SMU unveils new plan for ‘Unbridled Learning’

Outdoor class at Dallas HallSMU is answering students’ calls for learning opportunities outside the classroom with a new program that will provide both structure and funding for their endeavors.

The University’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) – “Unbridled Learning: Engaged Learning Beyond the Classroom” – will allow all SMU undergraduate students to participate in at least one extensive experiential learning activity prior to graduation, according to the plan released by SMU’s QEP Committee. It also meets requirements for the University’s upcoming reaccreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

The program will allow undergraduates to “build on their formal classroom education through participation in structured experiential learning beyond the classroom, which will help them to develop a significant and sophisticated understanding of the ways in which the context of the world community intersects with disciplinary knowledge,” according to the QEP Committee’s executive summary.

The committee’s discussions have centered on experiential learning since its formation in summer 2009, says chair Maggie Dunham, professor of computer science and engineering in the Lyle School of Engineering.

“The QEP part of our reaccreditation process is pretty much wide open for schools to determine. The committee’s main job was to come up with an implementation plan,” Dunham says. “Experiential learning is the area where we think students will gain the most from their University experience. They value this kind of activity and have told us as much.”

Indeed, a survey of SMU students conducted by the Temerlin Advertising Institute, led by Professor Brice Campbell, in Meadows School of the Arts found that more than 80 percent of them “find that it is important to experience life outside the classroom.”

The QEP will provide opportunities – and University support, including funding – for undergraduate students to choose an out-of-classroom experiential learning activity in the community focus area of their choice:

  • Research
  • Creative
  • Civic
  • Professional

QEP experiences will also have specific requirements that may not be satisfied by existing SMU experiential learning activities, according to the committee. A key feature is that each student will be in charge of identifying, defining, completing and reporting on his or her work.

All experiences will be approved by an advisory committee and overseen by SMU faculty with other qualified internal and external mentors. A QEP experience can be undertaken anywhere, but must include extensive involvement with a learning community.

All QEP participants will be required to write a reflective article about their experiences, to be published in a new SMU online journal. In addition, new Undergraduate Engaged Learning Conferences will be held annually to showcase student QEP experiences.

The committee found that many SMU students already pursue experiential activities beyond the classroom, but many more are confused about how to go about doing it, Dunham says. The recommendations for the QEP grant program and other support mechanisms should address that problem, she adds.

SMU institutional support for the QEP will include:

  • Monetary support
  • A new position for a Director of Engaged Learning
  • A new Director of Undergraduate Research

The oversight infrastructure will include the Engaged Learning Advisory Committee, as well as community partners and mentors, and a new website to keep track of experiential learning opportunities for students.

In addition, QEP projects will build on and augment important elements of the new University Curriculum (UC), to be offered beginning in 2012. The program will allow students to pursue the community and global requirements of the UC in more depth.

Finally, the QEP will increase faculty awareness of the importance of and participation in undergraduate experiential learning outside the classroom.

“It’s important that these experiences become part of our University culture,” Dunham says. “Our plan will help facilitate that.”

> Read more about the University Curriculum
> Learn more from SMU’s Quality Enhancement Plan information site
> Visit the SACS Reaffirmation of Accreditation for SMU homepage

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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