Does A River Really Run Through It?

Do students experience the curriculum in the manner intended? Probably not. The curriculum in the department that I just finished chairing includes a sequence of courses common to all three of the department’s majors — one course each at the 200-, 300-, and 400-level. All students are supposed to take the 200-level research methods course when they begin their respective majors, in part to identify a topic of interest before doing a semester of study abroad, an internship, or some other field experience in the junior year where the topic is researched. The 400-level course is the senior capstone, where they are supposed to compile the findings of the work they’ve already done and generate a finished report.

The reality? A fair number of seniors start the capstone not having previously selected a topic. They then have a single semester to identify their topic, design and complete the necessary research, and write about it — a situation that promotes a less than ideal final product.

The obvious solution to the problem would be to devote the 200-level course to having each student create their own research design, begin the data collection and analysis in the 300-level course, and tie everything up in a nice little bow in the capstone.

But there are complications. Each of these three courses is taught by a different instructor. Sometimes students don’t take the 300-level course until the senior year. And the university’s general education requirements — a distribution model — reinforce the preconception held by students that knowledge exists in discrete boxes and that courses have little or no connection to each other. While some of this could be prevented by imposing hard prerequisites, such a system would exclude many of the students who enter the department because they’ve changed major or added a double major. Given the small size of these academic programs, we want to encourage, not discourage, enrollment.

The Tyranny of Small Numbers At Intermediate Scale

I have written previously about the negative effects of small class size on how I teach, which I’m noticing again this semester in a class of only ten students. I have also written about low-enrollment institutions like Mills College. If your employer is small, tuition-dependent, and the surrounding area is losing population, it is time for you to worry. But today I am going to explore size effects at the intermediate level by looking at how enrollments affect curricula.

As the chair of a small department that manages three separate majors, none of which graduates more than a dozen students per year, I am hypothetically responsible for balancing two  competing agendas — filling classrooms with students who will likely never again take a course in the same disciplinary area, and offering a sufficiently diverse menu of advanced courses for students majoring in that disciplinary area.

In a recent discussion about one of my department’s programs and the upcoming academic year, I advocated in favor of offering a number of introductory course sections that is similar to the number that has been offered previously. These course sections typically enroll thirty to thirty-five students each, in contrast to upper-level courses that might enroll a dozen or fewer. The higher head count per class reduces overload and adjunct compensation, a cost that has exploded at my university because of a lack of oversight by deans and provosts. It also means more students are exposed to this particular field of study, increasing the chance that some might select it as a first or second major in a future semester.

Someone else instead supported an increase in the number of upper-level courses. This, the person claimed, would better serve students in the major — by giving them more topics to choose from — and perhaps increase the attractiveness of the major to current and potential future students at the university. Continue reading

The Uniformity Imperative

What is truly distinctive about the undergraduate educational experience at different U.S. universities? Not much. Typically the undergraduate curriculum is built around two bundles of courses. First, there is the set of general education requirements, derived from either a “canon” or “distribution” approach: take either the same American History 101 course that all other students on campus take, or, at other schools, choose from a short list of designated history courses.

Either system is usually a teleological fail because of a lack of evidence that general education requirements lead to the outcomes that only they can supposedly generate.  A simpler explanation for their existence is that they force students to attend college for a longer period of time than they otherwise would, allowing institutions to capture greater amounts of tuition revenue. So although what happens in American History 101 at one institution is the same as what happens at another, every university teaches it in order to fill classrooms. And woe to the student who wants to transfer credits for that course from one school to another.

Much the same can be said for the other portion of the curriculum, the major. In fact, many disciplines have achieved some amount of consensus on what should be included in a standard undergraduate program of study. So we see thousands of political science majors on hundreds of campuses across the country enrolled in American Government 101 courses that are quite similar in content and instruction — a very costly means of delivery in the age of the internet.

What about the outside-the-classroom environment? Aren’t universities trying to sell themselves as the place to go for a unique campus experience? Not really. Homogeneity is preferred. MIT, for example, has $20 billion in assets and an internationally-recognized brand. It would seem to be in a secure enough position to offer a “student life” experience that is substantially different from what can be found at other schools. Yet, as this article points out, MIT and other elite universities are sanitizing themselves into generic spaces that the lowest common denominator of student, and parent, finds acceptable.

At the other end of the institutional spectrum — colleges and universities that are far less prestigious and much more financially vulnerable — the same process is at work. These schools have decided that they need to present themselves as psychologically non-threatening and intellectually unchallenging, because of the belief that they otherwise won’t get the tuition revenue they need to survive.

Advising as Active Learning

This way to commencement.

It’s now advising hell, er, season, at my university. If you are outside of the USA, you might be unfamiliar with this phenomenon — it’s when undergraduates come to faculty for advice about which courses they should register for in the upcoming semester.

Students often approach the process passively  — if I let them, they will simply ask me “What should I take?” Many are also under the misapprehension that a path they believe is “pre-med” or “pre-law” is necessary for gaining entrance into a graduate program (it isn’t). Or they are convinced that a “minor” — a small cluster of courses on some topic — is in and of itself a career credential (it isn’t). Notice that the actual learning that might or might not occur in these pre-packaged bundles of courses is not what the students are worrying about.

