By Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy
A few years ago, we were tasked with an exciting, yet daunting, task: think boldly about the general education (gen ed) curriculum on our campus, a large public research university. Among the questions the coordinating committee considered were: What is at the core of an effective curriculum? Is our current curriculum sufficient as it stands now? What do our students need to flourish? Building on evidence from recent graduates, students, and faculty, our faculty committee quickly came to the determination that we could do better to prepare our students for life beyond the walls of our university. We considered broadly the meaning of “success” and decided against privileging any one path, recognizing that graduates pursue a wide variety of paths that can all be valued and deemed successful.
When investigating our current curriculum, we soon discovered some troubling attributes. Chief among them reflects the “hidden curriculum.” As in many curricula, there were boxes to check, but some students were checking them with striking efficiency, while others were slower and sometimes less purposeful in their approach. Make no mistake, meandering through coursework en route to discovering a major is a perfectly acceptable path in a liberal arts setting, but our data revealed that some students were choosing courses to move through quickly instead of for intellectual interest and exploration. For example, students looked for classes (deemed “triple cherries”) that allowed them to check three boxes simultaneously. Did these students really have a passion to explore the triple-cherry courses, or were they motivated by their desire to finish their gen ed courses quickly? Perhaps more importantly, some students were inevitably more able to take advantage of such opportunities than others, uncovering the idea that our curriculum created and maintained inequities among students.
That inequity translated to some students finishing the gen ed curriculum in nearly half the time as other students. The large variability in how students completed the curriculum also meant that students who didn’t navigate the curriculum in a savvy way had fewer opportunities to double major, particularly in majors demanding more coursework, such as the sciences. In essence, doors were closing, not due to students’ interest, but to their lack of knowledge about how to move swiftly through. At our public institution that prides itself on ensuring access and opportunity and committing to a diverse student body population, we felt it problematic that our curriculum might exacerbate inequity by forcing certain students to enroll in summer school, overenroll in coursework during the semester, and so on.
Structure reduces inequities
Our own research and teaching have allowed us to clearly see that structure is an effective solution to reduce inequities.
For example, in a classroom, if some students don’t have the skills to take effective notes yet and others do, providing skeleton outlines can level the playing field. The skeleton outlines are going to be most effective for the group most needing them, and they won’t harm the students who might be fine without them. In fact, in our work, we find that our highest achieving students appreciate the organization and explicit expectations set by the skeleton outlines. By adding structure, more students are included in the learning, as we have reflected upon previously on ACUE’s community site and elsewhere.
In short, student body diversity is an asset within classroom settings, and instructors have the capacity to leverage that asset by adding structure to course design and facilitation. And when we do so, we, as instructors, have the potential to reduce inequities. We’ve always felt this to be empowering for thinking about how educators can contribute to a personal and institutional mission to produce a more diverse class of successful college graduates.
We considered these inclusive teaching strategies and looked for parallels in developing a new curriculum. What is a parallel way to reduce differences among students who know “how to college” and those who are the first in their family to attend college? Or for students who come from well-resourced high schools and those who don’t? In what ways can we level the playing field by adding structure to a general education curriculum?
To answer these questions, we were guided by some shared principles. We leveraged empirical evidence about what is most effective for students. Rather than leave it up to chance that students at risk were exposed to the types of learning experiences George Kuh has categorized as high-impact practices (HIPs), we plan to require these experiences. These learning experiences are transformational when done well by faculty, and even more so for traditionally underserved populations. In our proposed curriculum, all students would now complete a First-Year Seminar (small professor-led course on a specific topic), a small writing-intensive course, and a research experience (course-based or independent). All of these experiences help students build relationships with professors that can change the trajectory of a student’s path.
Many students enroll directly from high school, and finding ways to support this transition was another critical area. We both teach hundreds of students per year and see the differences that exist in preparation, resilience, and self-advocacy. Some attend low-resourced high schools and may need to develop stronger study habits. Others come from the most resourced high schools but can fall hard when confronted with their first academic struggle. Even those surviving academically may not be maintaining mental wellness or engaging in deep learning. Thus, it seems, most students lack at least some tools to thrive. We believe an institution of learning should teach students how to learn, how to reflect, and how to pick oneself up in the face of inevitable academic struggles. Importantly, an institution should convey to all students that they belong, even if only some need to explicitly hear it to believe it. These values can be reinforced through a required academic course (University 101) designed to provide students with these supports. We’ve already piloted some sections, and some student feedback suggests that these values are transferring:
- “This course has provided me with the tools to face each day with a positive attitude and to keep hope in times of struggle or stress. I feel like an overall happier person.”
- “I learned how to regulate my learning and value the time I have in college.”
- “From this course, I have learned so much more than just how to be successful this year, or even in college. Instead, I have learned how to find success in life. I now look forward to my entire future, and know that there are multiple pathways to achieving goals. I can’t wait to see how my college experience evolves.”
The capacities all students need for a successful future
As we mentioned already, some students navigate our current gen ed curriculum requirements as swiftly as possible. The requirements are largely based on discipline areas and not skills or capacities a student should practice. As a result, some students “bump into” courses and experiences that repeatedly allow them to practice capacities such as collaboration or oral communication in the general education, and others won’t. We feel that some capacities, such as collaboration, writing, and oral communication, are important enough to be a part of every requirement.
We asked ourselves what James Lang, author of several books on teaching and regular contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, refers to as the 20-year question: “What will students remember from your class in 20 years?” As a result, our proposed curriculum doesn’t dictate the content of each course (that is, of course, up to instructors to determine), but it explicitly states the 20-year goals (we call them “focus capacities”) that were determined after years of discussion with many faculty.
In the past few years, over 200 members of our community (faculty, staff, and students) collaborated on ideas around a new curriculum. While not everyone agreed on the finer points, and there was uncertainty around implementation, most have come to recognize the larger mission: A curriculum needs to be student-centered with an eye towards inclusion (similar to the goals we have in our individual courses). We are proud to teach at an institution that has a strong public mission with great access and affordability. Collectively, we aim to ensure that ALL students equitably navigate the curriculum, engage in transformational learning experiences, and excel at the capacities they will need to be successful beyond their years as a student.
Have you been involved with curriculum revision? If so, did you use equity as a guiding principle too?
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