August 2011


Steve Woolpert.It is no secret that American higher education is in a period of profound change. Indeed, the School of Liberal Arts is taking steps to improve educational quality by clarifying our academic priorities and finding more effective ways of meeting them.

The key to our approach is to shift the focus away from what our instructors teach and toward what our students learn. First, most academic programs in the School have developed ambitious, specific and clearly stated goals for student learning. If you are interested in seeing the goals for the field in which you majored, go to the School of Liberal Arts website and click on specific programs and then Learning Outcomes.

 Second, faculty members are gathering evidence about how well their students have achieved these learning goals. In addition, we will continue to seek feedback from our alumni about the knowledge, skills and values they acquired at Saint Mary’s.

Third, faculty are helping their advisees plan a course of study that will not merely satisfy specific course requirements but also will allow them to demonstrate their mastery of the required subject matter and intellectual skills. This kind of advising promotes self-directed learning. The students' attention shifts from meeting the expectations of instructors in separate courses to shaping the trajectory of their entire education.

 Taken together, these steps foster an environment of critical reflection about effective teaching. Our faculty are exploring creative new learning experiences, experimenting with new teaching technologies and developing new ways of bridging disciplinary boundaries, both in and out of the classroom. Assessment of student learning helps to ascertain their success and to develop strategies for educational improvement. And the more effective our teaching practices become, the more likely our students are to succeed academically.

Assessment also insures accountability; it allows us to back up our claims about how well we educate our students. We have a professional duty to find out what works in our classrooms and what does not. We owe it to prospective students, their parents and our supporters.

 In making these important changes, our fidelity to the perennial goals of a liberal arts education has not wavered. The practices of shared inquiry and collaborative learning for which we have long been admired remain central features of the classroom. (Ninety-one percent of our seniors report that they regularly challenge their professors' ideas in class!) We continue to value multiple ways of knowing, the acquisition of greater self-awareness and sound judgment, and an education that stresses the essential unity of knowledge. Our learning objectives are also informed by the Catholic intellectual tradition, which inspires us to learn together, use our intellectual gifts to deepen our understanding of faith and reason, and be open to all truth.

Steve Woolpert
Dean of Liberal Arts
Professor of Politics

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