University of Michigan Pilots Revolutionary Approach to Intro Courses
February 07, 2020

At the University of Michigan, several large introductory classes are undergoing a drastic redesign. A new $5 million program called the Foundational Course Initiative aims to reimagine around 30 of these introductory courses in its initial phase. This ambitious project has the potential to affect about 80 percent of Michigan’s undergraduates.

“This project as a whole is a learning laboratory,” said Matt Kaplan, the executive director of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, in an interview for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Born out of an earlier 2012 effort by Michigan to modernize teaching and learning, the initiative has prompted a shift in focus from a strict emphasis on disciplinary knowledge toward more experiential and interactive types of learning.

Now in its second year of a planned five years, the Foundational Course Initiative is working with professors from 11 courses within a diverse swath of disciplines (including public health, math, film) to reorient their courses.

As part of the project, professors, graduate teaching assistants, and undergraduates familiar with the course material work in tandem with a group of teaching center staff members skilled in course design, learning analytics, classroom climate, and instructional technology to plot how to revise each course. This part of the process is highly experimental, with a lot of data crunching.

Professors in the initiative wrestle with a lot of worries. What if they make a bunch of changes and their course actually gets worse instead of better? “It’s this idea of not knowing where to start, the fear of pulling a string on a sweater,” says Kairos Marquardt, a pedagogy and design consultant who is part of several teams. “If I pull it, the whole thing might unravel.”

Sometimes, the teaching center team surveys students to understand perceptions of the course, other times they recommend more active learning, flipped classrooms, or group work to empower groups known to struggle in the course.

For all the potential benefits, the initiative has faced its fair share of challenges. One is an issue of capacity. “Right now we’re very artisanal,” explains Denise Galarza Sepúlveda, director of the initiative at CRLT. For the university to change its teaching culture, it needs economies of scale. “We are thinking carefully about what can we learn from this initiative that we can build into all courses going forward.”

Another challenge has been in convincing professors to essentially team teach. Gyorgyi Csankovszki, an associate professor of biology, was skeptical when she first heard of the Foundational Course Initiative: “I didn’t want consultants to come in and tell me how to do my job.” But for this last challenge, the initiative has generally succeeded in convincing faculty of the value of bringing data, experimentation, and team planning to bear in course reform. As described by Tim McKay, a physics professor who helped launch the Foundational Course Initiative and is now associate dean for undergraduate education, nobody was trying to tell faculty what to do. Instead, the consultants ask what the professors want and then help get it done. 

In the process, the initiative has had ripple effects beyond the individual courses in the initiative. For example, Stacie Edington, director of the engineering college’s honors and engagement programs, and her colleague Frank Marsik, a lecturer and associate research scientist, report that their work on Engineering 110 has kickstarted discussions of improving experiential-learning options for students across the college.

​At a Glance

Member Institution: University of Michigan

Initiative: The Foundational Course Initiative

Goal: To reimagine large introductory classes for a more meaningful and cohesive student and faculty experience.