Printed on: September 29, 2011

BYU-Idaho's 'culture of learning' sets it apart, officials say

By Nate Sunderland

REXBURG -- Brigham Young University-Idaho has grown dramatically in the past 10 years.

Since 2001, BYU-Idaho has added half a dozen new buildings, thousands of students and dozens of new academic degree programs.

But school leaders said the transition from little Ricks College, a two-year institution, to a four-year university has involved more than numbers. One of the biggest changes has happened behind the scenes.

Academic Vice President Fenton Broadhead described it as "establishing a culture of learning."

BYU-Idaho is exploring innovative ways to better prepare its students to graduate and enter the workforce.

"We started to develop this culture, that if you are going to be in a class here -- you are going to participate, you are going to be engaged," Broadhead said. "It's a culture of learning that is learner-centered, meaning the student has to act rather than be acted upon."

Student engagement is a key part of the BYU-Idaho Learning Model, an academic structure developed during the past five years. It incorporates academic concepts with teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the university.

The model centers around three concepts:

Students who are prepared to be taught.

Students who are engaged and teaching one another.

Students who ponder and prove concepts they have learned.

The model moves away from a typical university format, in which students attend lectures and are given homework.

At BYU-Idaho, students are encouraged to examine real-life case studies before class.

Instead of a lecture, professors mostly ask questions, forcing students to become engaged in a discussion and teach one another about the case.

An end goal is to give students an understanding of how academic concepts apply to real-world situations.

Jared Hawkins, a recently graduated exercise science major, said the learning model played a major role in his capstone courses. He had to find an athlete and train the athlete for six weeks.

"This type of learning is extremely beneficial for students in my field to learn about the application of concepts in real life," Hawkins said.

BYU-Idaho also is trying to add real-world value to academics through its Foundations program. The program is a rethinking of classic general education courses such as English, math and science. It attempts to establish connections between multiple academic disciplines.

For instance, BYU-Idaho's Understanding Diabetes course technically is a biology class, but as a Foundation course, the curriculum also incorporates elements of health and social sciences, as well as an exercise program.

"So, (the course) is not just about studying biology," said Jon Linford, dean of Foundations and Interdisciplinary Studies. "It's studying biology with a purpose -- teaching something that is relevant in students' lives; and introduces them to the concept that these ideas don't exist in a vacuum, they do interconnect with each other."

Professors from each academic discipline design Foundation courses as a committee.

One downside of the Foundations program, however, is that courses are not easily transferred between BYU-Idaho and other universities.

So, BYU-Idaho encourages its students to obtain an associate degree before transferring to complete their bachelor's degree.

Students also have flexibility when it comes to gaining a bachelor's degree.

"We have created a modular approach to degrees, which allows students to tailor an academic program to their individual interests," Broadhead said.

Students still must take core classes, but have the freedom to customize large parts of their degree program based on their personal interests. One international studies major, for example, might put an emphasis on political science, while another might focus on foreign language.

A focus on learning rather than teaching is a major driving force at BYU-Idaho, administrators said.

"We want a student who has learned how to learn," Broadhead said. "That may be one of the most important things we send away with students -- that they have learned how to learn."

At a glance

Brigham Young University-Idaho

Location: Rexburg

Founded: 1888 as Bannock Stake Academy; renamed Ricks College in 1923; became four-year university on Aug. 10, 2001

Total enrollment: 15,102

Countries represented: 59

Degree programs: 72

Student-teacher ratio: 25 to 1

Gender of students: 56 percent female; 44 percent male

Number of employees: 1,432 (includes full-time and part-time, but does not include adjunct professors or online instructors)