DISCIPLINARY DISCOVERY AND
CROSS DISCIPLINARY INSIGHTS
Our institutional vision – as demonstrated throughout our history as a research-intensive university and as articulated in our most recent strategic plan – is that scholarship and education should be mutually reinforcing. Our academic disciplines should shape the intellectual paths taken by our students, while our educational mission should improve the clarity of our scholarship. At Duke, there have been major strides in engaging students in scholarship through co-curricular activities like mentored research and short courses; indeed, such programs were the primary focus of our previous quality enhancement plan (QEP). Yet, Duke can do much more. In examining the breadth of the undergraduate experience, we recognized an opportunity for embedding disciplinary scholarship/thinking into students’ early classroom experiences, not simply something pursued independently of classes and only late in their Duke careers.
Duke's current QEP, Building Gateways, describes an institution-wide commitment toward improving the Duke undergraduate experience by investing in our gateway courses. We use “gateway” to describe courses that provide students with their first introduction to an academic discipline, traditionally by providing a survey of its intellectual theory, an introduction to its terminology and methods, and/or training in skills relevant to its practice. Often, a gateway course is one of the largest courses offered by a department, attracting not only students who will pursue further courses in that major but also students who will only take that one course within the discipline. Gateway courses thus present an extraordinarily high leverage opportunity for shaping educational outcomes for large and diverse sets of students relatively early in their Duke careers – while also providing fertile ground for faculty-driven experimentation in pedagogical methods. Simply put, an outstanding gateway course has spillover effects for an entire academic major. The importance of these courses for our educational goals has shaped much of Duke’s curricular discussions over the past several years, and serves as the impetus for the current QEP.
Through this QEP, we seek to develop an institutional culture around improving our gateway courses, assessing the effects of any changes upon student and program outcomes, and disseminating successful practices throughout Duke. Specific Goals of Duke's current QEP are outlined below.
Goal 1: Spark the Excitement of Discovery
Duke has dual identities as a comprehensive research university and as a set of colleges that are committed to broad-based undergraduate education, both in the liberal arts and in engineering. Our undergraduates are thus embedded within a community of scholars whose research has implications not only for the progress of basic knowledge, but also for providing insight into many issues relevant to contemporary society. Importantly, the university believes that the processes of scholarship and of undergraduate education should be intertwined within a research university. The cardinal goal of this QEP – to “Spark the Excitement of Discovery” – seeks to improve the integration of scholarship and educational practices within our undergraduate gateway courses.
Over the course of implementing the QEP, we will ask all departments and programs to consider
the question: What will students discover in this gateway course? Most generally, we want to encourage the following learning outcomes, with outcomes new to this QEP indicated by underlining:
- Students should gain disciplinary knowledge and understand how that knowledge arises from a process of scholarship within that discipline.
- Students should develop disciplinary skills and recognize how scholars/practitioners apply those skills.
- This emphasis on discovery should increase the persistence of disciplinary knowledge and skills as students progress through later courses.
- Students should be better prepared for future research activities and more likely to engage in research activities that complement their classroom experiences.
Goal 2: Encourage Disciplinary Thinking
Gateway courses, by definition, represent the first step into a disciplinary curriculum (e.g., a
major or minor). Within both Duke’s recent campus-wide discussions about the undergraduate
curriculum and the faculty committee that led the creation of this QEP, there has been near-universal
recognition of the importance of disciplinary thinking for the undergraduate experience. That is, the university believes that a core feature of a Duke undergraduate education is the exploration of an academic discipline (usually through a well-defined major) in a manner that supports rigorous and deep inquiry. We recognize that exploration of different disciplinary pathways will lead Duke students to think
differently; as examples, a student who pursues a History major may think about the rise of human
civilization differently from a student who pursues an Evolutionary Anthropology major. However, we
see those differences as positive features, in that they promote the diversity of thinking that (when
combined with a respect for multiple viewpoints) is critical for modern society.
Our QEP thus seeks to encourage programs to consider a second key question: How will your
gateway course develop students’ thinking in the discipline? We seek to encourage the following learning outcomes, with outcomes new to this QEP indicated by underlining:
- Students should be able to apply a disciplinary mode of thinking in novel contexts; for example, gaining the capacity to think about a new pandemic from a global health perspective.
- Students should appreciate the limitations of their disciplinary thinking, so that they recognize how and when to apply the knowledge/skills introduced in their gateway course.
- Students should have a sense of belonging within an intellectual community, which in turn positively influences motivation to learn, learning outcomes in subsequent courses, and engagement in related co-curricular experiences.
At its core, this second QEP goal reflects our commitment to developing metacognitive skills in
our students – meaning that we want students to not only gain knowledge/skills within a discipline (cf.
Goal 1) but also recognize how and when to apply those skills.
Goal 3: Recognize Disciplinary Connections
A key challenge for Duke – as woven throughout our current strategic plan – is to promote
disciplinary depth and rigor while still encouraging students’ engagement with the broad range of
opportunities available at a comprehensive research university. Trinity College students may take
several gateway courses – the gateway course for their intended major (or majors/minors), one or more
gateway courses in cognate majors, and sometimes courses from quite disparate disciplines for purely
intellectual exploration. We seek to encourage this disciplinary exploration – we want Duke students to
engage with very different types of material and ways of thinking! However, we also recognize that
gateway courses (as historically constructed at Duke and elsewhere) are often disconnected both from
what students already know and from what students encounter in other gateway courses. For the final
goal of this QEP, we seek to change the Duke undergraduate experience through gateway courses that
To shape a new way of thinking about gateway courses, we will ask departments and programs
to consider a third key question: How are course concepts connected to students’ experiences, both in
other courses and in their lives outside of Duke? In effect, this QEP goal will support pedagogical best practices that lead to the following learning outcomes:
- Students should exhibit increased engagement in co-curricular activities related to their gateway courses.
- At the completion of the gateway course, students should understand what it would mean to continue their studies with additional depth in the major – even if they do not yet plan to pursue additional coursework in that major.
A gateway course should not be seen as an introduction to some “true way of thinking” possessed by its disciplinary community. Ideally, it should provide context for how its discipline approaches scholarship (or problem-solving or performance, etc.) through respectful comparison to other approaches.