Processes of Curricular Change and Strategies for Organizing Signature Work

Over the last few years, eight colleges and universities have committed to curricular change that incorporates “signature work”—work that allows students to pursue their own projects (or questions) that integrate and apply their learning to complex problems that are important to both the student and society. On each campus, the process of curricular and cocurricular change is still developing. Stemming from the LEAP Challenge initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), the schools in the LEAP Challenge: Engaging in Capstones and Signature Work consortium, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, have had the opportunity to critically reflect upon their efforts, learn from one another, and compare notes on the progress of their respective campus initiatives. In this article, we will consider how the process of change played out on our various campuses, offering an account of our collective experience with illustrative examples. We hope to provide some models for moving forward to schools considering similar processes and to list some of the challenges we have encountered that schools might anticipate when planning similar processes of change.

Processes of Change

The consortium schools came into the LEAP Challenge initiative determined to use signature work to enhance student learning and be certain that their institutions’ strong programs of liberal education were fully manifested in every student’s educational experience. In each instance, the signature work initiative change process was embedded in larger curricular change processes that preceded or accompanied the work on signature learning. For instance, at Augustana College, the development of signature work for all students followed in a series of curricular changes that had been developing over the last eight years, providing an existing framework to integrate efforts aimed at scaling signature work. Clark University, Connecticut College, and Nebraska Wesleyan University initiated signature work as part of institution-wide curricular revisions in which integration of learning was a major objective; the signature work initiative on these campuses was constituted within the new structures of learning for students. Bates College, Elizabethtown College, and Oberlin College included signature learning as part of a larger process of institutional development and strategic planning. In every instance, signature learning was incorporated within the development of curricular structures, institutional priorities, and processes of change. And in each instance, the processes of change were not mandated, but emerged from preexisting institutional priorities and faculty engagement, and in most cases they were driven by institutional research or the systematic use of research on effective teaching and learning. While there was structure to the process of change, in every instance there was also tolerance for the messiness of making institutional curricular revisions, and campuses modified the process of change as dictated by the circumstances. In the end, the changes were shaped by each school’s identity and what they wished to provide for their students.

As a result, campuses had existing structures, courses, programs, and requirements that could be used to facilitate the development of definitions, models, and practices of signature learning. For instance, at Elizabethtown, definitions that resulted from strategic planning were compared to existing courses and cocurricular experiences in the initial phase of development. Nebraska Wesleyan consulted with every department to develop a full inventory of each department’s capstone practices; the results were then archived in a shared online location and used to match departments together to consult and learn from each other. Bates assessed their college-wide thesis requirement, which had dimensions similar to signature learning, in order to better understand what was actually happening with such work. Faculty at Augustana reviewed their Senior Inquiry courses, which revealed some unevenness in how that requirement represented the features of signature work. At Oberlin, a curriculum-tuning initiative created a context for considering how to better integrate and culminate student learning, and how to use the advising process to nurture the habits of mind at the heart of signature learning. These inventorying efforts were used to assess what was already present, and they were used as a springboard to launch change. This preliminary work was also an extremely important tool used to engage departments and other constituencies in the process early on, and it allowed institutions to identify how effective the curriculum was in providing high-impact learning for all students. This process can also allow concepts of signature work to reflect the actual culture and practices of the institution and to emerge as intentional efforts to connect “knowing to doing”—moving from theory to practice.

Strategies for Organizing Signature Work

For many—but not all—of the consortium schools, developing an institutional definition of signature work and guiding the adoption of that definition through the school’s legislative processes were at the heart of the process of advancing signature work on campus. Different schools employed different steering vehicles for this process.

Elizabethtown and Clark employed a main academic legislating committee to engage campus constituencies in the process of defining and adopting new curricular standards that incorporate signature work into learning required of all students (with a parallel process led by the administration to engage the governance board).

Augustana, Nebraska Wesleyan, and Bates established a signature learning team to move the process of engaging faculty and other important constituents forward in envisioning, defining, and proposing curricular changes related to signature work. In that process, it was often a priority to engage departments, build support for the new or enhanced learning objectives, and explore how departments would participate in the delivery of the new curriculum. Cocurricular advising processes were also incorporated into the models at Elizabethtown and Oberlin. In the case of Nebraska Wesleyan, they developed an institutional profile of signature work by (1) having each department chair define signature work, (2) categorizing the responses, and (3) refining the definitions by integrating definitions of signature work from AAC&U into the results, a process that resulted in the adoption of a common institutional definition with which to move forward.

At Augustana, Clark, and Elizabethtown, the proposal to adopt a university-wide graduation requirement for culminating work involved a full faculty debate and eventual vote. In these cases, the path forward involved developing a process that enabled departments and faculty to be vested in the results. In many cases, the issue of equity—of involving all students in the full benefits of the curriculum—served to engage faculty across the university in the exploration of ambitious goal setting and adoption of signature work. Oberlin, however, did not attempt to develop a common definition of signature work before moving forward; rather, the definition emerged as departments worked on the integration of student learning. In the spirit of inclusive excellence, Oberlin found that expanding beyond the traditional honors project—which is perfect for some, but perhaps not appropriate for all—to a more broadly cast culminating experience was a compelling strategy to broaden access and promote opportunities for students to reflect upon their educational experiences within and beyond the curriculum.

