Ramping Up Rigor

Lynn University in Florida finds a way to answer general critiques of academic quality: a return to a retooled core curriculum.
February 2, 2011

The grim portrait of American college students adrift as they breeze through their postsecondary educations with little expected of them and even less to show for it has dominated headlines in recent weeks. But not all colleges fit the description. Some institutions from outside elite Northeastern enclaves have taken deliberate steps to increase academic rigor, sharpen their students’ critical thinking and analytical reasoning, and expose them to richer subject matter.

Take, for example, Lynn University, a Boca Raton, Fla., college serving approximately 1,800 undergraduates. If Lynn is known outside the region, it is probably for its specialty in educating those with learning disabilities, its sports teams, its business management and hospitality programs or, sadly, for the tragic deaths of four Lynn students and two faculty members who were on a humanitarian trip to Haiti when the massive earthquake struck last year.

But Lynn also has ambitions. In 2006, following the appointment of Kevin M. Ross as president (replacing his father, who served for 35 years), the university’s administration and trustees adopted a vigorous strategic plan that set higher expectations for what Lynn's students should learn. The centerpiece that emerged is a very prescribed core curriculum with one set of reading materials, common assignments and assessments, and explicit targets for the amount of reading and writing students must do. It is also grounded in the liberal arts. Ross was exposed to this kind of education as a master's student at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md. Like its better-known undergraduate program, St. John's master's in liberal arts focuses on the Great Books. "We had a pretty solid core," Ross said of Lynn's previous curriculum, "but it looked like everyone else's."

Just about every one of Lynn's reforms -- raising and standardizing expectations of students, increasing the volume of reading and writing required, and making the liberal arts more central to the curriculum -- reflects the kinds of changes to the academy that are called for in a new book, Academically Adrift, that has attracted considerable notice.

Moving Away from Gen Ed

The prior system at Lynn, like the general education or distribution requirements in place on other campuses, let students explore their own interests. But that system, like many others, had morphed into a hodgepodge of subject matter and expectations, said Cynthia Patterson, a historian who was hired as vice president for academic affairs and asked to guide the rebooting of Lynn's core curriculum. She worked together with other administrators and most of the faculty on an 18-month review and redrafting process. Patterson cited as influences several works that take a critical look at the results higher education has been producing: the writings of Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University who has written six books on higher education, including Our Underachieving Colleges; Declining by Degrees by Richard Hersh and John Merrow; and "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College," a report that was part of a multipronged effort by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Among other things, that report urged "an invigorated and practical liberal education as the most empowering form of learning for the 21st century."

After the review, Lynn's faculty and administrators agreed they wanted all the college's graduates -- whether they major in English or hospitality management -- to have a common set of knowledge and methods upon which to build as they move through their college careers and into their majors. “We really did want to bring back the notion that [graduates should] have an understanding of human history and experience,” Patterson said.

Efforts to review general education requirements are widespread. In fact, 89 percent of academic officials at 433 colleges nationwide who were surveyed by the AAC&U said they were reviewing or modifying their general education requirements, according to a 2009 report. “We saw we were witnessing a turning point in general education where the academy was turning away from a complete laissez-faire curricular model,” said Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs at the AAC&U. And yet, few institutions seem to be returning entirely to the renowned classics-based core curriculums at Columbia University or the University of Chicago. The most common efforts seem to graft required coursework onto a distribution model. “Are we going back to a complete core curriculum?" asked Humphreys. "Probably not.”

The AAC&U survey also revealed a larger curricular weakness. Respondents were least likely (35 percent overall and 14 percent of those using distribution requirements) to describe their institutions' general classes as fitting into a coherent sequence of courses. Lynn, on the other hand, has become notable for the opposite. Humphreys praised what she called Lynn's explicit and intentional approach to "integrative learning," which she defined as requiring students to bring together what they learned from multiple courses and apply it elsewhere. In other words, it asks students to take the skills and means of inquiry taught in one set of courses and adapt it to another. "It’s what students are learning across the curriculum," she said. "Not just the individual courses, but what does it all add up to?"

Crafting a New Core

In 2008, Lynn started teaching all its students a core curriculum that is based heavily on primary sources. Course requirements span all four years, grow more challenging and demand that students integrate what they've already learned as they progress, said Patterson. Recognizing that students weren’t writing and reading enough under the previous model, Lynn moved away from the assumption that writing instruction was best left to English 101. In the new model, writing, public speaking, critical thinking and reasoning, and information and technical literacy are not discrete items to be taught; they are threaded into a liberal education that is steeped in the literature, history, and philosophy spanning from antiquity to the present day.

