The Curriculum

A Call for Curricular Coherence

Proliferating course offerings can overwhelm and confuse students and make a college education seem like a box-checking exercise rather than a cohesive and comprehensive intellectual endeavor, argues Loni Bordoloi Pazich.

September 18, 2017

Congratulations are in order for all the new college students now arriving on campuses. As they prepare for the transition to college and contemplate their academic futures, their focus will turn to choosing a major.

Students typically do not consider how degree requirements are organized, whether their general education or major courses are intellectually interrelated, how to choose wisely when presented with scores of course options and whether their courses will be scheduled so they can graduate on time. And why should they? The responsibility for coherence in the curriculum rests with faculty members, not students.

Proliferating course offerings can overwhelm and confuse students, simultaneously lead to both underenrolled courses and oversubscribed courses, encourage the hiring of adjuncts, and, in general, make a college education seem like a box-checking exercise rather than a cohesive and comprehensive intellectual endeavor. Yet faculty members often struggle to maintain coherence over the curriculum, to the detriment of student learning, and in extreme cases, to their institution’s fiscal health. Why is addressing course proliferation so hard? What can be done about it?

As problematic as course proliferation is, it emerges due to a host of factors that might generally be viewed as positive: student demand for variety and a concomitant fear on the part of the faculty of impoverishing students’ education through limits on choice; the explosion of knowledge in the disciplines, leading to majors that did not exist even a decade ago; and efforts to engage students in high-impact practices like undergraduate research, which necessitates changes -- generally, additions rather than transformations -- in the curriculum.

Overlooked structural and cultural issues at the heart of how faculty work is organized also contribute to the problem. Those factors came to light at a recent convening by the Teagle Foundation of grantees participating in our “Faculty Planning and Curricular Coherence” initiative.

Participants observed that faculty members are the masters of the curriculum but are neither incentivized nor penalized for attending to the coherence of their curriculum as a whole. Professors tend to think about their responsibility for their individual courses rather than how those courses contribute to students’ learning holistically as they move through their programs of study. Faculty rewards for teaching, even at institutions that place a premium on it, are typically tied to the student experience in a single course -- not how the course helps them build their skills and knowledge base as they progress toward their degrees.

Faculty-led curriculum committees that are charged with approving new courses and programs may be empowered to make unpopular decisions but still typically default to approving additions without mandating subtractions to the curriculum. That happens partly because of the tendency of faculty members to defer to one another as content experts, and partly because a new course or program may not be seen as being in direct competition with existing offerings -- particularly when it is delivered through a new faculty line rather than a reorganization of courses.

The problem of curricular incoherence is worsened by continuing trends in higher education. For instance, most contemporary graduate education programs leave new faculty members unprepared to teach outside their relatively narrow areas of research specialization. At some institutions, notions of faculty workload have become so highly individualistic that teaching and advising responsibilities are being discharged without meeting the needs of the department as a whole.

Without a shared vision for a unified and streamlined curriculum, planned collectively at the department level and then coordinated cross-departmentally, even modest efforts at promoting more integrative learning get bogged down in what ought to be easily resolvable issues like academic scheduling. Ultimately, as institutions contend with an intellectually disjointed curriculum that becomes increasingly expensive to deliver, administrators blame faculty members and their love of specialization, while faculty members blame administrators for imposing new course requirements or chasing new programs to attract students.

Overcoming Obstacles to Coherence

Discerning the barriers to curricular coherence makes them more navigable. And we can learn how to overcome those obstacles by example.

San Francisco State University’s student exit surveys showed that the primary reason why undergraduates dropped out was because they were not getting into courses they needed to graduate -- an obstacle that is directly related to how faculty staff the courses they set as requirements for students. With support from a faculty learning community, schools and departments ranging from history to chemistry are reorganizing upper-division courses so they advance programwide learning objectives, are scheduled to meet students’ needs for timely graduation and reduce reliance on adjuncts over the long run.

For example, faculty members at the School of Social Work have devised a new curricular road map that has removed several redundancies and combined two courses into a single course on intersectionality, opening space for a new, shared core course in the process. SFSU is also establishing program review policies to encourage departments to periodically take stock and prune course offerings with an eye to student learning and success. Lessons learned from the process have been captured by SFSU faculty in a “survival guide” for curricular change in a shared governance setting.

Virginia Wesleyan College now emphasizes the expansion of student participation in study away, undergraduate research and internships, and it is restructuring its curriculum around such high-impact practices. Most of the college’s 33 liberal arts departments are engaged in curriculum mapping designed to make majors more transparent to students and show students how courses and co-curricular activities lead to culminating experiences like study away and undergraduate research that, in turn, connect to career opportunities. The curricular changes are being brought about through departmentwide revisions and substitutions, not additions, so they can be carried out by the current distribution of faculty. During the 2015-16 academic year, 74 percent of graduates completed at least one internship, study away or research project. This represents a steady increase since 2004-05, when 60 percent of graduates had completed at least one of the three high-impact practices.

Austin Community College is in the midst of developing guided pathways: highly defined, structured and coherent curricula leading to a postsecondary credential that is aligned to high-quality employment, either directly after community college or posttransfer after attainment of a bachelor’s degree. On the liberal arts guided pathway, humanities faculty members are working to scale up a Great Books approach to teaching a mandated student success course for hundreds of transfer-bound students by engaging their peers, including those who may not have a background in the humanities. Eventually, this course may be adapted for students pursuing professional pathways like nursing.

As these examples show, curricular coherence takes different forms depending on the institutional context, but it is marked by collective responsibility for student learning and a desire to maximize scarce resources, including faculty time.

Instruction is the biggest cost driver at many institutions. In principle, nothing is wrong with this picture. But the biggest cost driver ought to combine quality with efficiency. When departments present an incoherent assortment of courses to satisfy degree requirements, use inexperienced and unsupported adjuncts to staff introductory courses, hire visiting faculty members to accommodate those on sabbatical, and let oversubscribed courses interfere with on-time graduation, students flounder and learning suffers.

The consequences of course proliferation and curricular inefficiency are borne not just by students and their families. They’re borne by the institution -- in the form of lost tuition revenue and penalties from performance-funding initiatives now in place in the majority of states for public institutions. And they’re borne by all of us, as public trust in higher education is eroded by the damaging perceptions that students are jumping through hoops rather than learning and that their professors -- with the protections of tenure and perks like sabbaticals -- are not helping.

Precisely because curriculum is within the control of faculty members, we have the opportunity to profoundly reshape students’ college experiences for the better while also restoring the public’s respect for faculty members and trust in higher education.


Loni Bordoloi Pazich is program director at the Teagle Foundation.


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