Areas for Improvement and the Need for Curriculum Revision

Not surprisingly, many of the issues that faculty, staff, and the administration mentioned as problems with the CSB/SJU Common Curriculum are similar to those identified in the national literature on general education reform and are common among general education programs nationwide. Tanya Furman writes in her article, "Assessment of General Education," in The Journal of General Education in 2013: "Often, the general education curriculum is both too broad and too narrow and reflects a loosely constrained menu of course choices. It comprises a broad array of lower-division introductory courses that meander across wide swaths of perspective and content. It is too narrow in that general education courses often encompass restricted faculty interests, satisfy departmental goals of filling seats to justify otherwise underenrolled elective courses, or are taught as elementary disciplinary classes rather than as integrative challenges that inspire students to think across disciplines and perspectives" (pp. 131-132). These deficiencies can be grouped into two major categories: 1) There are issues of alignment between desired learning outcomes and the Common Curriculum design; and 2) There are issues with the structure and support of the Common Curriculum.

The Common Curriculum design does not align with an established vision and learning outcomes

In many discussions, faculty, staff, administration, and students identified a common set of learning traits and skills that they want CSB/SJU graduates to possess. However, the Common Curriculum is not designed to meet these goals. It lacks a vision statement (or underlying philosophy) from which should stem a set of meaningful and assessable learning outcomes and from which coursework should be developed. Instead, many faculty and students currently use the Common Curriculum as a "check box" with little to no sequential integration or measurement of intellectual growth from the First Year Seminar to the final Capstone experience. Numerous faculty have commented on a student's inadequate preparation to produce a meaningful work at this final stage of their undergraduate career, because there are no meaningful and deliberate steps built into the earlier stages of the curriculum in order to reach this final project. Most Common Curriculum requirements are separate entities with little to no connection to each other or to the Capstone. In addition, the Common Curriculum is not well aligned with the major. There is little connection between the Common Curriculum and the major coursework and experiences; they are separate paths that rarely integrate.

As a consequence, the content within the Common Curriculum is not a "common" experience; instead, it is created by the cafeteria-style choices made by students, who are not always well advised about the courses they are taking. In addition, students often enroll in first year curriculum designed for the major in order to fulfill Common Curriculum requirements. This is not always the most appropriate setting or context for effective learning by non-majors. For example, to help develop a scientifically literate citizen, a content-driven course on vital concepts in a specific scientific discipline may not be the best choice but is often what is provided. This has led to situations where "students do not actively engage with their general education classes," according to Marc Lowenstein. Writing in The Journal Of General Education, he argues: "Where the requirements are met through a distribution of departmental courses, students enrolled in these courses will include both 'general students' and declared or intended majors. These groups of students will have different motivations and different levels of preparation, and instructors will naturally be likely to be more committed to meeting the needs of their majors-not necessarily because they care more about them but because for majors who will take follow-up courses there is a greater need to 'cover' specific material. In such circumstances the instructors may also spend less time focusing intentionally on their disciplines' distinctive ways of knowing and relationships to other disciplines, the sort of focus probably more closely related to why the faculty want general students to encounter the disciplines" (2015, p. 120).

The Common Curriculum lacks a successful structure

Several issues pertaining to the administrative structure have also arisen in discussions of the Common Curriculum. First and foremost, a complete assessment strategy that evaluates the whole program from the First Year Seminar to the Ethics Common Seminar is lacking. The effort of Dr. Ken Jones as Director of the Common Curriculum should be hailed for its thorough assessment plan for FYS and initiation of assessment of the Ethics Common Seminar, as well as assessment of the Gender and Intercultural designations (with the assistance of Dr. Chuck Wright). However, Dr. Jones was not assigned full time to the Common Curriculum, and as of now there is no director of the program. Previously, in May 2014, Dr. Wright's reassigned time for assessment was terminated. As a result, the direction of the Common Curriculum is in a period of transition and risks lack of institutional and administrative direction and coordination.  In a letter to department chairs in 2013, the chair of APSAC stated, "It is not even clear who is supposed to be in charge of assessing the Common Curriculum after we abandoned the old divisional chair structure. The academic dean admits that as an institution, we have dropped the ball on this." To many faculty, the purpose and function of the Office of Academic Review and Curricular Advancement (OARCA) and the leadership it is supposed to provide for Common Curriculum assessment is not clear. This state of confusion concerning general education assessment runs counter to effective institutional assessment structures described in the published research on this topic. As one article points out, "The incentive for faculty to participate comes in part from being involved in a formal, well-organized process that clearly defines roles and responsibilities for participants" (pp. 338-39). We discuss assessment of the Common Curriculum in more detail later in this report, in Part B.

Second, the siloed nature of our departments has led to numerous structural impediments in the implementation of the Common Curriculum. Silos built due to distance, politics, or simply teaching different material have led to limited communication between departments. This has affected implementation of the curriculum, the hiring and promotion process, staffing of the Common Curriculum, and ultimately has contributed to reliance on term faculty to teach general education courses. These silos and separated decisions also help deconstruct a "home" for the Common Curriculum. In particular, term faculty have limited space and are not placed in a desirable location for interactions with others actively participating in the Common Curriculum. These and other factors have contributed to the problem that no one "owns" the Common Curriculum.

In CCVC discussions with faculty, there were numerous complaints about the impediments to collaborating with other departments. Apart from the Intercultural and Gender designations, the Common Curriculum and teaching structure discourage multidisciplinary instruction and interdepartmental collaboration. Since several of the learning goals for the Common Curriculum are disciplinary based, it is very difficult to get a course approved that combines perspectives across disciplines. So multidisciplinary courses are likely to not count as Common Curriculum courses, which means there is a disincentive to develop them. Another part of the problem is the difficulty of team-teaching due, at least in part, to the 6/6 teaching structure.  There can also be physical constraints to team-teaching (classroom space). At almost every meeting the CCVC had with departments, faculty mentioned the desire to team-teach with colleagues in different departments, but the constraints make it nearly impossible.

Despite these structural and design flaws, the work of committed and talented faculty who have taught courses in the existing curriculum should be acknowledged. The CCVC recognizes the contributions of numerous faculty and staff over the years, but also sees the potential to implement changes to the general education program that will make it a signature feature of a CSB/SJU education. We must avoid the "tendency of many campuses to exhibit cultural stagnation and inertia, an often unwritten way of campus life that undermines change efforts by emphasizing nostalgia for some (dubious) past era, fostering fear and competition over turf among siloed academic units" (Riordan and Sharkley, 2010, p. 200), and instead embrace the possibility of changes that could significantly improve the learning outcomes of our students.