Students will register for classes for the next two weeks, a process that is difficult enough as it is. But many students will face the additional burden of trying to find an Undergraduate Signature Course, known as a UGS, that is both open and interesting to them. Unfortunately, not many will succeed, and those who do will have to deal with the courses’ nonstandard grading platforms and a host of other frustrating problems.
According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, nearly 60 percent of first-year college students in the U.S. are unprepared for post-secondary studies. UT’s solution to this problem was the UGS. It was designed to help transition students from various secondary institutions to the University by introducing them to the resources the campus offers. Emphasizing discussion and core interpersonal skills for topics ranging from Odysseus to President Barack Obama seemed like a foolproof solution to address the growing problem of college readiness.
But by forcing students to take classes that range widely in size, quality and difficulty of grading, UT has actually forced students into an academic lottery: You can only hope you’ll get a UGS that actually increases your knowledge and inspires you to learn. Otherwise, you’re forced to join the growing crowd of discontent students who don’t benefit from the requirement.
One of the main problems with the courses is that the diverse nature of topics creates an inconsistent grading platform for professors and students. If a student takes Fitness for Life, the professor assigns grades based on that student’s ability to perform a physical activity. But if another student takes Sustaining the Planet, that student would be graded on his ability to create a lab portfolio. Ultimately, each class is based on an entirely different grading criterion. Is that fair for an incoming first-year or transfer student who does not know what to expect in the class? It’s not. It is definitely not the intent of a class designed to stimulate students to learn. It is definitely not the solution the administration was looking for.
Similarly, the University says the courses were designed to introduce students to resources such as the Sanger Learning Center and the library to encourage research. Unfortunately, because of the lack of uniformity among teachers and classes, many students are not exposed to half of the important resources on campus. The diverse structures of the courses have led to a knowledge disparity among students. Professor liberty should be encouraged but not at the expense of the student.
My UGS, Odysseus’ Odysseys, was the most difficult class I’ve taken at the University. I registered early for the class, expecting to learn more about Odysseus’ many adventures. But, by the end of the semester, the class had decreased my confidence in my writing skills, and I learned that classes with interesting names are deceptive. The UGS discouraged me from taking classes to inspire me, which is ironically the very purpose of the courses in the first place.
The courses should be more focused on discussion and class participation to inspire students to pursue research and educational growth at the University. Students who have taken effective UGS classes have talked about class intimacy and the approachability of the instructor. With successful UGS classes, students can value the complexity of the topics and the transferability of the skills they learn. The topic doesn’t matter as much as showing the value of an open-ended class to students. It is about showing how each of these classes has something to offer for the growth of the student.
To fix this problem, the administration should weigh attendance and class participation as indicators of success in the courses. Faculty should have some type of uniform grading platform to encourage students to take the classes they are interested in rather than to choose easy classes. Why don’t we stop basing the value of our education on a grade-disparaged lottery and inspire students to actually learn? Isn’t that why we are here?
Sundaram is a business honors, finance and international relations sophomore from Austin.