The first two years are highly structured, with explicit goals and outcomes staked out in course guides for faculty. In the first two years, half of students' classes are foundational courses -- dubbed "Dialogues of Learning" -- in four thematic areas: Self and Society; Justice and Civic Life; Belief and Reason; and Dialogues of Innovation, which takes place in the January intersession. In total, students take 12 of these courses over four years. The reading materials for the core courses were compiled by a committee of Lynn faculty and focus largely on "great works" by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Rousseau, while also incorporating contemporary texts, such as Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology.

Writing assignments, which average 15 to 20 pages per course, grow more intense and lengthy as students move through their college careers. First-year students in the three main core courses write, on average, 10 essays totaling 50 to 60 pages. In the second year, the core courses demand 12 essays of up to 70 pages in total. At the upper level, students in some classes write 40 pages in a single course. In contrast, the authors of Academically Adrift found that half of some 2,300 students surveyed don't take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester. Lynn also sets out, in a set of rubrics, its expectations for persuasive, synthesis, research and position essays; annotated bibliographies and wiki pages; and the nine oral presentations students are required to give in each of their first two years.

Patterson said that, early in the process, some professors assured her that they already knew how to teach writing. "When we went into detail about what makes good writing, we had faculty members say, 'That’s what you meant,' " she said. "It’s not that they weren’t committed; it’s that there was no common standard to measure them against. We had 110 different models."

The expectations also carried over to upper-level courses. Faculty members had to stake out the goals and outcomes for study in the majors' courses. Some recoiled at the highly prescriptive approach. Patterson said it was necessary -- particularly for the core curriculum. "To have coherency and consistency and be accountable to standards we could measure meant we all had to commit to common assignments," she said. "You need to have consistency in learning. It’s radically important that no matter who is teaching, the assignments are the same."

Faculty members also designed new seminars that fit into these larger themes. For example, students looking to satisfy their core requirements in Belief and Reason can take such courses as "Myth, Magic and Morality" or "Human Reason in the Age of Unreason." More than half of the faculty was involved in the process of fleshing out the curriculum and reading lists from the larger structure that the administrators laid out. The division of labor allowed faculty members and deans to worry less about resource allocation and logistics and more about content, said Katrina Carter-Tellison, chair of the dialogues program. "The structure was in place. Faculty were free to decorate it as they saw fit," she said.

As they did so, faculty members had to work across disciplines, which pulled some of them out of their disciplinary "corners," as several administrators put it. They also paid greater attention to pedagogical issues, and to what has worked at other institutions (such as Wagner College, which has taken a similar approach). "Faculty are best at thinking," said Patterson. "The weakness in most curricular decisions is we don’t engage with the faculty."

Early Results

Officials at Lynn believe that what Ross called its "grand experiment" has been a success. They base their assertion on the higher level of quality that is evident in student portfolios and on reports from faculty that their pupils' analytical and writing skills have improved. In a small pilot study last year, the college administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment simultaneously to its sophomores, who were the first to go through two years of the new core curriculum, and to its seniors, who had not. The sophomores scored higher on measures of critical thinking.

Ralph Norcio, professor of finance and accounting and associate dean of the College of Business and Management (which claims 28 percent of undergraduate majors), said he has perceived better writing skills and a wider intellectual perspective in his students, which he thought would lead to them making better decisions as they enter their post-college lives, start businesses, and engage as citizens. "It’s a view of the world as a whole -- not just your small piece," said Norcio, who teaches a dialogue course called "Ethical Decision Making through Cinema," which uses film to examine altruistic, idealistic, individual and pragmatic considerations in making decisions. "We have to deal with a lot of gray in our lives."

The larger goal, said Patterson, was to change more than the expectations of students. It was to alter the orientation of the faculty -- and the college culture in general. Doing so required a considerable investment in staff training and professional development, and a willingness for faculty to be placed in a somewhat humble position. "Essentially, we went back to school," said Carter-Tellison, recalling how Patterson frequently gave faculty members binders full of research on higher education instruction and curriculums. "She was handing out binders as though we were freshmen in college." But, if this is an unfamiliar position for those holding doctorates, it really shouldn't be, she added. “We say we want our students to be lifelong learners. We ought to be lifelong learners, too.”

Several factors make it unclear how effectively Lynn's efforts can be replicated elsewhere. Its faculty is small and stable (and untenured). The average class size is 20. Its size and location made it easier for Lynn to do a comprehensive review out of the spotlight. Its relative youth -- Lynn was founded in 1962 as a two-year college for women -- renders it less bound to tradition and the pressures of alumni.

At Lynn, the effort also required a certain degree of introspection -- and a willingness to follow the process into some uncomfortable places. "We have serious challenges we can face," said Patterson, referring to critiques of higher education in general. "We have to take some responsibility for where we’ve gone off track."

She described how conventional wisdom in higher education for the past 20 years has held that students are chiefly to blame for their shortcomings. But college administrators and faculty need to look more closely at what they've done -- and not done -- to help students succeed. "It’s not the kids," she said. "It’s us. Our students will be as good as we demand for them to be."


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