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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

State University of New York at Buffalo

Critical Inquiry Studies for the General Undergraduate Population

Purpose

The project grew from a recognition by many administrators and senior faculty that a large number of entering students, though successful in their pre-college studies, lack the learning skills necessary for success at the college level. Specifically, students have not developed the ability to ask questions of a lecture, discussion, or text, to approach each analytically and in the particular conceptual modes that the discipline they are studying requires. They are accustomed to memorizing facts, not using them to develop conceptual understanding and support a series of arguments or claims.

To address this familiar problem, the project director developed a three-credit elective course entitled "Methods of Inquiry" (MOI). MOI helps students to learn: 1) strategies for identifying questions critical to the discipline they are studying; 2) different methods for mapping course information; 3) principles for monitoring comprehension and guiding the effective management of tasks (as opposed to time management), and 4) ways of formulating hypothetical options as a basis for reasoned judgment.

Innovative Features

Using as a springboard materials developed for at-risk students by Marcia Heiman and Joshua Solomianko, the developers of MOI designed a course for individuals at all levels of ability. The course differs from the more familiar small section courses intended to help students adjust to the university environment in that it is entirely academic in its orientation and is usually offered in sections of 100 or more. Thus in its first eight semesters the course enrolled a total of 2,900 students, filling every seat available.

Despite the size of the sections, all students receive weekly one-on-one assistance in applying MOI strategies to their learning. Lecture sections, which meet twice a week, are each supported by a graduate teaching assistant and a corps of peer monitors--academically successful, former MOI upperclass students trained to serve in this role. Monitors, under the supervision of the project director and the teaching assistant for the section, meet weekly for 30-45 minutes with each student to see how he or she is applying skills covered in the lectures and to provide assistance. The academic and personal growth of the monitors themselves is a significant by-product of the activity.

Methods of Inquiry is organized as an independent program under the aegis of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. Three faculty from different disciplines work with the program each semester, along with five teaching assistants and approximately 27 undergraduate monitors.

Evaluation

The project director and her assistants amassed detailed data on the results of the first eight semesters of the course (N=2,900 students). They kept track of improvement in grade point averages and retention figures as well as student-reported information about study practices, attitudes toward learning and regard for the course. These data are reported by prior grade point average, size of classes (some small sections were offered), major area of study, ethnic group and gender.

Some major findings include:

  • More than 63 percent of students improved their GPA's, including 84 percent of those with GPA's less than 1.99. The latter group improved by an average 1.10.

  • The number of students with GPA's of 3.69 or higher doubled.

  • A grade of A in MOI had a high positive correlation with a high overall GPA (not including the MOI grade) for the semester in which students were enrolled in MOI.

  • Of the undergraduates, MOI students surpassed the overall University rate of retention by 11 percent or more in every admissions cohort.

  • Students reported that their concern for good academic performance had increased.

  • Students reported that they studied longer outside of class and had higher estimations of their own academic strength.

  • Students heavily enrolled in math/science courses are significantly less likely to improve GPA's than those enrolled predominantly in social sciences and humanities (51 percent vs. 67 percent). Few statistically significant differences were noted among other sub-groups.

Project Impact

"Methods of Inquiry" has become fully institutionalized, enrolling about 350 students each semester. Faculty reception of the course has been positive. In addition to those who have been directly involved in instruction, several faculty have developed discipline-specific materials for the course. Related workshops offered by the Office of Teaching Effectiveness have led faculty members to use Methods of Inquiry materials in their own courses. In particular, the SUNY/Buffalo Dental and Medical Schools and College of Engineering have all adopted programs based on the MOI materials to serve various segments of their populations.

Faculty and administrators from approximately 200 institutions have requested and received information about the course.

Unanticipated Problems

Efforts to involve faculty in two-day training sessions providing hands-on experience with course materials have not proven successful. Responsiveness to shorter sessions and discipline-related sessions, however, has been excellent. (120 faculty attended the last two-hour workshop.)

The considerable difference in results for students in math/science and humanities/social science programs has persisted, with math/ science students remaining less likely to apply the strategies for critical thinking and discipline mastery taught in the course.

Although student response to the course is positive (72 percent would recommend it to a friend), a consistent 13 percent have a negative response. This group is not demographically distinguishable from those who respond positively.

Major Insights and Lessons Learned

The project demonstrates the possibility of engaging substantial numbers of students in large, heterogeneous classes in improving their thinking and learning processes. Considerable success appears to be attainable by students from diverse backgrounds and achievement levels.

One key to success may be to approach the critical thinking process in a non-adversarial way, with an emphasis on learning as a means for achieving understanding. This approach encourages independent thought and conceptualization.

Considerable faculty support can be generated for this sort of activity as long as it has clear academic substance. Many faculty are willing to include in their courses units that teach awareness of critical thinking.

The program would appear to be adaptable to many kinds of institutions, but smaller ones may have difficulty with the kind of complex organization demanded by the project and may find a discipline-related approach more viable.

Project Continuation

The Methods of Inquiry Program has been fully funded by the University. It serves approximately 700 students a year.

Available Information

The project director welcomes telephone inquiries and will make available a comprehensive summary of data collection instruments, data and working papers.

Susan R. Schapiro, Director
Methods of Inquiry Program
Ellicott Complex
SUNY at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14261-0012
716-645-3448

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006