As soon as new students step on their college campuses for the first time, they already face roadblocks to graduation. Maybe they don’t know how to apply for financial aid, they can’t decipher bloated academic pathways or sprawling general education requirements, or they feel overwhelmed by developmental classes that don’t provide credits toward graduation.
These barriers have extensive consequences for students, especially traditionally underserved students of color, first-generation students, or low-income students. Nationwide, just over half of students graduate from college within six years, with notably lower rates for black and Hispanic students.
“How can all students, regardless of their background, have an enriching and enlarging liberal education that prepares them for lives of effective citizenship and satisfying work?” asked Loni M. Bordoloi Pazich, program director at the Teagle Foundation. “Confusing and disconnected curricula can make a college education seem like a box-checking exercise, rather than a comprehensive intellectual endeavor, and can discourage students from persisting. The challenge—and opportunity—for faculty is in designing courses that fit together in a coherent curriculum, with clear milestones towards the degree, without impoverishing students’ education or ill-serving the goals of liberal education.”
With support from the Teagle Foundation, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched the Purposeful Pathways: Faculty Planning for Curricular Coherence project in 2016 to help faculty create and assess curricular pathways that can guide students to higher levels of learning, intellectual skills development, and practical knowledge.
“A coherent curriculum is a set of well-planned learning experiences that occur in the appropriate sequence so that the learning in the later parts of the sequence builds on the learning in the beginning parts of the sequence,” said Laurel Pritchard, who is on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas project team. “When a student reaches the end of a sequence, they have a coherent understanding of what they've learned and how that learning can be applied to some real-life problem or experience.”
The project launched in 2016 with four public institutions: Community College of Philadelphia; University of Houston–Downtown; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Winston-Salem State University. After a one-year planning process that saw campuses identifying barriers on their campuses, faculty teams finalized their project plans at AAC&U’s Institute on Integrative Learning and Signature Work.
“The institute was really a valuable experience for us because it gave us some concentrated time to sit down together and talk through some of the challenges we were facing. In some cases, we found that everybody was facing similar challenges, and in some cases, they were unique to the institution,” Pritchard said. The team also benefitted from meeting with the institute’s faculty, “who are truly experts in leading this kind of change on a campus.”
Below, faculty from the four institutions—which include research universities, a community college, a Hispanic-serving institution, and a historically black university—describe their efforts to redesign and assess a coherent curriculum.
Community College of Philadelphia
“Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) is a very large institution,” said Amy Birge, coordinator of curriculum development. “We have over 30,000 students, and the vast majority are students of color.”
For many students, CCP’s expansive curriculum—which spans three academic divisions, seventy academic and vocational programs, and a multilayered general education program—can be hard to navigate. The college has been working since 2015, when it joined a pathways project with the American Association of Community Colleges, to fundamentally reshape the disciplinary curricula.
CCP has organized programs into seven clearly defined pathways: health care; science and technology; design, construction, and transportation; business, entrepreneurship, and law; creative arts; liberal arts and communications; and education and human services. At the same time, CCP is (1) streamlining student intake processes to advise new students and help them enter a major quickly, (2) mapping the curriculum to help students navigate requirements, (3) moving students from developmental education into credit-bearing corequisite programs, and (4) providing extensive academic advising. Together, these efforts are aimed at reducing the overall time and number of credits students need to begin their career or transfer to a four-year institution.
However, as the college’s work progressed, they identified another barrier to student success. “As we were creating the pathways, we realized it was often the general education requirements where students were accumulating excess credits,” Birge said.
Since 2009, CCP’s general education requirements have included seven “competencies” (e.g., information literacy or technological competency), several “major areas of learning” (e.g., mathematics or social sciences), and three “academic approaches” (interpretive studies, writing-intensive, and American and global diversity).
“You wind up with a list of gen ed requirements that are not easy for students to understand, and are sometimes not easy for anyone to understand,” Birge said. “This has a direct effect on students' persistence in their program pathway, especially if students are taking general education courses without a clear understanding of why they're taking those courses.”
In the first year, the project held collaborative sessions with faculty across the divisions in summer institutes designed to increase faculty awareness and ownership of general education requirements. The second year is beginning with a pilot program in which the project team is working with faculty in the health care pathway and liberal arts and communication pathway to (1) connect the general education program to the reforms made in the earlier pathways project, (2) identify how courses and pathways scaffold the outcomes and skills students achieve through general education, (3) improve general education assessment methods, and (4) bring more faculty and students into conversations about general education to ensure students see the value of general education and “understand why they're taking the courses they're taking,” Birge said.
As part of these conversations, the project team has surveyed staff, faculty, administrators, and more than eight hundred students about their knowledge and opinions of general education requirements. “We're finding out that less than half of the students surveyed are able to correctly identify general education requirements,” Birge said.
The project’s ultimate goal, Birge said, is to work across general education in all seven pathways, “making sure that students have informed choices about the courses that they take and designing programs so that they can get students through to graduation, to transfer to other schools, or into careers with less time on courses that might not apply to graduation.”
University of Houston–Downtown
The University of Houston–Downtown (UHD), a Hispanic-serving and minority-serving institution in Texas, enrolls a high proportion of first-generation college students, who “usually don't have other people to give them guidance as they go through the academic process—what to expect in their first year in college or even something so simple as when to apply for financial aid,” said Kit Cho, assistant professor of psychology.
Many of these students find it difficult to navigate complicated degree plans or general education requirements that seem like “boxes that you have to check in order to progress to the courses that you actually want to take,” Cho said. “For some students who have failed to return to college, attrition is due to the fact that they may be frustrated by the process.”
Just 28 percent of UHD students graduate within six years, a trend partly caused by students taking too many credits. UHD students should finish their degrees with approximately 120 credits, while the average student graduates with 150. Many of these excess credits come from students who transfer from community colleges with many elective credits but few within a specific major.
UHD’s Purposeful Pathways project team is partnering with local community colleges, including Houston Community College, one of the city’s largest community colleges, to implement a Field of Study Curriculum that encourages community college students to take courses within the discipline they plan to pursue as a major at a four-year institution, ensuring credits will transfer as part of a degree rather than as electives.
Within UHD’s own curriculum, the project team is currently focusing exclusively on the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. To maximize faculty ownership of and engagement in the curricular change process, the project team includes faculty representatives from every department in the college, who collaborate closely with program coordinators for the college’s fourteen degree plans.
“Whatever changes we're making, we're not mandating it from the top down,” Cho said. “Rather, we want support and we want input from the people who are teaching in these degree plans.”
The approach each department takes in the project depends on the specific barriers their students face. Some programs, where students struggle to complete the high number of credits required, significantly reduced the number of credits required. Spanish, which required the most credit hours of any program in the college, lowered their requirements from seventy-two credits to thirty-three credits, and Communication Studies went from sixty-two credits to thirty-seven.
Some majors face an entirely different problem—they don't have enough courses scheduled to meet student demand. “How can we strategize the offering of our classes to ensure that students don't have to wait another semester to take that class so that they can graduate in a timely manner?” Cho asked.
One of UHD’s newest and most popular degrees, Health and Behavioral Sciences, experienced growing pains as students struggled to find enough upper-level courses to satisfy their requirements. The department has hired new faculty and increased the number of elective courses it offers to satisfy requirements, providing flexibility for students to take courses aligned with their interests while removing a barrier to timely completion.
In addition to tracking retention and graduation rates, the project plans to survey students to ensure that they understand their major’s curricular pathways.
“I believe it's extremely important for institutions such as UHD, when they're serving primarily first-time-in-college students, to make the process of graduating in a timely manner as seamless and as transparent as possible,” Cho said.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) has been working for several years to make its curriculum and pedagogy more accessible to students. The Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (TILT Higher Ed) program, led by UNLV’s Mary-Ann Winkelmes, has won national awards and widespread recognition for its efforts to make curricula and pedagogy more transparent and accessible to students.
Building on these earlier efforts, the UNLV Purposeful Pathways project team is working to alleviate barriers to student success that include overwhelming course catalogues and required ‘bottleneck courses,’ which have resulted in low student grades and high withdrawal rates in some programs.
Though UNLV faculty had made “piecemeal” changes to their programs over the years in response to specific challenges, “many of our academic departments had not had the time for a really meaningful review of their curriculum,” said Laurel Pritchard, interim vice provost of undergraduate education.
UNLV piloted the project with two departments, kinesiology and nutrition sciences and sociology, during the one-year planning phase of the grant in 2016–17. As the project looked to expand the next year, the team pitched the project to different departments. Rather than pitching it at departmental faculty meetings—which can lead to department-wide debates—Pritchard recommends approaching two faculty members from the department, ideally the undergraduate curriculum coordinator and department chair. Once these faculty are on board, ask them to recommend a small group of colleagues who might like to participate, creating influential faculty champions to spread the word to the rest of the department.
In 2017–18, the project expanded to five additional academic departments (communications studies, English, geosciences, mechanical engineering, and psychology).
“Every department is unique in terms of the kinds of issues they identified, the solutions that they proposed to address those issues, and the kinds of changes that they ended up making to their curriculum,” Pritchard said.
One department had over 150 upper-division courses listed in the catalog but only offered a fraction of these on a regular basis. “Obviously, that can be confusing and overwhelming to students,” Pritchard said. Their project focused on streamlining course offerings in the university’s course catalog by making dozens of courses “inactive,” removing them from the catalog while allowing them to be easily reinstated in the future.
Other departments went bigger and “completely took apart their curriculum,” Pritchard said. They examined and mapped their learning outcomes and developed new classes, reordered prerequisites for existing classes, or consolidated multiple courses into a single course to achieve these outcomes as efficiently as possible.
The communications department redesigned several 100- and 200-level courses with low passing rates. One of these courses, Communication 101: Oral Communication, is both a general education requirement and a prerequisite for students in the communications studies major. Originally based on traditional lectures, the faculty reinvented it through collaborative group work and a “flipped-classroom” model, with students spending time in a communications lab with a faculty member who leads them in research activities related to in-class presentations.
The team is assessing the project’s impact by surveying faculty in the six departments “to understand how challenging they felt this process was, how effective the support they received was, and what they anticipate the benefits will be,” Pritchard said. The project team is also monitoring the number of courses required by each major and comparing current student outcomes data to historical rates, including time to degree, required course substitutions, and D, F, and withdrawal rates.
Departments participating in the 2018–19 project cohort have learned from their early-adopter colleagues and are already requesting data from the Office of the Registrar. The new cohort will include history, chemistry and biochemistry, and the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, among others.
Winston-Salem State University
Like many historically black colleges and universities, Winston-Salem State University was founded as a teacher’s college. Located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it later expanded to focus on other professional degrees like nursing, with general education courses in liberal arts and sciences designed to support the professional degrees, not as separate disciplines themselves.
As programs developed and expanded, they added new courses but didn’t always change the old ones. This slow “curriculum creep,” which is seen in universities across the country, resulted in bloated majors and an academic catalogue that was hard to navigate for both students and advisors.
“I've been here for thirty years, and in some majors, I couldn't figure out what we were requiring students to take,” said Carolynn Berry, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.
A bloated curriculum can be a significant barrier for students who must take too many unnecessary courses or have difficulty finding out what courses are required.
“A lot of our kids are on financial aid; it's a huge burden for their families to have them here,” Berry said. “We owe it to our students to deliver an education to them as efficiently as we can, because they don't have unlimited resources.”
In 2016, Winston-Salem State developed a new strategic plan that aimed to “strengthen liberal education” through a complete redesign of disciplinary and general education curricula based on four categories of courses.
- Foundation courses offer students an introduction to the discipline and lay the foundation for all further learning in the major.
- Breadth courses offer students the opportunity to broadly explore (sample) the discipline and often elaborate on topics explored in foundation courses.
- Depth represents sets of courses that allow students to explore a specific aspect of the field, providing the opportunity to take a deep dive to accumulate content expertise.
- General Education is anything outside a student’s major, presented mostly in foundation courses from other majors.
“What we're really trying to do is to present coherent majors that start in general education, map to clear outcomes, and are supported by cocurricular activities,” Berry said.
The ten faculty on the Purposeful Project team helped departments analyze outcomes and required courses to see how degrees could become more efficient. They asked faculty, “What is fundamental to your major? What do students have to understand first before they can understand the next thing? What faculty expertise does your department have that can provide depth? Where can you give students some flexibility?”
Part of this is getting faculty “to understand that general education and the major aren't separate things,” Berry said. “You don't finish one before you get into the other. It's kind of all meshed together, which is why our curriculum has to be very coherent. You've got to be able to tell students where they're going from the time they get here to the end of that major.”
Figure 1. Comparison of Hours Required in Majors at Winston-Salem State University Before and After Review
These conversations have already had a large impact. Seventeen degree programs (44 percent of all programs on campus) brought revised curricula to Winston-Salem State’s Academic Standards and Curriculum Committee, reducing the number of hours students needed to complete the majors (see fig. 1). On average, the number of credits required for these majors decreased from 52.9 to 44.4, positively impacting 1,600 students.
Eliminating excess credits has “helped us be really efficient at deploying faculty resources, and in most cases the faculty have made it clearer what’s required of students,” Berry said. “This provides students with flexibility to explore the major deeper in line with their own interests.”