No Walk in the Park

May 17, 2010

Gwynn Powell, an associate professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Georgia, knew there was something wrong in her department several years ago, when she could not bring herself to recommend any of her students to the directors of a local summer camp.

“I had to say to them, ‘Well, our students are just not getting this stuff as well as they’re supposed to,’ ” Powell says.

Before too long, it became evident that the problem was not inherent to a particular group of students, but to the way they were being taught. The recreation and leisure studies program at Georgia was supposed to be preparing students for top positions at state and national parks, outdoor leisure programs, and tourism agencies by teaching them to connect concepts in business, behavioral science, and administration.

But the students just weren’t getting it. In a course on community outreach programs, students were asked to design job descriptions — a skill they had ostensibly picked up in a separate course on human resources management. But when it came time to write the descriptions, the students were at a loss. “When we asked them why they weren’t doing that, they said, ‘Well that’s for a different class,’ ” Powell says. “That was literally their answer.”

Powell decided it was time to take a hard look at the concepts the department needed its students to learn, and how it was going about teaching those concepts. She and her colleagues got together in a room and tacked learning objectives of each course to a wall. They found that the same concepts were being taught in multiple courses, while others were receiving insufficient attention by everyone. The failure of the students to develop a coherent understanding of the field, Powell says, had grown out of the faculty’s failure to present the field coherently. Compartmentalized courses had begotten compartmentalized thinking.

So the department made a somewhat radical change. It combined four foundational courses into a single course with four separate grades, carrying the same amount of credit as all four courses combined. (Students take only one other course during the semester.) “Rather than offering four separate courses with blind faith that students and faculty would make connections across the courses, this design fully integrates concepts so that they are explored in depth and in a logical sequence,” the department writes in an outline of the model, which it has begun evangelizing to equivalent programs at other universities — among them Western Washington University and the University of Utah.

Inspired by the Georgia example, Clemson University just completed the first year of a similar program. Francis McGuire, a longtime professor in Clemson’s department of parks, recreation, and tourism, took the advice of Powell, his former dissertation advisee, and convened his department to examine the nine courses typically offered to majors in the spring of their sophomore year. Like the faculty at Georgia, they tacked the courses and their learning objectives to the wall. And like the Georgia professors, they found redundancies. By the end of the meeting, they had winnowed the sophomore spring curriculum down to four essential courses — then resolved to teach the courses as one big course with four separate grades.

Pedagogically, the idea at both Georgia and Clemson is to have the course resemble an actual job: A multifaceted yet singular activity that occupies the whole day, and involves the freehand application of learned concepts to various practical tasks. The programs lean heavily toward experiential learning — Jennie Cumbie, a Clemson senior who took the four-in-one course this year after switching late to the parks management major, had to work with a group to compile a 40-page business proposal to hold a mud run in the university’s “experimental forest.”

But switching to such a model is no walk in the park. One issue is getting faculty to teach as a team, a proposal to which not all professors are amenable, Powell says. Also, while it can be a boon for the professors whose roles in the core curriculum ended up on the cutting room floor, it can create a disproportional workload for those who end up teaching the four-in-one supercourse: By consolidating, Clemson reduced the number of professors devoted to teaching that curriculum by three (though he says no faculty jobs will be eliminated). That could mean less time for research and publishing activities for those involved — a sacrifice that could theoretically scare away junior faculty. (McGuire says the skewed workload did not cause problems in the Clemson program's first year.)

Then there is the extra burden for the students. Cumbie recounts spending endless stretches coordinating the logistics of her group’s business plan with outside stakeholders and assembling the project’s components with her team.

The upending of the customary schedule of four distinct courses can also be rankling. In an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, a Clemson spokesman enthusiastically described the semester’s four constituent courses as “offered in a lump smeared across the semester in an assemblage that could leave students bewildered if they tried too hard to know exactly what class they were in on any given day, at any given time.”

This portrayal was meant as complimentary, but it also hints at how jarring the transition could be for students.

“At first, I was very, very overwhelmed,” Cumbie recalls. “I thought, ‘This is not going to work’… and I wasn’t the only one; everyone was freaking out.”

Powell says that five years ago, when Georgia made the switch, student grades initially went down. “There is definitely a culture shock,” she says. “And there’s a period of adjustment when students realize they have to think differently and organize their lives differently.” Failing students in one of the four grades they get for the course can be logistically awkward. Powell says the department allows students who fail one portion to make it up through independent study projects. If a student fails two of the course’s four grades, however, he has to take it again.

“We knew it was working when a student came to us and said, ‘This isn’t fair -- when I had you in separate classes, I could slack off in your class one week, your class another week, and you would never know --’ ” Powell adds. “ ‘Now I can’t slack off at all, because I see you every day, and you talk to each other.’ ”

Cumbie says that after an early panic, she and her classmates—at least those who participated in a post-facto focus group — eventually found the experience rewarding. “If you’d have asked me during the semester, I probably would have had a different answer,” she says. “Maybe they should prepare students for this a little more, the initial shock of it,” she adds. “But also, that’s part of growing up.”

Several years ago, one distressed initiate to the four-in-one course told Powell, “Don’t you realize we’re the multiple-choice generation?”

“We have to help them realize,” Powell says, “that the world is not just full of multiple-choice questions.”

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