U-M’s Third Century Initiative successful in transforming teaching, learning

June 11, 2018
Written By:
Laurel Thomas
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—A comprehensive look at the teaching and learning program of the University of Michigan Third Century Initiative shows a changed U-M culture around engaged learning.

The $50 million initiative to transform teaching and scholarship at the university funded many courses, programs and projects that continue.

In an assessment issued today, U-M leaders reported on the successes and challenges of infusing into the curriculum learning experiences for students that are multidisciplinary, active and experiential.

The report states that the initiative resulted in an institutionalization of engaged learning ideals, an extremely high percentage of students reporting the experiences at graduation, a faculty more confident overall in using this approach to teaching, and some obstacles to overcome as the work moves forward.

Architect Mark Lee leads a discussion about the various design concepts students have created for the roof of a campus building.

Architect Mark Lee leads a discussion about the various design concepts students have created for the roof of a campus building.

“The Third Century Initiative has advanced teaching and learning at U-M and helped to ensure that we provide a modern, relevant and forward-looking education for our students,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “I am proud that University of Michigan graduates leave here ready to succeed in subsequent advanced education or as leaders in their chosen careers.”

Announced in 2011, the Third Century Initiative was dedicated in two parts to transforming a U-M education and tackling global issues. Then-President Mary Sue Coleman and former Provost Philip Hanlon asked the university to define teaching and scholarship for the university’s next century, as the campus prepared to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its founding in 2017.

“Students who have participated in engaged learning experiences demonstrate increased ability to integrate new information into what they’ve learned and the ability to apply it in different real-world contexts,” said Provost Martin Philbert.

“The assessment data we’ve gathered so far indicates that following these courses and other engaged learning experiences, students are better able to work with and learn from others whose identities may be different from their own and are more able to identify the values and beliefs that shape their own learning behavior and professional choices.”

Half of the $50 million went to a program called Transforming Learning for the Third Century (TLTC), which funded 128 engaged learning projects, representing 352 faculty and staff members from all 19 schools and colleges. The projects reached more than 10,000 students, and 27 percent of those served experienced more than one of the funded opportunities.

“One of the values of the Third Century Initiative was that it brought attention to this question of how you change the culture around learning. It got a lot of faculty thinking about, ‘How can I teach in a more engaged way? How can I think about engaging my students with communities or with authentic research,'” said James Holloway, vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs.

Leaders say evidence of the institutionalization of these ideals lies in the following:

  • An annual graduate exit census incorporated new questions that revealed nearly 96 percent of students had one such experience during their U-M careers and 82 percent reported more than one.
  • The $4 billion Victors for Michigan fundraising campaign included engaged learning as one of three priorities.
  • The teaching evaluation process overseen by the Registrar’s Office now includes 18 questions instructors can use to assess learning outcomes specific to engaged learning goals.
  • Even after the funding cycle ended, faculty have sought additional support for these efforts through grants programs administered by the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), and units across campus have been working with the center on curricular design, pedagogical skill development and assessment to foster adoption of these pedagogies.
  • Web searches showed numerous references and 184 U-M websites that addressed engaged learning, a steady increase since 2012, with the exception of a slight dip in 2016.
  • Feedback from deans found that while efforts to incorporate engaged learning in schools and colleges were under way long before the initiative, the TLTC allowed for significant growth, and the communication around the work helped expand efforts. The deans’ comments also addressed how the effort energized faculty. One dean said: “Faculty now have a name for what they’re doing and they are thinking strategically about how they’re using different types of activities, different types of learning models within their classroom.”
  • Schools and colleges have created courses, centers, programs and initiatives—even an engaged learning club for faculty to share engaged learning ideas and programs to facilitate faculty development.

“I think what really helped with this program was to demonstrate to the faculty, the students and the community how committed the University of Michigan is to its students,” said Aileen Huang-Saad, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and a member of the TLTC steering committee. “And I think that’s a pretty important thing to be doing in today’s day and age, particularly in large research organizations.”

Timothy McKay, another member of the steering committee who called engaged learning “the only kind of learning there is,” found faculty were happy to have the freedom to experiment.

Students work summit at the campus farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Students work summit at the campus farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

“I’ve seen very senior faculty members have this enormous resurgence in their own careers,” said McKay, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of physics and astronomy. “I also see lots of young faculty members coming in and realizing just how great their educational work on campus can be—just how close and intimately connected to their research life it can be, and that’s transforming it in a serious way the way they think about their lives as a mixture of research and teaching and service here on campus.”

The assessment also addressed challenges to transforming teaching and learning, including the labor-intensive nature of engaged learning; the lack of faculty experience with the methods; the challenge of multidisciplinary work with schools, colleges and outside partners that operate on different calendars; and the current structure for garnering faculty rewards, particularly involving tenure.

Malinda Matney, director of assessment for the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, whose team compiled the report, said overcoming some of the challenges will be key to continuing the momentum.

“We are an institution of 46,000 students and we know we have to invest on the front end to make that scale happen,” she said. “But that investment, if we do it properly, is going to allow students to start pushing boundaries themselves to start creating with us.”

The TLTC-funded projects included quick wins/discovery and transformation grants.

For what leaders called the shorter, shovel-ready quick wins and discovery projects, faculty experimented with topics that included an artistic dance interpretation of the controversy around wind energy, a course that allowed U-M students to learn alongside incarcerated people, a common reading curriculum for engineering students, and a campus-farm sustainable food program.

UM students teach at Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor

UM students teach at Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor.

The larger grants supported development of courses, projects and programs that transformed the curriculum for the Law School and the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; brought seven health sciences schools and colleges together for cross-disciplinary educational opportunities; sent students into Michigan cities to help local governments and into the woods to learn more about the environment; and fostered the development of cutting-edge courses and concepts, including gameful learning, personalization of education through data use, and a technology-assisted automatic feedback system to allow an infusion of writing into large lecture courses.

Rebecca Hardin, associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability, and colleagues bring multiple perspectives together through a Third Century funded transformation project to create environmental case studies to share in the classroom and beyond. Multimedia presentations address dioxane in Ann Arbor, gray wolf hunting in Michigan, e-waste in Ghana, and will soon include one on hydrology and river conservation efforts in China. The studies demonstrate the relationship of environment with public health, economics, engineering, public policy, political science and other disciplines.

“The Third Century Initiative enabled us to lead in the ways that Michigan has always wanted and been good at leading, which is taking the privilege of expert knowledge that we have as faculty and students and applying it to making the world a better place,” Hardin said.

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