To ensure students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University (CSB/SJU) experience a rigorous and integrative general education curriculum, the Joint Faculty Senate (JFS) created the Common Curriculum Visioning Committee (CCVC) and tasked it to provide direction and strategy for potentially implementing changes to the Common Curriculum. The task force spent over two years reading the national scholarship on general education reform and listening to participants at community forums and in meetings with departments and programs. The task force also sent a team to the 2015 Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) Summer Institute on General Education and Assessment.
As a result of this work, CCVC produced this report, which is divided into three main parts. Part A describes the context for reform of general education at CSB/SJU, summarizes the feedback from the campus community to date, suggests "process principles" to guide campus conversations, makes the case for reform of the Common Curriculum, and identifies the opportunities and imperatives for change. Part B begins with a discussion, based on the conversations CCVC has had with faculty, of a vision statement and revised learning outcomes for general education at CSB/SJU, presents the "vision and design principles" that will guide the design of a new curriculum, and describes how other campuses have adapted the AAC&U's "Essential Learning Outcomes" to their own situations. Part C of the report proposes a new charge for the committee, offers a plan with a timeline that includes checkpoints, and identifies the characteristics of successful general education programs.
The CSB/SJU 2020 Strategic Plan calls for the liberal arts experience at our colleges to be "characterized by an innovative and integrative curriculum that provides our students with the knowledge, skills, experiences and values to meet their professional and personal goals and shape their civic identity." Specifically, the strategic plan establishes a goal to develop a revised general education curriculum that is "purposeful, sequential, integrative, and cumulative across four years. The new Common Curriculum will more intentionally link departmental and general education." CCVC's report provides a roadmap to general education reform at CSB/SJU. If the process recommendations and timeline proposed by this report are followed, a revised general education curriculum will be in place by 2020.
It is important to emphasize that this report emerges from a faculty-driven, grassroots effort to revise the Common Curriculum. While the CCVC consulted with the Academic Dean and the Director of the Common Curriculum, and had conversations with departments and offices affected by the general education program, this report was written exclusively by faculty at the request of faculty governance and in response to faculty concerns. This is in contrast to the last time the general education requirements were revised, in 2006-07, in response to an administrative mandate to shrink the Core.
A Paradigm Shift
We propose to move from a cafeteria-style general education distribution system that emphasizes the "collection of courses," to an integrated, purposeful, and reflective general education program that places emphasis on "making connections." Implementing this vision for general education will require a significant paradigm shift in the way we design and deliver the Common Curriculum. This paradigm shift has at least five different features:
First, it implies a shift away from an emphasis on course content to a paradigm that also stresses student learning and the fulfillment of essential learning outcomes. While course content will still be important, this report assumes a shift from "what is taught" to a pedagogy that also includes emphasis on "what is learned" (Gaston 2015, p. 8).
Second, the report envisions moving from a general education program where learning goals are delivered in separate, individual courses to a program where courses are scaffolded in a developmentally appropriate sequence, assuring that students encounter, practice and refine key proficiencies and capabilities in multiple settings and in progressively challenging ways.
Third, it suggests rejecting the assumption that the general education program and the major are separate programs. The paradigm assumed in this report emphasizes the integration of the general education program and the major. Students should not perceive general education as something to "get out of the way," but rather as a foundation of liberal learning that is reinforced by work in a specific discipline.
Fourth, this report assumes the need for a shift in the way faculty and departments perceive themselves in relation to other colleagues and disciplines. Instead of working in isolation from other departments and in possible competition with other colleagues, this report envisions faculty working collaboratively to create thematic course clusters that allow students to address significant problems from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives.
Finally, this report assumes that a variety of campus and external audiences have a stake in a rigorous, integrative, and coherent program of general education at CSB/SJU. In particular, this report rejects the assumption that the curricular and co-curricular should be viewed as separate entities with unrelated missions and functions. While faculty retain the sole authority to revise the undergraduate curriculum, it must do so in conversation with other key campus stakeholders.
