Senior projects undergo scrutiny

The concept of the senior project itself is coming in for an evaluation this year.

As seniors begin contemplating research outlines and checking out dozens of books in preparation for writing their senior essays, Yale College administrators are also gathering data — for an up-close examination of the rite of passage.

Aiming to garner student and faculty feedback on the senior requirement, the Course of Study Committee — the Yale College standing committee responsible for determining the undergraduate curriculum — has sent out three sets of surveys within the last month to directors of undergraduate studies, department chairs and more than 5,000 alumni of the classes of 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007, Committee Chair Amy Hungerford said.

“We hope to find out whether the requirements we have in place are providing an adequate capstone experience for students in the major,” Hungerford said. “We want to see if the outcome fits the departments’ goals in their undergraduate programs.”

The senior requirement was last reviewed over 10 years ago, and administrators think it is time to look at the requirement again, Hungerford said.

“If we see any glaring problems, that’s certainly going to be something the committee takes up and about which we would make recommendations,” Hungerford said. “Going into the review, we have no specific reforming agenda.”

The University will also be undergoing re-accreditation in the next year, Hungerford said. There is currently a national debate over tangible results of undergraduate education, which she said has led administrators to expect that there will be a focus on “outcome assessment” during the re-accreditation process.

“It could prove useful to have up-to-date information about how Yale imagines the intellectual conclusion of a student’s undergraduate study,” Hungerford said.

Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said there is currently wide variation in senior projects across departments. While some departments, such as Classical Languages and Literatures, still require majors to take a comprehensive examination encompassing history and translation, some departments prescribe some combination of a senior seminar and original research, he said.

Several directors of undergraduate studies interviewed said they welcome the evaluation because it will give them the chance to solve general issues and problems, but the particulars of each major’s senior requirement should be left up to individual departments to decide.

Anthropology DUS David Watts said the methods used in many anthropology majors’ senior projects make it difficult to apply broad standards that might pertain to other majors.

“Guidelines could only go so far for a program like anthropology,” Watts said. “Beyond that point, the specifics of anthropology as a discipline come into play, and I don’t think anyone else could usefully give us guidelines.”

Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department DUS Michael Koelle said his department has made small changes over the years to improve the senior requirement, including making faculty expectations of students clearer and improving interaction between professors and students.

Recent alumni interviewed said they appreciate administrators’ attempts to garner feedback. The former students pointed to certain areas — in particular, faculty interaction with students — where the senior requirement could be improved.

Philosophy major Jennifer Christenson ’03 said that as a senior she noticed large differences in the amounts of work students within different departments put into their senior projects.

“I think there was certainly a wide variation in the amount that people wrote, and I think that there was a wide variety of amount of time that people dedicated to their projects,” Christenson said. “I think it would’ve been better if I could’ve sat down with my advisor and sort of discussed the goals of ‘Why have a senior essay in the first place?’ ”

MB&B major Noah Gourlie ’03 said the survey is a good opportunity for students to advocate for a more enduring senior-project format that could encompass community service, the publication of work or securing a patent.

“For those students who actually intend to go into something that’s pertinent to their major, it would be a real long-term asset to have something that stuck out like a publication or any number of things,” Gourlie said. “If the departments were to foster those kinds of real-world achievements as the senior requirement, it would be a way to turn that into something more meaningful than at least it was in my time.”

Hungerford said the committee hopes to report its findings in January.

Any changes recommended by the committee would not be implemented until the 2008-’09 school year at the earliest, she said.


  • Anonymous

    hold on to the senior project and be sure that is is rigorous in its proccessses for it is rather those processes and the diligence shown in their pursuit that are at once the fiitng "capstone" for undergraduatge studies and the paradigm for initiative in meeting future challenges, regardless of the subject matter or material result.

    of all the excuses for dropping the effort, the "why bother?" and the senior workload arguments are the least impressive and the most unbecoming.

    if independant critical capbilities are still relevant to liberal studies then any number of occasions for thier exercise, including a final go on terms framed by each student ought to be prized.

    j ranelli

  • Anonymous

    When I was a postdoc at Yale, my incompetent "mentor" allowed a senior, in her senior thesis, to pass of my work as her own. Although she and I had worked together for a couple of weeks (she was "assigned" to me), most of the thesis' ideas and data were generated by me. Indeed, I generated the main data figure. Probably it was stolen from my fellowship application. She acknowledged only the Professor.

    If health science departments required seniors to present their theses in seminars, plagiarism would be reduced by the threat of a challenge.

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, the post-doc's experience is very common: undergraduates tacked onto graduate student and post-doc projects, later to take credit for work done by others.

    I don't think undergraduates usually take too much credit on purpose. They usually don't really understand how truly minimal his or her actual contribution has been (having not seen all aspects of the project). Rather, the fault lies with the faculty advisor for not making clear the amount of work (intellectual and otherwise) that has gone into the generation of the data prior to the undergraduate's involvement.

  • Anonymous

    I hope they create some kind of senior requirement for majors in Economics--the lack of a senior essay or project of any kind is pathetic.

  • Pangloss

    I do not mean to refute anything said before, only to add:

    When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I was assigned the task of carrying on the project of a postdoc that was, from its beginnings, fatally flawed in design. I spent 18 months clarifying everything on paper that must have already been evident to the PI and postdoc. If it were not already evident, then it had not been thoroughly thought through.