We have found that when courses proliferate without good reason, or students face a bewildering array of options to meet requirements, the curriculum can hinder rather than help them achieve a broad and deep education. The reform of curricula that may have become bloated or incoherent is therefore essential if students are to be well served.
Curricular reform is never easy. Any serious effort involves many stakeholders and moving parts. Among other obstacles, institutions face financial constraints as they seek to improve learning, graduation rates, and the student experience. The typical additive approach to curricular design is not only unsustainable but may ill serve the goals of liberal arts education. Yet there are surprisingly few resources to help institutions navigate curricular reform, and faculty are rarely well prepared for their roles as stewards of the curriculum. As one Teagle grantee put it, "I didn't get my Ph.D. in general education."
We hope that our latest evaluation report, "In Search of Curricular Coherence," which distills lessons learned from our "Faculty Planning and Curricular Coherence" initiative, helps to close this gap in the literature. We partnered with Madeleine Green, who brought her deep experience from her 35-year career at the American Council of Education, to gather these lessons across our funded projects in this initiative. The projects focused on the role that curriculum plays as a driver of both quality and cost in higher education and how faculty could work together to create more coherent and efficient curriculum with goals, pathways, and outcomes that are clear to students. Participating faculty gained a wider perspective on their course offerings and how they strengthen--or detract from--the overall curriculum. The strategies they developed to promote curricular coherence took various forms, including efforts to curb course proliferation, develop themed and linked courses, and strengthen integrative advising in order to help students see the connections among their curricular and co-curricular experiences.
Download the report here.
Here are two insights from the evaluation report:
- Faculty typically approach the charge of developing more coherent curriculum with one of two assumptions: that students must take the lead in integrating their curricular and co-curricular experiences, or that it is the responsibility of faculty to shape the curriculum into a coherent whole on behalf of students. These attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but because they are usually tacit rather than explicit in the institutional culture, they can make it difficult to achieve a shared understanding among faculty, and between faculty and students, of what a sensible undergraduate education should be.
- Curricular reform is a learning process for everyone involved. Institutions need to consider how their efforts to improve the experience of their students are tied to opportunities for faculty to develop their knowledge and understanding of how and what students should learn. Focusing on such questions can foster a climate of inquiry and learning, especially when institutions provide opportunities for a scholarly approach to the issues, involving colleagues within the department, the institution and across partner institutions.