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Improving undergraduate research skills
An innovative grant program coaches faculty in techniques for enriching this key attribute of academic success

| 21 January 2004

 



The faculty members pictured above took part in a pilot project to revise or develop new courses to improve information literacy among the university’s undergraduates. Participants in the 2003-04 Mellon Faculty Institute for Undergraduate Research are (front row, from left) Elizabeth Honig, history of art; Will Seng, engineering; Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, education; (middle row, from left) Barbara Abrams, epidemiology; Anna Livia Brawn, French; Helaine Prentice, landscape architecture; Andrew Furco, education; Oscar Dubon, Jr., materials science and engineering; (back row, from left) John Welsh, engineering; Richard Malkin, plant and microbial biology; Victoria Robinson, ethnic studies; Ruth Tringham, anthropology; and Jeffrey Hadler, South and Southeast Asian studies.
Kim Steinbacher photo

Last summer, a number of Berkeley professors from a variety of disciplines were asked to research a group of Jewish chicken farmers in Petaluma, a topic well outside their respective academic purviews. Much like students might, they became overwhelmed, turning to databases they regularly use (and even, it can now be told, to Google) for help.

The exercise opened their eyes to just how daunting research can be for people with no prior expertise in (or even familiarity with) a topic. The experience was particularly useful to these academics in their role as participants in a pilot program intended to help faculty create or redesign courses to assist undergraduates in developing information-literacy and research skills.

Launched through a $138,000 pilot grant, the Mellon Faculty Institute for Undergraduate Research enabled 13 Berkeley faculty members to incorporate research activities and assignments into their undergraduate courses, to teach students how to use the university library’s ever-growing print and digital resource collection. The participants, who were drawn from a cross-section of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, as well as engineering and biology, teach courses ranging in size from capstone classes to large gateway courses.

The need for such a project was reflected in a five-year survey of information-literacy competency conducted by Berkeley’s Teaching Library in the 1990s. The results indicated that graduating Berkeley seniors were perplexed by elementary tasks involving organizing and accessing information. More specifically, the survey found, the median result in information-literacy competency among the surveyed seniors was a failing score.

Linking partners in learning
“The library has evolved from being a repository of material to an educational partner,” says Patricia Iannuzzi, associate university librarian and chair of the Mellon steering committee. Last year the library taught 22,000 students how to use library databases to find information. Those technical skills, Iannuzzi says, need to be complemented by “a more complex set of skills that relate to critical thinking, synthesizing, and evaluation. Addressing those complex skills is an important faculty challenge in teaching the next generation of students.”

The core project partners who came together to support the Mellon Institute include the library; the office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Christina Maslach; and the Undergraduate Division of Letters and Science. Other collaborators include the Office of Educational Development, the Graduate Student Instructor Teaching and Resource Center, and Educational Technology Services.

“Instructional innovation has often been the result of [efforts by] individual faculty entrepreneurs,” says Maslach. “The Mellon project allows us to expand that strength by linking faculty with librarians, instructional technologists, assessment experts, graduate student instructors — all of the partners who together can have a greater impact on student learning than each can alone.”

Perhaps an even more remarkable convergence was “the cross-pollination of faculty from the sciences and humanities,” says Steve Tollefson, a coordinator of the Mellon Institute who works in the office of the assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. “The humanities faculty were thrilled to learn that their teaching goals weren’t different from those of their counterparts in the sciences,” Tollefson continued. “They both prefer teaching concepts over facts.”

The skill-building challenge
Last fall, four of the Mellon faculty fellows taught syllabi that they had revised in the Summer Institute (others will be doing so this semester). “The content might be the same,” says Iannuzzi, “but the faculty completely changed the way they teach it: the assignments, the grading structure, the projects.”

That was certainly the case for Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, who used the Summer Institute to revamp Education 140, “Literacy: Individual and Societal Development.” The upper-division course, which involves a twice weekly, 90-minute lecture and a 50-minute lab, meets Berkeley’s American Cultures requirement.

“To build skills into a course is a real challenge,” says Seyer-Ochi, “especially to do so with 100 or 200 undergrads.” The 200 students in her class took part in small-group research projects to examine how issues of diversity and equality play out in urban Bay Area schools. The class culminated in a final presentation the student groups made to local public officials. By contrast, the first year Seyer-Ochi taught the course, each of her 115 students wrote research papers on a different topic, a veritable grading nightmare for the professor and her graduate-student instructors.

Because 65 percent of the students in her revamped course were freshmen, Seyer-Ochi says, she couldn’t assume they had written a research paper before. Nonetheless, she felt it was important to make the research challenging: “My goal was for students to struggle with how difficult these questions were. For instance, they may have data that conflict with other data — then they had to try to work through and reconcile those contradictions.”

Seyer-Ochi says the revised syllabus helped “improve the course overall including its pedagogy — how I teach it.” Critical to bettering the course were “building [students’] conceptual ways of thinking and helping them make connections across ideas, as well as to develop research skills.”

Testing Mellon strategies in a small class
French lecturer Anna Livia Brawn used the Summer Institute to revise the syllabus of French 102, “Reading and Writing Skills in French,” a large-enrollment course she is teaching this spring. But last fall’s French 185, a film class that draws up to 25 upper-division students, gave her the chance to implement new research strategies with a smaller group.

In French 185’s previous incarnations, Brawn chose 15 films, assigned three or four readings a week, and gave monthly quizzes to ascertain whether students were learning, as she put it, “what I think they should know.”

Last semester, while she still required that students view a set group of films, she deliberately did not provide a bibliography or filmography. Brawn asked students to find films that interested them, and then give regular class presentations showing short clips to demonstrate the films’ general historical, geographical, or cultural significance and how they relate to the class’s theme of colonialism.

Brawn weighted the research part of her course more heavily. “Students knew from the beginning that they would have to take the research very seriously,” she says. Though her students agreed by the end of the semester that the research projects had been “a lot of work,” Brawn reported, they all wanted to explore their topics further.

Renewed funding, next steps
In mid-December, Patricia Iannuzzi and the grant’s principal investigators (Vice Provost Maslach, Dean of the Undergraduate Division of Letters and Sciences Robert Holub, and University Librarian Thomas Leonard) learned that the Mellon grant had been renewed for four years. Those funds will enable the Mellon program partners to continue assisting faculty in connecting both their own research and the concepts of research to undergraduate education.

For the 2004 Summer Institute, the project partners are making funds available to academic departments as well as individual faculty, as an incentive for departments to explore ways of redesigning core gateway courses.

“Our current focus,” says Maslach, “is on large-enrollment core courses, because that’s where we can make the greatest difference in the quality of the undergraduate experience over the next few years.”

Applications for the 2004 Summer Institute are online at lib.berkeley.edu/MellonInstitute.