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How We Got Here: The Context for Review of the Common Cirriculum at CSB/SJU

In 1988, what were then separate faculties at the College of Saint Benedict (CSB) and Saint John's University (SJU) created a single curriculum for students at both schools. This "Core Curriculum" was a major step in the unification of academic affairs at CSB/SJU. It remained in effect until 2006-07, when the Joint Faculty Assembly replaced it with the present "Common Curriculum." (The JFA approved components of the Common Curriculum in separate votes throughout the 2006-2007 academic year, with changes to the First Year Seminar made in September 2006 and the Gender requirement adopted at the last meeting of the academic year in April 2007.)

The CSB/SJU Common Curriculum defines a set of general education requirements that every student must satisfy for graduation. It combines a set of distributional requirements with a set of common courses and learning experiences. The common courses, which bookend the typical student's four years here, are the First Year Seminar and the Ethics Common Seminar. (See Appendix B for a list of current Common Curriculum requirements.)

In 2007-2008, an Academic Affairs Steering Committee initiated a process to completely revamp disciplinary program review and assessment. As the first cycle of disciplinary program review was completed, attention shifted to program review of the Common Curriculum.

In September 2011, a three-person team, led by Charles Blaich, the Director of Inquiries at the Wabash College Center of Inquiry for the Liberal Arts, a leading research center on liberal arts education, visited campus and helped formulate the questions that would guide this program review. The team met with dozens of people, and its report is available on the CCVC public Moodle site. Among the team's conclusions:

  1. There was broad dissatisfaction among faculty with how the Common Curriculum was created and a sense that there was a lack of broad faculty ownership of the Common Curriculum;
  2. Despite the name, the Common Curriculum is not common. Students can move through the general education requirements in multiple ways and this raises questions about the possible variation in the quality of Common Curriculum experience;
  3. Since the Joint Faculty Assembly adopted components of the Common Curriculum in a series of separate votes, general education at CSB/SJU lacks an overall vision;
  4. While the approval process for Common Curriculum designations is rigorous, there is no follow up to ensure that courses still deliver the outcomes, content, and pedagogy required;
  5. With so much of the Common Curriculum located in distributive requirements in various departments, students and their advisors have focused on "checking boxes." The requirements are not carefully orchestrated;
  6. An assessment process should create interesting and engaging findings so faculty are more willing to participate in the process;
  7. The Wabash team reminded us that CSB/SJU is the size of a mid-sized private university, not a small, residential, liberal arts college (Ottenhoff, Wise, and Blaich, 2011).

Following this visit, the institutions, led by Ken Jones,  continued to collect available evidence of student learning, administer other nationally-normed instruments to evaluate student learning, and compile significant amounts of data about how students satisfied the requirements of the Common Curriculum and why they made the choices they did. (Prior to the Wabash team visit, CSB/SJU had well-developed assessment in FYS, and many areas such as Math, Theology, Natural Science, Social Science, and the Languages had instruments and were collecting data.) Evidence of student learning in the Common Curriculum came from a number of different sources, including the use of both homegrown assessment instruments and nationally norm-referenced assessment instruments. The institutions collected evidence of student learning from the beginning of the implementation of the new Common Curriculum in 2007.

In the fall of 2013, the Joint Faculty Senate appointed an ad hoc task force on Common Curriculum Program Review (CCPR), to review all the available information that had been gathered on the Common Curriculum. The charge reads:

The JFS charges the ad hoc committee on the Common Curriculum Program Review to: (a) review the Common Curriculum learning goals, (b) solicit faculty concerns regarding the Common Curriculum, (c) review the Common Curriculum assessment data, (d) review the Common Curriculum descriptive data, and (e) review the document entitled Summary of the Common Curriculum Overview.

In November 2013, the CCPR facilitated two Joint Faculty Assembly forums to discuss the Common Curriculum. At the forums, faculty and staff were invited to provide comments regarding the current Common Curriculum and suggestions for change. A series of questions were presented to those in attendance in order to provide some structure to the discussion. The forums were well attended and several themes emerged from the discussions, including:

  • The need for continued faculty discussion regarding the value of a liberal arts education and the purpose of the CSB/SJU Common Curriculum.
  • The recognition that the transition from the old Core Curriculum to the current Common Curriculum occurred without a discussion of the purpose of general education at CSB/SJU. There was no discussion of what we want students to know when they graduate from these institutions.
  • Students and advisors have the perception that Common Curriculum requirements need to be "checked off." Students do not understand the purpose of the requirements or how the courses relate to each other.
  • The desire for a mission statement (or a vision document or framing document) for the Common Curriculum that would provide context for the Common Curriculum and, perhaps, facilitate faculty ownership of the Common Curriculum.
  • The Common Curriculum student learning goals and, in turn, the curricular model should be developed from, and be consistent with, the Common Curriculum mission statement (or a vision document or framing document).
  • There are currently relatively few common experiences across Common Curriculum courses, as suggested in the Wabash report. Several reasons for the relatively few common experiences were suggested in the discussions, including the lack of a common framework for the Common Curriculum, insufficient resources, the independent nature of CSB/SJU faculty members, and work avoidance on the part of CSB/SJU faculty members.
  • Any changes to the Common Curriculum would likely have intended and unintended consequences, including consequences impacting the institutions, departments, individual faculty members, current students, and prospective students. These practical considerations need to be a part of any discussion regarding Common Curriculum reform.

After review and discussions with many faculty members and other stakeholders, the CCPR concluded: "At this point the recommendation of this committee is to begin fresh with a new vision for what we want our students to be able to do upon graduation. We choose not to dwell on the fact that we might be abandoning the Common Curriculum after just a short lifespan, rather we choose to look at the current Common Curriculum as an extension of the old Core Curriculum (though with slightly shorter arms). Our finding is that there is little or no support for the current model and that it is in the best interest of our students to begin with a fresh vision. We suggest beginning with the questions of: 1) What do we want an educated Johnny and Bennie to look like after graduation; 2) What is our vision for the Common Curriculum (is it to be a truly "common" experience or is it to be a "distributive" model); 3) Do the missions of these institutions support a liberal-arts based common model; 4) What will our future students look like and how can we best serve them?"