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Lecture by national expert will launch project to improve general education

Activities supported by a three-year grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for innovation in general education at UConn will begin on November 7 with a lecture by nationally known expert in cognitive psychology, Michael Pressley.

Pressley, who holds an endowed chair in cognitive psychology at Notre Dame University, will speak on the topic, "How Can College Courses Be More Effective?"

The $150,000 Hewlett Foundation grant, one of fewer than 10 awarded to research universities this year, is intended to improve general education programs through the introduction of research experiences into general education courses, and through the application of research about teaching and learning to improve such courses.

"The goal is to have faculty at research universities bring their research expertise to the understanding of general education," says Judith Meyer, interim vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction, who is co-director of the project with Keith Barker. "We hope to show how, with a relatively modest amount of resources, we can make a difference in undergraduate education."

The November 7 lecture is the first in a series of noontime lectures on different approaches to teaching. The series will include at least one presentation by a UConn faculty member. Pressley, whose expertise is in cognitive strategies (how people organize the way they think and learn), heads a new cognitive education center at Notre Dame and has a multimillion dollar federal grant to study cognitive strategies in reading instruction. He also is editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology.

The general education project also will involve a team of faculty and graduate students in redesigning a number of high-enrollment survey and skills courses to include research experiences and other forms of active learning. The new courses, which will be launched in fall 1998, will be evaluated in comparison with traditional versions of the same courses. In the third year of the grant, the Institute for Teaching and Learning will hold workshops to extend the approach more broadly across the University.

During his visit to UConn, Pressley will meet with a group of faculty involved in the initial phase of the Hewlett project, including William Berentsen, geography; Thomas Recchio, English; Robert Stephens, music; Charles Vinsonhaler; math; and Lawrence Langer, Altina Waller and Janet Watson, history.

One of the general education courses that will be modified to include a research component is History 100/101, a course required for all lower division undergraduate students - more than 2,000 of them each year.

Altina Waller, head of the history department and a member of the steering committee for the Hewlett project, says it is important for "even beginning undergraduates to have research experiences, an opportunity they might not be able to have at other universities."

Waller says there are some opportunities for research in upper division history courses at UConn, but it is still unusual for undergraduates to engage in primary research.

"Usually the assignment is just to find three to four books on a subject and write a general paper on it. That's not what we're talking about here. What we're talking about is real, primary document research," she says.

"We want undergraduates to see how historians actually work - for them to read an original document, draw conclusions, and evaluate the document."

Waller says students will be able to consult original documents at the archives in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. "These are resources you wouldn't find at a non-research institution," she says.

Thomas Recchio, a professor of English and head of the freshman English program, will be developing research experiences for undergraduates taking introductory courses such as English 109, a course that involves students exploring literary criticism of the works they read in class.

He says that regardless of whether students go on to pursue the subject in greater depth, the experience of research will be valuable.

"If students are exposed to genuine research early on it introduces them to the kind of work that gets done at the university, and adds a dimension to education that's more than simply reporting on what's already been said," Recchio says. "It gives them an edge of originality."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu