March 2009
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Clark University
Some Clark faculty have begun experimenting with “communities of effective practice” that bring together novices and experts to work on problems together.


Refocusing Undergraduate Education on “Effective Practice”: Curricular Change at Clark University  

By all appearances, Clark University already has a comprehensive program to advance liberal education outcomes for all students in place. Students must complete an eight-course Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) that includes classes in several outcome areas, including verbal expression, formal analysis, historical perspectives, values perspectives, and others. Both an international studies option within the PLS and the Active Learning and Research program—which focuses on real-world problems—provide opportunities for exploration and learning outside the traditional classroom.

But Clark Dean of the College Walter Wright wants students to do more—to be more intentional in their learning, to draw connections, to go deeper. “It’s been almost thirty years since we really looked critically at undergraduate education, and we hear that many of our students don’t understand the conceptual point of the Program of Liberal Studies,” Wright explains. “They look at it as a series of boxes to check off, and we think that’s a problem.” For that reason, Wright and his colleagues, Provost David Angel and Associate Provost Nancy Budwig, have been leading a curriculum review task force for the past year. Their goal is to reform Clark’s curriculum to make it more thoughtful and more effective. “There are a lot of national dialogues about liberal education and effectiveness right now,” Budwig says. “What our task force is trying to do is approach curricular reform from a developmental, whole-student angle. It’ll be a balance between refining and making explicit what we already have, and looking at the outcomes we want and asking ‘How do we get there?’”

To help answer that question, Clark is cosponsoring with AAC&U a March 12-13 conference called Liberal Education and Effective Practice.  Part of AAC&U’s ongoing series of public forums sponsored by Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), the conference’s goal is to explore how undergraduates can become both sophisticated thinkers and well-informed doers. Conference papers commissioned for the forum are available online, and Clark will publicize the results of the discussions after the conference, as well as incorporate its outcomes into a final report. The papers will also be featured in the fall 2009 issue of Liberal Education.

Understanding the Connective Threads

Clark’s Task Force on Undergraduate Education started its conversations in fall 2008 by discussing two “big questions”: What does it mean to be an educated person at the beginning of the twenty-first century? And how can Clark University best deploy its resources to help its students become “educated” people? Drawing on AAC&U’s work in the LEAP initiative and the curricular review processes happening at several other universities, task force members determined that a Clark education should focus on purposeful engagement in learning; integration between subjects and topics; and effective practice—the ability to apply knowledge to new settings and problems. Rather than focusing on different disciplinary areas, like science or the humanities, task force members have divided into subgroups to study three phases of university learning: the transition from high school to college; the pathways students take between entering and leaving Clark; and culminating experiences and their characteristics. “We’re trying to think outside of departmental, disciplinary boxes, and have students understand the threads that connect them,” Wright says.

The task force’s goal is to have a final report by April 2009 suggesting curricular changes to the Program of Liberal Studies that can be implemented in coming years. “I’m imagining that some of the things we have in place will stay, but they will be made more explicit,” Budwig says. “But I expect we may have one or two bold, different initiatives.”

Clark University
Students in a biology Complementary Curricular Network—a series of linked courses and research opportunities—gather data in Alaska.

Lessons from the Stickleback Lab

One of the most promising “bold, different” initiatives the task force is considering is the complementary curricular network (CCN), a concept that’s already in use at Clark. A CCN is a series of courses and research opportunities that build from introductory level up through advanced, self-directed research. Clark professors Susan Foster and John Baker have developed the method in their biology lab, which studies the evolution and adaptation of the three-spined stickleback fish. “Our stickleback lab is the model for this idea,” Foster explains. “We want students to see how research is really done, and build it into existing courses in a natural way. In a CCN, you can start with one unit, and you don’t have to have the whole network planned out right away—you can add new links as you add new faculty, or as new connections are made and interest develops.”

In the first level of the stickleback CCN, introductory biology students use existing data sets from the lab to learn about hypothesis testing, data analysis, and interpretation of results. In level 2, students in a sophomore-year class called Evolution develop their own hypotheses, analyze data, and present their results. In level 3, students spend up to a full semester conducting self-designed research and collecting original data, and in level 4, they extend their original research into more complex areas like genetics, continuing to develop and test hypotheses and collect data. Some students will not continue beyond the first part of the network, Foster explains, while others will become interested and continue working in the network throughout their Clark education. Students who don’t follow the stickleback lab’s network might become interested in other CCNs that are developing. Clark has grants from the Sherman Fairchild and W. M. Keck foundations to take themes from biology and extend them to the environmental sciences, chemistry, and more. One stickleback lab student, for example, became interested in writing about science for lay audiences, so she started a Stickleblog” to explain the lab’s research. “The shape the network takes is determined by the students,” Foster says.

The CCN concept isn’t specific to STEM fields—it can be used in any discipline, and is expressly made for examining connections between areas, Foster says. “This could certainly work in the humanities, too. In an introductory survey course, plant some themes, select texts accordingly, and build on that. If a student starts learning about, say, the Middle Ages, you can connect liberal studies courses on history, art, and medicine.”

Communities of Effective Practice

Budwig and her colleagues on the task force have also noticed that students seem to have the most transformative educational experiences when they work in heterogeneous communities with both novices and experts in a particular topic area. “We call these groups ‘communities of effective practice,’” she explains. “They break the frame of the transfer model of teaching, with the professor transferring knowledge to the students. The traditional classroom is a turnoff to some people, but we find students thrive and find purpose in these communities.” Clark’s music department has already experimented with the concept of effective practice communities, preparing recitals with diverse groups of musicians. The stickleback lab students, too, benefit from this sense of community. “We’ve got about twenty undergraduates in the lab, and they’re attracted by what the older students are doing, not by what we tell them,” Foster says. “It’s not us, and it’s not the fish—it’s looking at the other students and saying ‘I can do that,’ and bringing their own ideas and skills to the lab.” This kind of connected, collaborative learning is among the “high-impact” practices that research has determined are especially important for student success. These practices are described in AAC&U’s newest LEAP report, High-Impact Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. The task now, Budwig says, is to build these environments more widely into the Clark curriculum.

Before the task force’s final report in April, members will incorporate the insights from the Liberal Education and Effective Practice conference and refine their overarching vision for undergraduate curricular change. “We think it’s important that students be agents of their own learning,” Wright says. “You can’t look at ‘liberal’ or ‘general’ education as something to ‘get done’ in the first few years before moving on to the serious business of a major. We need students to understand it as a process.”