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.