For many institutions, the process of developing, expanding, or fortifying signature work involved pilot programs, either with model courses or revised departmental curricula. Connecticut College built upon and connected to ongoing curricular changes as the school re-envisioned its entire four-year general education curriculum. The faculty developed and piloted a variety of 100-level courses that introduce and nurture the habits of mind required for students to successfully undertake integrative signature work during their senior year. They also created and piloted a variety of pathways that are based upon their already successful certificate programs offered by their four interdisciplinary academic centers (see the article by Egan, Kneas, and Reder in this issue of Peer Review).

At Elizabethtown, some departments hastened to incorporate the new curricular requirements into their majors, and other faculty and professional staff members refined existing curricular and cocurricular experiences so that they would meet the institutional requirements of signature work. At Nebraska Wesleyan, several departments volunteered to model the new signature work features in their departmental capstone process; at Bates, a number of departments revised their thesis to include signature work features, and the results were closely monitored. Clark faculty developed dozens of new courses using grant funding. In many instances, it was important for schools to find and support the “early adopters” and use their willingness to pilot the changes to translate theory into practice and provide tangible evidence of the possibilities of changing the curriculum, while also monitoring the attendant challenges that accompany such changes.

The translation of the ideal of signature work into the practices of each institution highlights the many ways signature work can be implemented. At Clark, the Problems of Practice (PoP) courses and a revised graduation requirement provided a new structure for student learning that included signature learning within each student’s path. PoP courses are intermediate-level experiences through which students develop independent and collaborative work that prepares them to flourish in their culminating capstone.

Elizabethtown students engage in conversations with their faculty advisors, who facilitate students’ selection of two or more meaningful signature learning experiences (from among five different categories) that will enrich their education and fulfill the graduation requirement.

At Nebraska Wesleyan, existing capstones are being revised and fortified to incorporate practices that integrate student learning through eportfolios and reflection. In each capstone, students use their eportfolios and both general education and departmental coursework to reflect on their learning trajectory, to raise questions that will guide their capstone work, and to launch themselves into that work.

At Augustana, the adoption of a Senior Inquiry requirement for all students within the graduation requirements infused signature work into the broader curriculum. Augustana reclassified its existing Senior Inquiry program from strictly a major requirement to a college-wide graduation requirement, thus establishing a system where the college’s committee overseeing the general education curriculum could ensure that all capstone experiences on campus align to shared standards.

At Bates, departments are experimenting with new pedagogies and approaches to extend and enhance the integration of student learning.

Connecticut College’s new Connections curriculum asks students, beginning in their first semester, to consider their own goals and priorities in light of the college’s liberal arts mission. Students develop transdisciplinary thinking and application through a series of courses and experiences that span their four years at the institution as part of a pathway that requires them to integrate their majors, general education courses, cocurricular experiences, and interests in a culminating signature experience during their senior year. At each institution, signature work initiatives involved enhancing and fortifying teaching and learning that was already central to the mission of providing students a liberal education. The critical function of each signature learning initiative is to enable the integration of student learning and make the process of that learning clearer in the minds and practices of those who teach and those who learn.

Working through Challenges

As each school moves forward with implementing changes to bring signature work more to the center of teaching and learning, issues and challenges continue to arise. First, signature learning is labor- intensive, often involving faculty in more mentoring and collaboration, both with each other and with students, and in most institutions, faculty time and energy are already fully engaged. While most faculty embrace the ideals of making signature work a universal experience of students on campus, resource limits can disable momentum for change. Often, effective curricular reform doesn’t involve adding to what is already going on; instead, it considers how to evolve systems toward more effective practices. It is important to factor into the budget the necessary incentives and rewards for faculty and staff who engage in the significant changes required to implement new processes of learning.

Another significant concern involves the differing cultures within departments and disciplines, and the need to work with departments collaboratively to consider flexible models that can accommodate the needs of different programs. Integrating work across the curriculum, especially when located at the level of the major or department, has proven to be tricky. It is important to incorporate students into the process when developing your work, not only as a constituency to consult but also as effective advocates and carriers of your new practices. The success of your process will partly depend upon how well you can nurture new ways of thinking, build the process from the grassroots, and involve the larger campus community—not only faculty, students, or administrators, but student-life, coaches, librarians, curators, and staff of various stripes—in internalizing the changes in institutional systems of learning. Finally, once an institution starts up the new cycle of teaching and learning, there must be accompanying adjustments to institutional assessment, a careful monitoring of the success of the new or fortified curriculum, and a system to feed the results of this assessment back into the curriculum. Realizing the benefits of curricular change of this scope requires a long-term institutional commitment from senior administrators, faculty, and staff, and a recognition that the process must work its way into the institutional culture. For each of these institutions, the process is ongoing and organized around cycles of continuous improvement.


Patrick Hayden-Roy, Associate Provost, Nebraska Wesleyan University; Tim Elgren, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Oberlin College; Kristi Kneas, Dean for Academic Affairs and Faculty Development, Elizabethtown College; Matt Malsky, Associate Provost and Dean of the College, Clark University; and Michael Reder, Director, Joy Shechtman Mankoff Center for Teaching and Learning, Connecticut College

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