Based on conversations that have occurred in public forums and with individual departments and programs over the past two years, as well as a thorough review of the scholarship on general education reform, we find broad and enthusiastic support for the philosophical and practical transformation of the Common Curriculum advocated in this report. In fact, the features of the new paradigm were developed in large part by the conversations we have had with faculty over the last two years. As these conversations continue, we recommend that participants adopt a "stewardship posture" which places the needs of our students first, so that we can design a general education curriculum that prepares graduates for the expectations of work, life, and citizenship in the 21st Century.
Context and Conversations
The CSB/SJU Joint Faculty Assembly approved the components of the Common Curriculum in separate votes throughout the 2006-2007 academic year. A few years later, an Academic Affairs Steering Committee began a program review of the general education program, which included a site visit by a three-person team from the Wabash College Center of Inquiry for the Liberal Arts, a leading research center on liberal arts education. After dozens of interviews, the team discovered broad dissatisfaction among faculty with how the Common Curriculum was created and a lack of broad faculty ownership of the general education program.
After it read the Wabash report and began its review of the national literature on general education reform, CCVC realized that a clear process needed to be established prior to the discussion of curricular models or program content. Terrel L. Rhodes, who taught in the Political Science department at CSB/SJU early in his career, and who now is a nationally recognized expert on general education, stresses this point in A Process Approach to General Education Reform: "Too often the response to a catalyst for change in general education is to begin by formulating a solution, a new curriculum. By minimizing the importance of process in change, the outcomes are much less likely to be accepted broadly or meet the perceived needs that prompted the calls for change in the first place...Focusing on structure or curricular content at the outset and ignoring the processes of change and the culture of the campus clearly reduces the probability for success in revamping general education" (2010, pp. 255-56). Following Rhodes's advice, this report does not propose a new curriculum model, but rather recommends an inclusive process, supported by guiding principles based on best practices, which provides a roadmap for revision of the general education requirements.
After its review of the general education scholarship, CCVC developed and adhered to the following process recommendations as it began its work:
- Process Principle #1: Focus on Student Learning
- Process Principle #2: Form a Task Force
- Process Principle #3: Support Proposals with Research
- Process Principle #4: Establish Process before Discussing Content
- Process Principle #5: Establish a Timeline
- Process Principle #6: Devote Resources to the Work
- Process Principle #7: Encourage Open Communication
- Process Principle #8: Engage a Variety of Audiences
- Process Principle #9: Discuss Vision and Learning Outcomes Prior to Design
During the 2014-2015 academic year, CCVC met with 22 academic departments and several other programs and constituencies, including CSB and SJU students. Based on these conversations, there was broad agreement on what students needed to learn. For example, in discussions held at the 2014 Fall Faculty Workshop, participants said they wanted students to be flexible, adaptable, innovative, and creative. Faculty identified several skills students needed to possess, including critical thinking, communication, and collaborative, team, and leadership skills. Faculty also wanted graduates to be knowledgeable, tolerant, and engaged public citizens, with the ability to render moral and ethical decisions based on Benedictine values.
The conversations with faculty, staff, and students identified several strengths of the current Common Curriculum, including its reliance on what the AAC&U refers to as "high impact practices" (HIPs). These include first year seminars and experiences, writing intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity and global learning, and service and community based learning. (Interestingly, faculty also expressed strong desire for "common intellectual experiences" and "learning communities," two of the high-impact practices recommended by AAC&U that are not featured in the Common Curriculum.)
However, despite these strengths in the current general education curriculum, members of the campus community expressed a clear desire for change by identifying several areas for improvement. Echoing the concerns raised in the Wabash report, participants noted the lack of broad ownership of the Common Curriculum, the possible variation in the quality of the Common Curriculum experience, distribution requirements that encourage students and their advisors to "check boxes," the lack of an overall vision for the program, learning goals that are sometimes difficult to assess, lack of integration between the general education program and the majors, a dearth of opportunities for interdisciplinary cooperation, and a program that lacks coherence or intentionality. And while there was substantial praise for the leadership of Dr. Ken Jones, the Director of the Common Curriculum, participants noted the Common Curriculum is in a period of transition and risks lack of institutional and administrative direction and coordination.
