Effect of academic changes unclear

In November, the Committee on Yale College Education will present a partial review of recent changes to the college’s distributional requirements.
In November, the Committee on Yale College Education will present a partial review of recent changes to the college’s distributional requirements. Photo by YDN .

Administrators have called Yale College’s modifications of distributional requirements an “incredible change,” but administrators cannot yet definitively say whether this policy is improving undergraduate education in concrete ways.

When a committee including administrators and faculty members undertook a “self-study” of academic programs in 1999, they expressed a high level of satisfaction with the distributional requirement system that Yale had in place at the time. But four years later, a second group of reviewers — the Committee on Yale College Education (CYCE) — were far less content with their findings and called for an overhaul that yielded the current system.

For the past year, Yale College Dean Mary Miller has led a review of the 2003 CYCE changes, which were implemented in 2005, but she said the committee will not deliver a conclusive analysis of the new system’s effects.

“Eventually, I will seek to have more effective ways to assess outcomes,” Miller said, adding that data for the review is limited because only a few classes have gone through Yale College since the new requirements were put in place.

Under the previous system, courses were sorted into four categories: language and literature, humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Now, there are a total of three skills — language, quantitative reasoning and writing — and three subject areas — humanities, social sciences and sciences.

The most noticeable shift between the reports in 1999 and 2003 was a complete reversal in the administration’s stance on whether Yale should add a writing requirement. Undergraduates now adhere to such a requirement, but the 1999 report did not advocate for one, citing a study done by the Committee on Expository Writing in 1997 and 1998, which determined that the addition of a writing requirement would not enhance the Yale College experience.

“The Committee on Expository Writing inferred that the lack of an English requirement has had little significant effect on the course selections of Yale students, who choose these English courses on the basis of their excellent reputation among other students, the recommendation of their faculty advisers, and the attractive variety of different interests and needs the courses accommodate,” the report states.

That committee also found that roughly 85 percent of students took introductory writing courses, and that number has remained relatively constant even after the changes, which were implemented in 2005.

Joseph Gordon, dean of undergraduate education, said that when the CYCE began to more closely analyze the academic requirements in the years following the 1999 report, administrators saw that this minority of students who did not take introductory English courses comprised many foreign students. Yale was in the midst of increasing its international student population, he said, so adding a writing requirement began to make more sense.

He added that administrators had developed the idea to introduce “skills” into the requirements to accompany the subject areas. When they decided that a quantitative reasoning skill would apply to classes that have math and statistics, the need for a writing skill requirement became even more apparent.

Amy Hungerford, director of undergraduate studies for the English Department and member of the CYCE committee in 2003, said the writing requirement has improved the writing of undergraduates by pushing them to take writing-heavy courses in a number of disciplines, not just introductory writing courses in the English Department.

“Historians should know how to write like historians,” she said. “The writing requirement has helped students get access to that knowledge.”

She added that the writing requirement has “sharpened” English professors’ awareness of how writing instruction in other departments differs from that in the English Department, which places a special emphasis on revision and feedback. She said the committee reviewing the changes, which will present the entirety of its findings at a faculty meeting in November, found that students who take the introductory writing course English 114 make major strides in their writing over the course of their Yale careers. The review committee found that this trend applies to most Yale College students in varying degrees.

But the review committee did not compare writing samples before and after the changes were implemented, making it difficult to pinpoint the causes of students’ growth.

Though the addition of a writing requirement may have come as a surprise after the conclusions of the Committee on Expository Writing, the 1999 report did discuss possible benefits of a quantitative reasoning requirement.

“Asked whether Yale has devised the right groupings of courses and the appropriate number of groupings, most directors of undergraduate studies felt that the current scheme worked about as well as any that could be designed,” the 1999 report states. “There is some support, though, for devising a distinct category for courses in mathematics, statistics, and computer science.”

Students must now take at least two courses in quantitative reasoning. Gordon said a common regret of alumni was that they did not take more quantitative reasoning classes that would have helped them in their careers.

“It’s a tool of interpretation,” Gordon said. “The world is getting more and more data-driven.”

Before the new distributional requirements went into effect, some students completed their time at Yale without taking a single QR class, but now all graduates have at least two QR credits on their transcripts. However, the college does not have any data to track students’ general improvement in this skill area, Gordon said, as it does for languages and writing.

The CYCE also recommended other changes besides the distributional requirements, such as strengthening the freshman seminar program and creating the International Summer Award, which helps to fund a summer abroad for students on financial aid.

Comments

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  • ldffly

    I always thought calling a distribution area “quantitative reasoning” smacked of work by a bunch of Ed.D.s. Like ‘social studies.’ That was a real step down for Yale.

    Go ahead and call it a mathematics distribution and permit computer science courses to fill the requirement. Also, no need to call out statistics as though it were a separate discipline. Last I checked, it was still a branch of mathematics.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that Yale undergraduates need more exposure to mathematics. What I see in discussion in the YDN pains me. Occasionally, I bump into Yale B.A.s and they seem to be no more familiar with the basics of higher mathematics than they were in the 70s. In fact, just to illustrate, back in the late 70s, I was leading a class on Descartes and brought up analytic geometry, one of Descartes great achievements. Almost half the class members, mostly freshmen, had never heard the term! They should have been exposed to it by 11th grade. Definitely a situation screaming for remedy.