How do you know? New first-year seminars shine spotlight on evidence

By Laura Douglas-Brown | Emory Report | Aug. 25, 2015

Tracy Scott, director of Emory's Quality Enhancement Plan, discusses the importance of primary evidence in the structure of the new Quality Enhancement Plan for undergraduates.

How do you know if the color you call "red" is the same as what others perceive? How do you know what a character in a play is feeling? How do you know anything about the deep human past, since, of course, no one was documenting it in the ways we do now?

Students in the Class of 2019 will explore these questions and many more as Emory debuts its inaugural evidence-focused first-year seminars, the culmination of years of planning that ended with a new educational initiative praised as a model for other universities.

"What we are trying to do is to get students to realize that they are learning about evidence in all of the different disciplines; even if they don't always use that word, they are learning common skills across the curriculum," explains Tracy Scott, director of Emory's Quality Enhancement Plan  (QEP) and a senior lecturer in sociology.

"We are trying to help students connect the dots."

In January, Emory received reaffirmation of its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. For the first time, the accreditation process required schools to create a QEP — an initiative dedicated to improving an aspect of student learning or the environment for student success.

"The Nature of Evidence: How Do You Know?" was selected as Emory's QEP theme after an extensive, university-wide process. It has three main components launching this academic year:

  • the introductory component, a series of short videos designed to spark interest in evidence that first-year students watched over the summer before registering for classes;
  • the classroom component, made up of evidence-focused  first-year seminars, which debut this year and will expand over the next five;
  • and the co-curricular component, including the inaugural Evidence Town Hall, set for later this fall.

"What makes this unique, and what the accreditation review committee liked so much, is the fact that evidence is fundamental to learning, to knowledge, to problem solving — it is the foundation of so much of what we do, but it is usually not explicitly talked about or taught that way," Scott says.

"A lot of institutions talk about things like critical thinking skills, but that is vague and hard to define. Talking about evidence is a lot more concrete for students."

Understanding evidence

Emory College has long required students to complete a first-year seminar within their initial two semesters on campus. This year, 32 first-year seminars across a wide range of disciplines will have a special emphasis on evidence.

All of the instructors for the inaugural evidence-focused  seminars are professors who have taught the courses before and volunteered to adapt their curriculum to the new focus.

For Robert Wyttenbach, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology, the QEP offers an opportunity to expand on the approach he was already using in his freshman seminar, "Illusions and Reaction Times."

"An illusion is a mistake the brain makes in interpreting the evidence from outside, and we can learn about how our brains process information by studying how a mechanism that works most of the time can fail," he explains. "I already had that focus on the evidence our brain uses to understand the world around us, so it seemed like a natural progression to make this focus on evidence more explicit."

The long-debated question of whether people experience colors the same way across cultures, languages and environments will be the theme of a multi-stage project focused on evidence, one of the requirements of the QEP seminars.

But the lessons students learn about how to understand and use evidence to support their arguments will apply much more broadly than a single issue, Wyttenbach says.

"It is tremendously important for an informed citizenry, for people who are going to vote and possibly run for political office, to have some understanding of what counts as evidence and what is a logical argument based on evidence," he says. "I hope students will learn to think more critically about the evidence presented to them."

Acting like detectives

Craig Hadley, associate professor of anthropology, also volunteered to make his seminar "The Past, Present and Future of Food and Population" part of the QEP, and hopes that it will create a foundation for the rest of his students' studies.

"I had been realizing much later, in their junior and senior years, that some of my students don't really have a good handle on what counts as evidence and how to use evidence to construct an argument," he says. "The idea of getting freshman thinking like this is something I was excited about."

A key topic in Hadley's seminar will be understanding how we can make claims about the history of the human population and examining how anthropologists rely on evidence from fields like archeology and linguistics, among others.

"We'll be breaking down what the authors are really saying, what evidence they bring to bear on their arguments, and what we think about their interpretations," he says.

Compared to courses in the sciences, Lisa Paulsen's "Acting Fundamentals" seminar might seem a less obvious choice to focus on evidence.

But good acting requires being a "text detective," analyzing the script for evidence for how characters feel and how they should be portrayed, argues Paulsen, senior lecturer in theater studies.

"People don't normally think of acting as an evidence-based discipline, and I think it will be super helpful to my students to be able to talk about it in that way — to relate the creative process to the scientific process," she says. "It's a great metaphor for them to understand this."

Beyond the classroom

As students explore evidence in a variety of disciplines in first-year seminars, they will also come together to experience an example of how different disciplines apply evidence to the same question.

Following the introductory videos and the evidence-focused  seminars, the first Evidence Town Hall provides a common co-curricular experience to anchor their learning

This year's Town Hall, scheduled for Oct. 14, will explore "Evidence, Authority and the Flat Earth Hoax" with English professor James Morey and Eric Weeks, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Physics.

The topic challenges the myth, commonly taught to American school children, that Christopher Columbus sailed west to get to India in order to prove the Earth is round, by presenting evidence from multiple fields that the fact was already known in 1492, Scott says.

The overall goal of the QEP is that students will carry a deep understanding of evidence far beyond Emory's gates, highlighting the value of the type of education the university provides.

"In learning about evidence, students learn skills they can take and apply to any job," Scott says. "You can't be a good thinker or problem solver if all you have done is memorize certain things.

"You don't learn those skills in technical majors or programs," she adds. "You learn them through a liberal arts education."