UMaine president discusses education research in higher education

Tufts’ Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI) in conjunction with Tufts’ Department of Education, invited President of the University of Maine (UMaine) Joan Ferrini-Mundy for a colloquium on the integration of education research into college classrooms. Ferrini-Mundy holds a Ph.D. in mathematics education, according to the UMaine website

The event, called “The Place of Educational Research in the Culture of Institutions: Reflections and Hopes in Higher Education and Beyond,” was the second in IRLI’s Colloquia Series which explores various aspects of education research.

IRLI, which was established last fall after a large grant by the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation, attempts to integrate education research into Tufts’ classes, which currently features a heavy emphasis on learning that takes place in STEM classrooms. The group also focuses on inclusivity and intentionality in education to increase representation in education.

Andrew Izsák, a member of IRLI’s steering committee, introduced Ferrini-Mundy, who began by praising Tufts’ education department for its research into engineering education. As president of UMaine, Ferrini-Mundy said she has tried to make research into education part of colleges’ “institutional culture.”

Ferrini-Mundy emphasized that initiatives in learning and programming should be as accessible as possible to as many students as possible. 

“Can we make our education affordable enough that all students can have access to it? Can we retain those students?” she asked. “Are we enabling them to learn and to stay with us?”

In exploring this idea, Ferrini-Mundy spoke of her experiences with the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), the accrediting institution for New England colleges, who asked her several questions about student performance after college and student success. Ferrini-Mundy said that she was curious about whether and how she could measure the standards that the accrediting institutions like NECHE used.

To measure these sort of data, Ferrini-Mundy stressed the importance of having “ground-level” research methods and initiatives to present to leaders at universities in order to improve the institution’s educational opportunities. 

“[Research] would enable me to make a much stronger case in my work over funding, with the trustees, with our faculty for why we might choose to do certain things and not other things,” Ferrini-Mundy said. “You can’t get to the answers without understanding the basics of learning at the undergraduate level.”

She also highlighted ways in which research can be made more exciting through meta-analysis and language that is less technical to show trustees and funders the evidence regarding what teaching and learning methods worked, and furthered that researchers were responsible for such work. 

Ferrini-Mundy then began to explain how institutions could make research into education more infused into a school’s culture, first emphasizing that schools must align with their local context. For example, she pointed to the relatively low retention rates that state schools, such as hers, tend to see, but noted that when certain research-backed learning models were applied to the students, retention rates increased.

“It takes understanding the context of the place enough and then latching onto something about that context,” she said, adding that IRLI, with its emphasis on research, was already doing this. 

Ferrini-Mundy also said that institutions should also partner with other institutions, using UMaine’s partnership with the foresting industry as an example of how an institution changed its culture surrounding an issue.

“They took some goals that resonate really well across the state — to sustain and strengthen Maine’s existing forest products — we will attract investment, we will revitalize rural communities,” she said. 

UMaine’s president pointed to the forest industry’s use of models that included research infused with practice as a means by which the organization tied research itself into its culture. 

In her final point of the presentation, Ferrini-Mundy stressed the importance of institutions looking to the future, particularly citing that STEM fields are becoming more interdisciplinary in nature, and thus the research into how to teach subjects may need to change in the future. 

She also pointed to artificial intelligence as a means through which educators may need to create a new field in researching how to both teach students about artificial intelligence and how to implement it in the classroom.

The event ended with a brief question and answer session from the audience, which was largely composed of Tufts faculty. 


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