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August 22, 2010 11:00 PM The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed

By Kevin Carey

At UMR, much of that information is being captured. The effort begins by breaking each course into two- to three-week segments called “learning objects,” which are electronically tagged in a way that allows them to be matched in a database to student records, course materials, group assignments, draft papers, and exams. (The UMR campus was designed as a paperless environment, and students are issued identical Lenovo ThinkPad laptops, which they seem to keep two feet in front of their faces at all times.) This information will be stored in an electronic database that professors will analyze in conducting the learning research they need to get tenure. That research, in turn, will improve their ability to refine new teaching strategies. By analyzing the relationship between historical student learning patterns and specific educational techniqes, UMR may discover that students who struggle with certain concepts benefit from some learning environments but not others. Such insights will allow UMR to personalize the college experience for each student.

There are strong parallels in the health care industry, where Mayo and the Veterans Health Administration have led the way in using electronic medical records to help doctors work together and analyze huge archives of medical data. Neuhauser also oversees UMR’s graduate Biomedical Informatics and Computational Biology program, where students apply large-scale statistical analysis to medical data, working in partnership with Mayo and Rochester’s second-biggest employer, IBM. For the next few hours I hopped from one class to the next: first writing, then organic chemistry, then biology. As the day wore on, something unusual started to become clear. Each professor came from a different academic background and ostensibly taught a different subject. But they were all, in different ways, talking about the same thing.

For instance, during a writing seminar I attended, the term “creatine” came up. Creatine is a naturally occurring organic acid that athletes take in extra doses to build muscle. Later that day, the term showed up in a biology class, in which Professor Rob Dunbar noted that there are reasons to believe that ingesting large amounts of creatine could reduce muscle fatigue. How might experiments testing the proposition be designed, he asked? The class proceeded to work this out as a group.

Everyone at UMR, it turns out, was talking about creatine. Students synthesized it in chemistry, studied its effects on muscle fatigue in biology, learned how to interpret those studies in statistics, pondered the ethics of using artificial performance-enhancing substances in philosophy, and developed papers combining these perspectives in writing. Nobody worked alone, because every student at UMR takes the same structured curriculum for their first two years.

While Chelsea Griffin wants to be a cardiologist, UMR students will be able to use their health science degrees to enter a range of jobs: research scientist, hospital administrator, small-town doc with a general practice. People don’t need to know much about creatine to succeed in those careers. What they need is to be able to understand things like creatine from the perspective of biology, chemistry, statistics, and philosophy, all at once. They need to be able to develop and improve those ideas within small, close-knit teams of other people. And they need to be able to communicate that knowledge, in writing, to the rest of the world.

This represents perhaps the most foundational of all the connections that Stephen Lehmkuhle and his colleagues have been steadily knitting together in Rochester: that between facts and ideas. Traditional college instruction—epitomized by the lecture—is largely a process of orally transmitting facts from the brain of a teacher to a student. It’s a tremendously inefficient method—even harmful. UMR chemistry professor Rajeev Muthyala points to research finding that undergraduates often finish lecture-based introductory science classes with less expertise than when they started. They get worse.

That’s because there is a crucial difference between the way novices and experts learn. Experts have a much greater ability to retain information, because they incorporate new facts into complex structures of interconnecting concepts and ideas. For an expert wrestling with large questions of, say, political economy, a data point like the failure of the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 is interesting and significant for suggesting how protectionism can backfire. But a novice often doesn’t know what do with new facts, where to put them, or how to connect them to other facts. Something like Smoot-Hawley is nothing more than a name and a date. Simply put, a lot of new information bounces off a novice’s brain for want of a place to fit.

This is the reason that so many students at traditional universities fail organic chemistry, says Muthyala, who teaches the class at UMR. Organic chemistry is usually taught “as if it’s completely disconnected from other disciplines,” he says, and in many schools it’s notoriously used to cull weak students in their sophomore year. But UMR students, who enroll with solid but not earth-shattering ACT scores (typically around 24, or 1100 on the SAT), all take organic chemistry as freshmen and are passing at unusually high (85 to 90 percent) rates.

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

Comments

  • Ruth Knollmueller on September 13, 2010 10:33 AM:

    Please correct your title--University of Minnesota at ROCHESTER----NOT Richmond.
    EGads.

  • Ron Mexico on October 06, 2010 8:08 AM:

    A fascinating article. The main point, of course, is that universities must attach themselves to large corporations that have deep pockets and a desperate need for highly-trained graduates. All of the wonderful innovations described flow from this one simple fact....

  • Dr. Mireia TintorĂ© on October 05, 2011 4:07 AM:

    Congratulations for this article. We used it as a case of study with our university teachers and was a great success