Teaching Newsletter: A New Core? 9/14/2017

September 14, 2017

A Unifying Theme

Sweet Briar College’s near-death and revival is testing many assumptions in higher education. One of the most interesting may turn out to be related to a disdained-but-critical part of the college experience: the general-education curriculum.

As our colleague Lawrence Biemiller wrote recently, Sweet Briar is adopting a new core curriculum that will emphasize leadership skills and include 10 to 12 "integrated courses." It’s too early to tell what form these courses might take (they’ll be offered in the 2018-19 academic year), but it seems indicative of an instinct I’ve seen a lot in recent years — the desire to create some unifying theme in the general-education experience.

After all, few colleges have a true core curriculum — one in which all students take the same courses, read the same books, and encounter the same material. This state of affairs reflects decades of evolution in general education that have led to the current status quo: Students typically pick courses from a menu of options to satisfy various requirements. Instead of, say, math, they can take a course in computer science or sociology's quantitative methods to fill a requirement in quantitative reasoning. The assumption is that different disciplines can function something like delivery devices for underlying skills. What's missing, though, is that student-shared intellectual experience.

And so, several colleges have been finding other ways to find common ground across disparate disciplines. Some of them encourage students to draw connections between their courses, while others, like Emory University, use a unifying concept, like evidence, that professors can tackle from various disciplinary perspectives.

What have you seen at your institution? Are you revisiting general education? If so, how much interest is there in creating some sort of common academic experience? How much should there be? Please write to me at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, and I may include your thoughts in a future newsletter.

Read and Learn

  • Cathy Davidson talked to NPR about her new book, The New Education. She discussed her move from Duke University to the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and she took aim at what she sees as the creaky college major. “The major is what's most ossified” in academe, she said, adding that it's “the least likely to be a good match for anything out in the real world.”
  • In his blog, Delicious Ambiguity, Mark Salisbury of Augustana College, in Illinois, describes a challenge facing many education researchers who want to identify clues hidden in troves of data. Say you’ve found a promising new set of indicators that might predict students’ success as freshmen; what do you do with the information? Tread carefully, Mr. Salisbury advises. Applying findings too hastily, he says, can be “sort of like fixing watches — one wrong move and you’ve turned a nifty time piece into an expensive paperweight."
  • Colleges assess student learning, but few of them collect or publish data that would allow the general public to compare such learning at different institutions, Richard M. Freeland recently wrote in The Chronicle. "Until this gap is filled," he wrote, "higher education’s systems of accountability will continue to be data-rich but information-poor with respect to the quality of actual learning." And the public will look to commercial rankings, like those of U.S. News & World Report, to make judgments about colleges' quality.

Form and Function

A recent article on Quartz bidding “good riddance” to the lecture spotlights two economics professors at Texas A&M University. They have put a large course on the principles of economics online: One of the professors has pre-recorded lessons on video in which he writes equations and concepts on a transparent whiteboard. The 2,000 students in the course watch the lessons, take quizzes, do problem sets, and engage in virtual study groups online. This method allows him to focus less on delivering content and more on connecting with the students who truly want to delve into the subject more deeply.

Delivering the course this way is better than a traditional lecture, he says, though maybe it’s still not the optimal form that’s out there. “Do I think [this new course] is better than 30 students and the Socratic method, Dead Poets Society-style?” he asks. “Probably not.”

I’ve often wondered about this. How much pull does a course format really have? And how much does class size matter? After all, a seminar-size course can still be delivered in deadly dull tones. And hundreds of students in a lecture hall can be pushed to participate and grapple with material. For example, here’s a video of one such course, in biology, taught by Scott Freeman at the University of Washington.

Thanks for reading Teaching, The Chronicle's newsletter about teaching, learning, and curriculum. If you've been forwarded this email and would like to sign up, you can do so here. Comments and questions are welcome, too. Please write to us at dan.berrett@chronicle.com or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

-- Dan and Beckie