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Mastering the Fundamentals

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 


Is it possible to agree on the fundamental skills required of all college

graduates independent of discipline? The article below, by Craig

Beyrouty, co-director of the Teaching and Faculty Support Center at the

University of Arkansas,

answers the question in the affirmative.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Managing Your Academic Career

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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by Craig Beyrouty


TFSC Co-Director

How often have we heard our students complain, "But this isn't freshman

English," in response to our grading for grammar as well as content? Or

have you experienced the disgruntled senior who resists your efforts to

engage her in classroom group activities because she thinks that exercises

in communication are "only for freshman orientation"? And how about the

student who cannot solve for x in a simple ratio, never expecting that he

will need to know how to do this outside of math class?

As TFSC Co-Directors, we hear from faculty in many disciplines the

recurring theme that the writing, speaking, and critical problem-solving

skills of many students need improvement. Yet students often seem to

regard their overall educational experience at the University not as a

continuum of interconnected concepts and ideas but as a mix of classes in

which discrete, independent blocks of information are taught-some of which

are irrelevant to their chosen professions.

Should, in fact, a student in soil science be accountable not only for the

technical content of what he writes, but also his skill in writing it?

Should a student in psychology be expected to put as much effort into the

delivery and style of an oral presentation as she does into the accuracy of

the information presented?

If we truly believe that educated persons should have a firm grasp of

fundamental skills as well as technical content, we must demonstrate

consistently the professional relevancy and importance of these skills in

the courses we teach. Otherwise, we faculty will contribute to the notion

among students that technical expertise is paramount and that the abilities

to communicate clearly and think critically are secondary-skills only for

high school students or college freshmen.


When each of us learned to ride a bicycle, we spent weeks, months, or (for

some of us) years of riding, falling, riding, falling, riding, and falling

before we mastered the skill. We did not become competent riders

overnight. With coaching from parents, friends, or siblings, we practiced

early and late until our riding skills had become almost second nature to


I suggest that certain academic skills also should be second nature to all

students who graduate from the University, regardless of specific

discipline. Freshman courses in English, communication, and mathematics

expose students to fundamental concepts in these disciplines. But it is

incumbent upon faculty to provide students with opportunities to practice

these skills across the curriculum.

The process of skill-building might include some combination of--

*Models of clear writing, speaking, and communication so that

students have standards for emulation

*Opportunities to refine skills in writing, speaking, developing and

articulating new ideas, and critical and creative thinking

*Feedback from faculty to help students to assess their levels of



Several years ago, Dr. Leo Van Scyoc from the Department of English

visited numerous departments around campus presenting a concept called

"writing across the curriculum." He explained that students could improve

their writing only if they were given opportunities to practice this skill

and receive feedback

Dr. Van Scyoc gave examples of simple writing exercises, such as the

two-minute paper and the double-entry notebook, that provide opportunities

for students to articulate or develop an idea in written form. Several

faculty embraced this concept and continue to incorporate writing into

their courses, providing feedback not just on the content of an exercise

but also on the quality of the writing.

Although few of us teach English formally, we all should be able to

provide meaningful responses to each of our students to help them improve

not only the content of their written work but their writing skills as

well. Most of us learned to be better writers by a similar process. We

have spent years since our own freshman English courses refining our skills

by writing dissertations, letters, research proposals, manuscripts, and

class exercises. Over the years we have benefited from the comments and

critiques of reviewers, colleagues, teachers, and students. Helpful

feedback has also enhanced our speaking and critical thinking skills.


"Identifying a set of academic fundamentals is impossible! We are too

diverse to reach a consensus on specific academic skills!"

These are real concerns. However, although our faculty represent many

unique disciplines and personal perspectives, I believe that we can agree

on a set of fundamental skills which define an educated individual, and in

which all graduates from this institution can and should be proficient.

For example, complete this sentence: "Every student who receives an

undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas should be able to. . .


Possible answers might include...

* "clearly articulate an idea orally and in writing"

* "critically analyze a situation, written document or concept"

* "provide creative suggestions or solutions to problems"

* "contribute to a group endeavor"

* "work productively in a professional environment"

* "make ethical decisions"

Answers will vary, of course, and should be the subject of discussion.

But once we achieve a broad consensus, we can begin to make clear to

students our commitment to the mastery of certain academic fundamentals.

In time, students will expect some writing assignments in a math class,

group approaches to problem-solving in accounting, and oral presentations

in kinesiology. Faculty will be less frustrated that "they are all alone"

in requiring these activities in their classes, and student resistance and

reluctance to participate may decrease.

It is possible to develop a stimulating and demanding curriculum which is

technically relevant to our disciplines but which also addresses the

academic fundamentals that characterize an excellent education. All are

essential in the professional worlds students will enter.

We owe it to our students at least to begin the dialogue.