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First-Year Research Seminars

As I mentioned in a post awhile back, the most recent intellectual life report from the faculty of the main campus recommended that all first-year students have the opportunity to experience an intensive seminar. The recommendation was “We recommend the creation and support of first year seminar courses for all undergraduates in all schools, designed to initiate immersion into research culture first by teaching the fundamental skills of research as appropriate for knowledge creation or for solving practical problems.”

The rationale for this recommendation involved the following logic:

“One way to increase student engagement with original research would be through the learning of research skills over the course of an undergraduate career beginning in a first year seminar. Faculty anecdotally report that students enter senior seminars or capstone courses without the skills to undertake original research or the knowledge of how a research paper is constructed. This omission could be remedied by careful vertical curricular planning. Skills could be divided over first- and second-year seminars before students entered research oriented courses, senior seminars, and capstone courses in their junior and senior years. In particular students should be weaned away from using Google as a search engine for a research paper and instead introduced to the proper way to use databases and how to choose the ones most appropriate for their topic. They should also be taught how to review current literature to date so as to form a meaningful research question or topic.”

Traditional lecture courses, supplemented with outside readings, can be effective in communicating content to students. Such pedagogical strategies are rarely successful, however, in communicating the role of research in knowledge creation.

The skills required for good research in most fields are transferable to other environments over the life course. The transferable skills include critical reading skills. Instead of merely taking notes on the key content in a course’s readings, students can learn how to evaluate and question the reading. Critical reading of others’ work is a key ingredient of all scholarship. Instead of just exercising the mental muscle of absorbing new facts, they exercise the opposing muscle, conceiving of new ways of creating, new questions not yet answered, and new ways of solving a problem. Instead of reading just the research and scholarship that has passed critical peer reviews, they try to create their own new findings or creations. By doing research, they quickly encounter the common mistakes of the endeavor – the low rate of complete success, the need to morph approaches in mid-stream, the iterative nature of research progress.

The Intellectual Life Report reminded us how important these sets of skills are to the ability to learn new material. The effort proposed is an attempt to provide a deeper experience to those exiting high school into the life of the mind so important in intellectual development. Further, it reminded us how preparing a student for a life of constant learning is one of Georgetown’s important missions.

The deans received this recommendation with great interest. Over the summer the provost office prepared some analysis of the distribution of class sizes across levels of courses and schools. The deans worked to review the current status of their school’s first year offerings.

I am happy to report to all that each dean believed that fulfilling the recommendation was both important for academic excellence and achievable over a relatively short period of time.

There remains much work to do, however, to ensure that each first-year student has a meaningful research-relevant seminar experience. This work, however, will be great fun.

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Listen to the Provost Podcast, “Faculty in Research,” at https://provost.georgetown.edu/podcast

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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