Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

The University of Washington is a large, public research institution based in Seattle.

At the University of Washington, "Discovery Seminars" Open Doors to College-Level Inquiry


The transition from high school to college can be disorienting, especially for students attending large research universities. In recent years, however, many institutions have experimented with curricular innovations—learning communities, first-year seminars, common reading programs—that can help students make a successful transition to college. At the University of Washington (UW), faculty and administrators have developed a promising new approach to the first-year experience: through the Discovery Seminars program, incoming students have the opportunity to adjust to the demands of college during the month before the start of the regular academic year.

What makes the Discovery Seminars distinctive is their emphasis on introducing students as early as possible to scholarly inquiry. Discovery Seminars are not standard "intro" courses but rather are in-depth, topical explorations of the sort that would be more typical of upper-level work in the major. By giving students the opportunity to experience such scholarship at the very beginning of their college careers, UW hopes not just to prepare new students for college-level learning, but also to inspire them with the passion for discovery that underlies scholarly pursuits.

A Focus on Inquiry

The University of Washington launched the Discovery Seminars in 2003 as part of a campus effort to rethink the role of liberal education at a research university. Task forces that had earlier been assigned to study how UW could improve the first-year experience and enhance student learning had found "a need for providing students coming into the university with a more directed experience," says Assistant Dean for Educational Programs Paul LePore. LePore, who has been closely involved in the development of the Discovery Seminars, explains that these studies led UW to develop programs that would help students understand "what it means to be at a research university."

The Discovery Seminars are now a central part of the university's plan to introduce students to the possibilities of college-level inquiry. Held a month before the fall quarter begins, during UW's "early fall start" session, the seminars meet for ten hours a week and count as regular, five-credit courses. All newly admitted students are invited to apply to the Discovery Seminars program, and although there is a fee for the program, financial aid is available just as it is during the regular academic year.

The seminars themselves offer a crash course in college-level learning. They avoid the emphasis on rote learning that characterizes many high school classes and instead foster—through research, writing assignments, and class discussions—the kind of independent thought that is demanded in the best college courses. The seminars' small class sizes, meanwhile, encourage the development of lasting connections between students and with faculty.

Discovery Seminars also introduce students to the "ways in which disciplines go about investigating the world," says LePore. The seminars scheduled for 2006 illustrate this point: among the offerings are courses that explore international topics from political and social perspectives (Can the U.S. Export Democracy?, Genocide: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder); those that introduce students to cultural and literary analysis (The Last of the Mohicans: American Indians in Cinema, Medieval and Renaissance Literature: A Portal to Chaucer); those that focus on aspects of scientific literacy (Comparative Animal Behavior, Modern Topics in Astronomy for Non-Science Majors); and those that engage students' creativity (Solo Performance Practicum, Persistence of Vision: A Digital Arts Seminar).

The exploration of such focused topics is meant to cultivate "a frame of mind" that will serve students throughout their college careers. Students need to understand that they belong to a "community of scholars," LePore says, and that they are engaged individually and collaboratively in the processes of inquiry and discovery. The seminars contribute to this understanding by sharing "the sheer joy of investigating the unknown" with new students.

Benefits of Discovery

Students who participate in the Discovery Seminars benefit in a number of ways. They are able to adjust to life in Seattle at a time when the UW campus is relatively quiet, and by the time they begin the fall quarter, they have a better understanding of the kind of work that will be expected of them in college. Participating students also get a head start on their education, which enables them either to take a lighter course load in their first quarter or to take a full course load and stay ahead in credit accumulation.

A less expected benefit of the program for the university has stemmed from the faculty development it provides. UW requires that participating faculty attend spring workshops to prepare for the seminars, and these workshops have in turn provided professors with needed time to reflect on learning and teaching. Faculty "not only share best practices" in the workshops, says Paul LePore, "but also talk about what kind of learning objectives they are establishing for the students"—a conversation that can be difficult to facilitate in other settings. Moreover, because the demand to teach Discovery Seminars has been high across most of the university's seventeen schools and colleges, faculty participation in the program has created a context for interaction across departments and schools.

One way of building on such success is to support the expansion of Discovery Seminars and the development of similar programs. Already, LePore says, other "early fall start" courses are reaching students at all levels. For example, entering students who need help with college-level work can enroll in special workshops focusing on areas such as writing. And UW's "Exploration Seminars"—a companion program to the Discovery Seminars—are giving hundreds of rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors the chance to spend a month studying abroad with UW faculty during the early start session.

In the future, LePore hopes that the Discovery Seminars themselves will grow to reach at least half of all incoming students (the program currently enrolls between four hundred and six hundred students, or about 10 percent of each entering class). Drawing more students into the seminars will not be easy, however. Some students—even after receiving financial aid—cannot afford to take the time away from their summer jobs; others simply remain unaware of the program's benefits. But according to LePore, the seminars also are "now becoming a part of the campus culture"—a development that could prompt more students to bridge the gap between high school and college with a month-long introduction to the possibilities of academic discovery.

University of Washington