To be fair, the underlying purpose of the curriculum — to function as a vehicle for learning — is fairly opaque. For example, at my university sixteen distinct student learning outcomes are assigned to courses that fulfill general education requirements, courses required by academic programs might have an equal number of additional outcomes, and there is now talk about creating a third layer of outcomes at the institutional level. Yet there is no comprehensive, well-tuned effort to capture and evaluate the data necessary for determining whether these outcomes are being met. If faculty are unable to point a student to course X as a reliable means of learning Y, it’s doubtful that students can do it.

In an attempt to work around these problems, I require students to bring to a meeting a draft of a four-year plan in which they’ve listed what courses they think they’ll be taking and when. The document, which gets revised over time, serves as a tool for a much deeper conversation, for two main reasons.

First,  the process of drafting an academic schedule for which the endpoint is graduation illustrates that choices have consequences. For example, playing a sport is the highest priority for some students, and they like to avoid enrolling in courses that conflict with practice sessions or matches. But some courses are often taught only in particular semesters at particular times. With the four-year plan, students see the longer-term effects of their decisions, and that they bear ultimate responsibility for how they choose to invest their time, money, and effort.

Second, the four-year plan is an entry point for a discussion about how the title of a course, the curricular requirements that can be fulfilled by successfully completing it, and the degree to which the student will find the course interesting and challenging are frequently completely independent of each other. Given that people usually learn more when they are both interested in and challenged by what they are studying, I tell students to take people, not courses, whenever possible. While I can make suggestions about this, it is up to the student to actively perform the necessary due diligence.

New Brave New World (again)

A university, yesterday

Like the ticking of a rather slow clock, we’ve just had the publication of a White Paper on Higher Education here in England and Wales. This comes after a long consultation process that stretches back into the previous Parliament and which leaves as many questions open as it addresses.

I’m not going to run through all of it because a) it’s very long, b) not all of it relates to L&T and c) I can’t face it: there’s lots of good pieces here and here. But I will update on the famous Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which I’ve written about before (here, here and here).

For those of you who have managed to avoid this idea so far, firstly my congratulations: essentially, it’s seen as an equivalent of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), trying to provide some judgement on the quality of teaching provision in a way that is comparable across institutions and disciplines. In so doing, it aims to increase transparency for students and to drive up standards.

As with all good ideas, the operationalisation has been the problem: how do you actually do this? Continue reading

Horses for courses: why L&T is always problematic

12985592_10154231179959063_2464463777051743496_nI gotta tell ya: Hong Kong is a great place. I’m on the verge of saying it’s the most cosmopolitan city I’ve ever visited, and I’ve lived in (and loved) London. It’s a true melting pot of cultures, where everything seems to be the product of exciting blendings of East and West, North and South.

I’m only able to tell you this because this week I’ve been visiting, in order to run a couple of our ALPS workshops at the City University’s Department of Politics and Public Policy. Just as engaging as the city itself has been the chance to spend some time working with the colleagues there on their situation and interests about developing active learning.

However, rather than just make this a travelogue or an advert for our very-well-received and insightful workshops, I want to unpack a couple of issues that came up in our discussion that have a wider bearing.

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Policy failure as an opportunity?

Reading Peter Scott’s piece in the Guardian today, I was struck once again by the continuing failure of policy-makers in the UK to define a clear and consistent approach to British Higher Education. While I don’t think that’s just a UK problem, as Chad’s numerous posts here can attest, it’s one that impacts more directly on my professional experience.

In essence, Scott argues that the nominal drive towards ‘improving standards’ is fatally undermined by the lack of clarity about what ‘standards’ consists of, and about who sets and checks them. Financial implications and the pressures of a globalising market make it hard to gain university-level buy-in.

But while it’s easy to be all doom-and-gloom about this, it’s also worth reflecting on the possible opportunities it brings. Continue reading

State of the Field

Something of a follow-up to my post about CollegeClassroom.Net:

Orangutans in WheelbarrowWhat is the knowledge signified by a bachelor’s degree in political science? A college graduate who majored in psychology, economics, or anthropology probably encountered the same concepts, often in the same sequence, as those encountered by graduates in the same major at other colleges and universities. These academic disciplines have standards for undergraduate curricula that, for the most part, are commonly accepted. The American Psychological Association, for example,  publishes guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major.

Perhaps the American Political Science Association has published a similar document, but if so, I couldn’t find it. So I used the Open Syllabus Project to scope out the state of the field at the undergraduate level. Kudos to The New York Times for first bringing Open Syllabus to my attention.

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Are students conservative, or just scared?

Other people's classes always seem to be more fun
Other people’s classes always seem to be more fun

Yesterday, I was invited to talk to a colleague’s class in another university. As always, it was good to get out and about and see other places (even if that place was a tad unprepossessing), but it was the discussion over a sandwich afterwards that was most enlightening.

Discussion was ranging over a number of topics, when one of the party said that they were always surprised by how conservative students have become, in the sense of disliking anything other than conventional, lecture-and-seminar formats. This has come after someone else had related how they felt obliged to provide the more passive lecture content in addition to the active learning, so that their (final-year) students wouldn’t feel too deprived of knowledge.

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