Executive Summary and Plan Overview
The University of Mary Washington (UMW), a public liberal arts university with approximately 4,500 undergraduate and 750 graduate students, has a long history of developing high-impact practices to enhance student learning. The four-course writing intensive requirement (established in 1982) and two-course speaking intensive requirement (established in 1997) were supported by the establishment of peer consulting centers directed by professional staff. Following best practices and modeled by other institutions, UMW’s efforts have bolstered its long-standing commitment to a liberal arts education.
As part of a sweeping overhaul of the General Education Program, UMW established a first-year seminar (FSEM) requirement in 2008. This three-credit course, required of all first-year undergraduates, was designed to help students cultivate the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind necessary for liberal learning through the in-depth study of a topic in an intimate seminar setting. One expectation of the course is the provision of instruction on how to gather and analyze information for the purpose of formulating and defending an opinion. With a 15:1 student-to-faculty ratio, individual FSEM courses are distributed across various academic departments, taught by members of the full-time teaching faculty, and involve topics requiring no prior background or discipline-specific knowledge. FSEM course titles reflect the rich diversity of experiences offered—courses have focused on topics such as “Mozart and ‘Amadeus,’” “Finding Fashion,” the “Graphic Novel,” “Infographics,” “Cinderella and Harry Potter,” and “Energy Resources in the 21st Century.” Since 2008 more than 90 individual FSEM courses have been developed by UMW faculty.
While the 2008 FSEM requirement established general course goals, it had ill-defined student learning outcomes and insufficient support for faculty who were tasked with implementing an ambitious, introductory college-level experience in oral communication, written communication, and information literacy. Consequently, UMW’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) was designed to enhance the existing FSEM as a foundational liberal arts educational experience. The plan established a rigorous and clearly defined set of integrated student learning outcomes for FSEMs in the areas of information literacy, writing, and oral communication. To aid the achievement of these outcomes, the QEP is developing online learning modules to support instruction. Over a three-year period, the plan envisions the creation of at least 12 modules distributed among the three skills areas. The first module, The CRAAP Test, was piloted in the spring of 2013, and the QEP has since developed two more modules.
Framed by best practices drawn from multiple sources, the QEP is the result of 36 months of collaborative planning, reflecting, narrowing, and revising that included representatives from senior administrators, faculty, staff, and students. An open call for topic suggestions led to the creation of teams of faculty and staff who developed three potential topic areas in additional detail. Selection of the “first-year experience” as the principal subject area came about after the President and the Provost reviewed the topic proposals developed by the three teams. A call for volunteers to serve on the QEP Development Team resulted in 23 participants who began the work to develop the plan. In summer 2012, the QEP topic was narrowed considerably by a smaller group of individuals working with the Provost. The plan’s focus on FSEMs was prompted in part by analysis of nationally normed and internal data sets that indicated a need to improve student performance in common literacy skill sets during their first year. Once improved, students could take full advantage of the rigorous academic programs that UMW prides itself on offering, ones that focus on close faculty-student relationships, individual study, and undergraduate research. On December 6, 2012, faculty governance bodies, including the University Faculty Council, affirmed the Quality Enhancement Plan.