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The Purpose-Driven Curriculum | Higher Ed Gamma

If there’s any single pedagogical lesson that many faculty members took away from the pandemic, it’s the importance of intentionality in course design.

For at least two decades, teaching centers have preached the value of designing classes around clearly defined course objectives, with learning activities and assessments tightly aligned with those aims. But it proved extremely difficult to persuade faculty to inject learning objectives into existing courses or requirements or capstone projects.

As every homeowner or developer knows, retrofitting an existing structure is far more expensive and arduous than starting from scratch. Redesigning an existing course presents similar challenges.

Whether you love or loathe online teaching, most instructors found it necessary to redesign remote pandemic-driven classes around learning objectives and a careful sequence of tasks. After all, this was the best way to empower and guide students who do not have ready access to a live instructor or a teaching assistant.

This is a lesson that a small number of pioneers had already learned from MOOCs: the only way that such courses can work at all well is to place more control and responsibility in the hands of the learners.

Isn’t it time to draw on this lesson and rethink degree pathways more intentionally? Wouldn’t it make sense to think much more consciously and deliberately about gen ed and graduation requirements?

After all, graduation requirements -- not mission statements -- tell us what a college or university deems important.

Does an institution truly value writing? See how much intensive writing it requires, and how much instructor feedback it expects.

Does it expect graduates to acquire quantitative and statistical literacy or an understanding of cultures and societies outside the United States or familiarity with scientific inquiry or race and ethnicity or the arts? Again, just look at the requirements.

Does a college or university truly value creativity or collaboration or leadership or service learning and community engagement, let alone health and wellness? Requirements provide a rough indication.

But requirements that can be met by a laundry list of courses mainly indicate that an institution values flexibility, student choice, department or faculty autonomy, and cost-efficiency.

Most colleges offer a hodgepodge of courses that exist due to faculty interest or research area -- rather than because something is important to know or understand or be able to do, or will help graduates in later life.

Modifying gen ed requirements, even slightly, is viewed with suspicion, since these represent a political compromise, informed as much by departments’ enrollment concerns as by a well-defined vision of college’s purpose.

Modifying these requirements is, at best, a difficult, and often fruitless, endeavor. It’s a process that begins with high principles and mighty academic philosophies, and then, due to faculty infighting and student pressure, gets reduced to distribution requirements.

An article in the Harvard Crimson explained the failure of that institution’s general education requirements in especially blunt terms.

The goals of Harvard’s gen ed reform were lofty: to expose undergraduates to “a broad range of courses and approaches” in eight domains -- “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding,” “Culture and Belief,” “Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning,” “Ethical Reasoning,” “Science of Living Systems,” “Science of the Physical Universe,” “Societies of the World,” and “United States in the World.” Students were also required to engage with the past.

But while these requirements sought to ensure that all Harvard graduates received a broad liberal education, in practice, students regarded empirical reasoning and science classes “as intellectually insubstantial and are chosen solely for this reason,” while humanities courses were “likewise scouted for easy grading and little work. Across the board, Gen Eds are regarded as less important than concentration or elective classes.”

“A consumerist reality means students have an eye on attaining ends … Students take classes with their future in mind: getting into graduate school or medical school, acquiring useful skills, fostering a resume.”

To be sure, there are institutions that require something more. A very few of us attended colleges that required written or oral comprehensive exams or a senior thesis, or you didn’t graduate. The purpose was to get students to synthesize what they had learned or to apply the skills and the learning objectives that they had acquired and to reflect on what they had experienced over the preceding four years.

But those kinds of requirements are as rare as a hen’s tooth.

As Derek Bok recently argued, there is a surprising degree of consensus among faculty members about the goals of a college education: critical thinking, leadership, quantitative analysis, persuasive writing, novel problem solving, cross-cultural cultural competency and so on.

How to measure mastery of these goals is tricky, but there are qualitative assessments that faculty know how to conduct and assignments that evaluate students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills. Can students solve a hard problem that they haven’t seen, or manage a tough group dynamic and pull through?

As my colleague Michael Rutter has pointed out, the organizational structure of most colleges and universities is not designed around particular outcomes but other priorities: faculty interests, research concerns, cost, enrollment considerations, flexibility and the like.

But what if we did try to redesign our requirements around outcomes -- an approach that I think many faculty members, administrators and accreditors would, I am convinced, enthusiastically rally around? Or, at the very least, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could tell a first-year student that by the end of your time here, we expect you to know x, y and z … and here’s why. We will help you get there, but there’s lots of freedom and flexibility along the way.

We would tell the students: these big learning goals are what matter, more than your major or grades. These goals align with not just our learning goals, but with our values. And yes, these aims will evolve over time … but some remain fundamental.

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing a wide gap between colleges' professed learning objectives and the education we offer.

We want to produce graduates who are fluid writers -- and then we offer one or two semesters of freshman comp, followed, at some institutions, by a writing-intensive course or two. That's it.

We expect graduates to be mathematically and statistically competent, then equate that with college algebra.

Scientific literacy consists of any two science courses, with one requiring a lab. Cross-cultural literacy means one or two classes from a laundry list. Ditto for an understanding of race and ethnicity.

All efficient and cost-effective -- and all maximizing student choice and faculty flexibility. But there's no necessary connection between the courses and our nominal learning objectives.

Then there are essential subjects that are omitted. We want students to understand sexual consent, but all we do is inject some material into the new student orientation or, in the case of faculty and staff, require a training course.

We say we value health and wellness, but we've largely abandoned phys ed requirements and delegate students' psychic health to psychological services, and leave it up to students to decide whether to take advantage of the opportunity. Ditto for leadership or community engagement.

So, what, then, might we do? Here are three unsolicited recommendations.

  1. We should require individual courses, as part of the course approval process, to demonstrate that they meet specific curricular goals and offer sensible ways to assess whether students have met those goals.
  2. We should give academic credit for classes that deal with wellness or ethics and gender and race relations and sexuality or planning one's life. If we truly value career preparation and the development of certain life skills, let’s make sure that these, too, count toward a degree.
  3. We should rethink certain requirements, especially those dealing with math and statistics or history or social sciences, to make them less narrowly disciplinary and better aligned with our actual learning objectives.

In short, let’s do more than merely pay lip service to liberal education.

A true liberal education doesn’t simply consist of a grab bag of disconnected, stand-alone courses from a range of disciplines. Rather, it involves self-consciously cultivating a set of skills, knowledge and competencies that define a well-rounded, thoughtful, reflective, knowledgeable adult.

As much as I admire Columbia’s core curriculum -- with its emphasis on masterworks of literature, political and moral philosophy, art, and music, and scientific habits of mind, I don’t believe that there’s only one path to a liberal education. There are other highways to heaven.

The essential first step is to lay out the literacies that we expect 21st-century college graduates to acquire, and design our courses, curricular pathways and degree requirements in ways that will help our students realize that liberal ideal.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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