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Co-terms strong as honors theses decline


In recent years, the number of undergraduates pursuing co-terminal degrees has remained steady; by contrast, the number writing honors theses has steadily declined.


In response to this data, the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) has proposed several measures to encourage seniors to complete capstone projects before graduation, whether in the form of an honors thesis or another endeavor.


Ayodele Thomas, an assistant dean in the School of Humanities and Sciences said in an email to The Daily that the number of students pursuing co-terminal degrees has “remained stable” over the past 10 years.


“The 10 year trend indicates a decline in the number of students completing honors in the School of Humanities and Sciences,” Thomas noted.


There is no consensus as to the reason for the drop in students writing honors theses.


“I think there hasn’t been enough study of what factors influence the numbers of students applying for or completing these programs to say with any confidence what contributes to the trends,” said Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam.


“Over the same period of time [as the honors declined], there has been an increase in two other programs: co-terminal degrees and minors,” said Susan McConnell, biology professor and co-chair of SUES, referring to an increase in co-terminal degrees and minors over the past two decades, despite the high numbers stabilizing in the past 10 years.


McConnell also stated that one would need to conduct a more in-depth study into honors programs to be sure of the reasons behind their decline in popularity.


The Commission Undergraduate Education (CUE) report published 17 years ago stated that about one in four students wrote an honors thesis. This figure is now closer to one in five, according to McConnell.


“[The SUES report] is not suggesting in any way that every student should do an honors thesis,” McConnell said.


“My main interest is in ensuring that as many students as possible have the opportunity to engage in a culminating experience … rather than in increasing the number of honors students per se,” Elam said.


McConnell echoed Elam’s sentiment.


“We would like to see every senior do some sort of capstone … that doesn’t have to be a research based honors thesis,” McConnell said.


“There are a number of ways in which students can have this kind of experience, including honors and other kinds of final project experiences,” Elam said. He noted that there are already many engineering programs that require students to complete some sort of final project.


Both Elam and McConnell emphasized the fact there is no movement to require senior honors theses.


“In keeping with Stanford’s culture and students, the emphasis will be on multiple options that students can choose from according to their interests rather than mandating particular forms or disciplinary distributions,” Elam said.


The SUES report, presented to the Faculty Senate on Jan. 26, suggested the creation of a “residential research college” which would have an atmosphere conducive to collaborative learning and writing research-based theses.


McConnell said that responses thus far from faculty regarding the SUES proposals have been very positive.


“[In] both the faculty and the University administration there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of energy,” McConnell said.


The SUES report cited the new format of the political science honors thesis as a potential model for the rest of the University. The program is different from other honors programs in that it takes place over the course of two years as opposed to just one.


“[Reviewing the curriculum] is a new way of infusing energy into the curriculum and that’s clearly happening,” McConnell said of the potential for positive change from the SUES report.


“Overall,” she added, “the response has been that there is energy, enthusiasm, and a renewed commitment to undergraduates at Stanford.”

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