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BYU moves to fix classroom deficiencies

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PROVO — Brigham Young University is moving swiftly to correct a few deficiencies pointed out in a survey that compares the LDS Church-owned school to 276 colleges nationwide.

According to an Indiana University study called "The National Survey of Student Engagement: The College Student Report," BYU stumbles most in the classroom.

The report, part of which is a compilation of surveys submitted by 152,000 freshmen and seniors at four-year colleges across the country, says BYU students don't see enough of their professors and aren't encouraged to speak out in classes.

The survey asked students to rate student-faculty contact, cooperation among students, discussions with classmates and professors in the classroom, high expectations and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning.

Such practices are considered by many in higher-education circles as some of the best predictors of student learning.

BYU fell below national norms in terms of students asking questions in class, making class presentations, discussing grades or assignments with instructors, discussions between faculty and students about career plans and students working with faculty on activities other than course work.

"The data suggest that our students are significantly less active in the learning process in their classes than are students at other institutions, yet they spend more time preparing for class," said BYU President Merrill J. Bateman on Monday.

Bateman unveiled the findings — and outlined steps the university will take to correct the problems — at the opening session of BYU's annual University Conference. More than 4,000 faculty and staff will participate in various planning and training sessions until Thursday in preparation for fall semester.

"I suspect that large class size, especially in the freshman year, is partly to blame for less faculty-student contact and for less class participation," Bateman said, adding that university trustees in 1996 increased the budget to address such issues. "Still, we can improve."

Bateman pledged to reduce class sizes, especially for low-level courses frequented by freshmen. He also said BYU is in the early stages of providing lecture materials on computer discs to make classes more interactive.

"Rather than coming to class to hear a lecture, students should have lecture and other materials available for study before class so that class time can be used for interactive learning," he said.

"Historically, technology has been considered a tool for research," he said. "Today, it is becoming an integral part of the teaching and learning process."

To that end, he said, in the past six months BYU has rebuilt the school's network core and expanded the bandwidth. More than 70 classrooms also have been wired for professors who prefer to give presentations with a laptop computer.

BYU did fare well on several parts of the survey, which included responses from University of Utah and Weber State University students.

Institution-specific data was sent to all participating schools in July, and Indiana University plans to release the full study results in October, said BYU spokeswoman Carri P. Jenkins.

"Overall, we do well," Bateman said. "Not surprisingly there are some areas in which we do very well."

Bateman said the survey noted such successful practices as "student collaboration, prompt feedback from professors, time on task, high expectations and a special environment which is inclusive and affirming."

The university received high scores when students were asked about the quality of general education, writing skills demanded of students and in teaching critical analysis, Bateman said.

Also at Monday's session, Bateman told professors that BYU will only fund research that holds the promise of world-class research and also supports the mission of the LDS Church.

"There must be an appropriate balance between teaching and research," he said. "No institution of higher education, however, can afford the cost of researching an almost infinite frontier."

The president also noted with pride the growth of the school's online offerings. Since 1997, BYU has developed 150 college courses. Some 10,000 students from 22 countries have taken BYU distance-education courses, he said.

"It is my dream that we will appreciate and commit to the destiny of Brigham Young University in its mission to take the full spectrum of light across the world," he said.

E-MAIL: jeffh@desnews.com