Making It Happen: Designing a New General Education Curriculum
Among the first steps recommended in this report is the approval of a general education vision statement followed by the revision of the learning goals and outcomes for the general education program. In our early meetings, we heard over and over again about the faculty's disappointment with the lack of a unifying philosophy or vision that provides the foundation for the Common Curriculum. We do not want to repeat that mistake. Strong programs express a clear vision for general education, and the discussion of learning outcomes prior to the design of a curriculum helps to unify participants around common goals. As part of a larger initiative known as Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP), AAC&U has developed a set of "Essential Learning Outcomes" (ELOs) that can serve as the starting point for campus conversations about learning outcomes for the general education program. Several colleges have adapted the ELOs to fit their unique learning environments. During the academic year 2015-2016, CCVC plans to host multiple public forums and workshops to evaluate, discuss, and modify the Essential Learning Outcomes to reflect our distinct mission, culture, and values. Based on these forthcoming discussions, CCVC will revise the Common Curriculum learning outcomes and present them to the Joint Faculty Senate for consideration.
Typically on many campuses, "general education curricular decision-making looks like this: a charge is handed down by the provost, president, or chancellor; a campus-wide committee is selected; this committee is sequestered for the better part of an academic year; they come up with a plan, present it to the faculty, suffer the slings and arrows of criticism and opposition, and the plan comes up for a final vote" where it can be "doomed to failure from the outset" when the majority of the faculty have not been included in the decision-making process (Gano-Phillips and Barnett 2010, p. 11). In contrast, CCVC proposes to include the campus community in all aspects of the curriculum design process.
Once the faculty adopts revised general education learning outcomes, CCVC will invite colleagues to submit "targeted suggestions" for curricular reform, and also invite members of the campus community to design and submit proposals for a revised general education curriculum (either as individuals or as teams). To assist with the design process, and to promote understanding and discussion of the salient issues involved, CCVC will host workshops, training sessions, reading groups, and other events. Campus teams will have opportunities to present drafts of their work to the larger community for feedback and reflection. CCVC will shepherd the reform process while faculty work collaboratively to design curriculum proposals. National experts on general education reform, as well as peers from other institutions undertaking curriculum revisions, supported this approach enthusiastically at the AAC&U 2015 Institute on General Education & Assessment when CSB/SJU presented this action plan for feedback.
Campus teams will design general education curricula based on the following principles developed by CCVC and supported by the literature on general education reform:
- Design Principle #1: Make High-Impact Practices Purposeful and Integrative
- Design Principle #2: Consider Alternatives to Distribution Model
- Design Principle #3: Follow Learning Outcomes Endorsed by the JFS
- Design Principle #4: Focus on "Connections." Possible connections include:
- a) Make General Education Coherent by Scaffolding Courses
- b) Integrate General Education with the Majors
- c) Establish "Interdisciplinary Concentrations"
- d) Demonstrate Integrative Learning Through "Signature Work"
- e) Improve Connections with Activities Outside Classroom
- Design Principle #5: Consider Equity in Curricular Design
- Design Principle #6: Establish an Assessment Plan
- Design Principle #7: Re-Brand General Education at CSB/SJU
- Design Principle #8: Ensure Students Can Graduate in Four Years
These design principles will help move us away from a general education program with a collection of disconnected courses, to a coherent program with clear pathways to student success.
A revised Common Curriculum that is more purposeful, reflective, integrative, and sequential could have profound effects on CSB/SJU graduates. Paul Gaston sums up the benefits: "The single most direct and effective approach to improving the educational experience for all students is the redesign of general education as a platform for integrative, digitally rich, proficiency-based, and question-centered learning grounded in the humanities, arts, sciences, and social sciences. Rather than a buffet of survey courses to be 'gotten out of the way,' general education must become the integrative center for the most important learning outcomes-from the first year until the degree" (2015, p. 5, emphasis added). We look forward to ongoing conversations over the next two years as we make this vision a reality for students at CSB/SJU.