seem like a costly task that is using resources that can better be used elsewhere,” Lee said.

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