Evidence-focused seminars ask first-year students, 'How do you know?'

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Nov. 9, 2017

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Last spring, students in chemistry lecturer Doug Mulford’s evidence-focused first-year seminar, “How Do We Know That: 2,500 years of Great Science Writing,” celebrated the end of the semester by enjoying ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen.

How do you know what you know?

For the third year in a row, Emory College first-year students are confronting that question in courses ranging from anthropology to religion and dance to physics. They arrive at the answers by learning how to carefully sort and weigh evidence in the evidence-focused first year seminars that are part of the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), “The Nature of Evidence: How Do You Know?” 

“Evidence is not a discipline-specific topic but rather a central focus of students’ undergraduate experience,” says Tracy Scott, QEP director and a senior lecturer in sociology. “Understanding evidence in a meaningful way, regardless of discipline, is a foundational aspect of your entire education at Emory." 

Since it began three years ago, the QEP has seen an increase of classes every year, more faculty support and more students commenting on the real-world value of the courses.

Training faculty

Emory College requires students to complete a first-year seminar within their initial two semesters on campus. Part critical thinking and part disciplinary study, the QEP seminars focus on teaching students how to understand questions of evidence in the flurry of information coming at them.

Faculty who teach these courses receive professional development in the annual QEP Faculty Development Workshop. As part of the QEP effort, Emory College developed criteria to help faculty foreground issues of evidence and more explicitly teach about evidence as it pertains to their course content.

The QEP workshops use a series of faculty panels to highlight lessons learned from those who taught evidence-seminars in the previous year. Cross-disciplinary and concrete examples from the classroom foster lively discussions and new ways of conceptualizing the teaching of evidence.

The result: More than 65 different first-year seminars in two years, exploring everything from humanitarianism in Africa to the claims made in historical scientific writing.

By the five-year mark in 2020, Emory will have created more than 90 evidence-focused courses for the initiative, Scott says.

In addition to the committee of faculty and administrators who developed the criteria for the seminars, other committees work on related issues, such as the co-curricular work to fold discussion of evidence into the Pre-major Advising Connections at Emory Program (PACE) also required of first-year students. 

Student involvement

One unique aspect of the QEP is an undergraduate advisory committee, a group of 10-12 students who provide input and feedback for the plan. 

Scott credits the students with emphasizing the importance of evidence in being a good citizen and understanding other people and their viewpoints. Such real-world importance can further deepen the understanding for evidence in problem-solving and decision-making in classes. 

“I have a new appreciation for evidence in the work world because I’ve seen how people respond to it,” says Danielle Tanzman, a senior BBA major who used her board experience on a consumer marketing internship with Newell Brands. 

“You use evidence as much in music as medicine, because anything you study has to be backed up with substantial evidence,” she adds. “It was the same thing at my internship, where I had to back up any new idea I was presenting.” 

The ability to parse arguments and substantiate claims can help you be not just a good employee, but a good citizen, says junior biology major James Jordano. 

After all, he says, evidence can be statistics in a science course or a book in a literature course. But it also comes from life in the 21st century, where streams of information flood social media daily.

“Evidence is not something to be studied. It is an approach to looking at things,” says Jordano, who believes his understanding of evidence will make him a better doctor someday. “Evidence emphasizes your responsibility to know the full argument.”

Anecdotally, then, students are understanding the need for the efforts of the QEP. The next step will be to further develop assessments that can capture results of the initiative, Scott says.

Broadly, there are four learning outcomes Emory expects from the focus on evidence:

1. Students who can distinguish the use of evidence in and between disciplines

2. Students who can identify and analyze evidence

3. Students who can evaluate the evidence

4. Students who can build arguments based on evidence and assess the arguments of others

In that way, the heart of the initiative is to view evidence-focused courses similarly to the writing requirement courses for students. Much as the structure and focus of writing spans all disciplines, the need to seek and interpret evidence is a central skill.

“In your life, you will see a lot of information,” Scott says. “If it’s true, that information is knowledge. If it’s not, what is it? Our students are being confronted with that question every day.”