Liberal Education

The Story of Institutional Transformation at King's College

The first seed of transformation was planted when a graduating senior announced to the academic dean, "There is more teaching going on around here than learning and you ought to do something about that." King's College, a small, private, liberal arts college, in Wilkes-Barre, PA, made a conscious and deliberate effort to create an invigorated teaching and learning environment.

Our story begins in the early 1980s when the faculty began reconceptualizing the Core Curriculum. There was general dissatisfaction with the old Core that was really a smorgasbord of classes lacking coherence, integrity, and a plan for learning. The new Core Curriculum was designed to ensure that students engage in cumulative and transferable learning in three general areas: the transferable skills of liberal learning (e.g. critical thinking, effective writing); traditional disciplines and interdisciplinary perspectives (e.g. natural science, literature and the arts); and informed believing and acting (e.g. philosophy, theology).

One important factor that ensures the success and ongoing development of the new Core was the creation of faculty project teams. Each team oversees a portion of the Core and promotes faculty commitment to and ownership of its ongoing efforts and success in enhancing student learning. Extensive faculty development processes were undertaken to support the faculty in developing strategies to help students become active or intentional learners as described in the Greater Expectations initiative.

Faculty were encouraged to attend assessment conferences and workshops, nationally known speakers were invited to campus, and numerous in-house workshops were held on topics such as writing and critical thinking across the curriculum. The latter is significant because faculty teaching the effective writing and critical thinking courses for our first-year students were also teaching other faculty what was covered in their courses, thereby enabling a truly cumulative curriculum. For the most part, the faculty welcomed these development opportunities as they defined themselves as a teaching faculty, and sometimes their efforts were rewarded with small stipends made available through grants.

As the transformation process continued at King's College, we realized that in order to have a genuinely coherent and cumulative learning experience for our students we would need to explicitly link learning in the core curriculum to learning and faculty expectations for students' progress through the major program. Several strategies were successfully adopted. One major strategy we used to accomplish this end was to develop Competency Growth Plans (CGP) for each of the seven transferable skills of liberal learning; all major disciplines embedded these skills in courses for the major from the first through the senior year. The transferable skills that we focused on include critical thinking and problem solving; effective writing; technology competency; effective oral communication; quantitative reasoning, library and information literacy; and, moral reasoning. Each competency growth plan outlines how students will develop these skills year-by-year and course-by-course. In this way, faculty designed the curriculum as a matrix of subject matter and skill development integrated into the same courses, with increasing expectations for students' knowledge and abilities as they progress through the college experience.

The second major strategy that we use to enhance curricular coherence and the development of intentional learners is the Sophomore/Junior Diagnostic Project. Each major has designed a project that is related to its field of study and that takes place in a required course; the project enables faculty to discern the likelihood of success in the major as well as the student's attainment of the transferable skills of liberal learning developed in the Core. A recent faculty survey showed that they found this strategy to be especially effective in providing feedback to students on their strengths and weaknesses so that students might enjoy a greater likelihood of success in the careers to which they aspire. Should weaknesses be identified, students are referred to the Learning Skills Center or the Office of Career Planning and Placement for help in overcoming these deficiencies.

A third strategy is the combination of departments developing Goals for the Major along with the Senior Integrated Assessment. Each department is asked to articulate the goals for the major, that is, what students in their field should be able to know and be able to do by the time they graduate. How well these goals have been met can be determined by the student's performance on the senior integrated assessment. These projects are embedded in a senior capstone course and are designed to reflect the student's mastery of the subject matter and methodology of the discipline as well as sophisticated levels of competence in the transferable skills of liberal learning.

Each of these strategies has enlivened the teaching and learning processes at King's College. By using these strategies the faculty has become more learner-centered rather than instructor-oriented (Barr and Tagg 1995). They are in a continual process of revising their expectations and course work based on the performance of previous classes of students. Project teams for the core curriculum learn what worked and what did not—and revise the core accordingly. Faculty in the majors learn from the sophomore/junior diagnostic project what students are able to do upon entering the major, and from the senior level integrated assessment, what students about to graduate know and are able to do. Students thereby receive the benefits of a curriculum that is revised to enhance their learning and abilities as liberally educated persons. Thus, the academic enterprise is constantly transformed and improved.

In other ways as well, the transformation of the academic enterprise continues at King's College. As the Greater Expectations Report notes, "Complex capacities like creativity and reflection are honed as students encounter knowledge in new contexts and open-ended or unscripted problems" (32). At King's we thrive on such challenges as faculty and students have enthusiastically embraced problem-based learning (PBL) and community-based learning (CBL). For example, in an environmental studies course, students will redirect and stabilize a stream bank, solving the problem of its interruption by erosion. As to community-based learning, a recently hired Spanish professor has coordinated a project in which her students translate necessary government documents from English to Spanish for the use of non-English speaking residents.

Besides PBL and CBL, the faculty at King's are supported in their initiatives to include students in their scholarly research. The psychology, neuroscience, biology, political science, marketing and criminal justice departments are replete with examples of actively involving students in faculty research. These projects often result in student presentations at conferences and publications in scholarly journals, a great opportunity for students to actively participate in original research that adds to disciplinary knowledge.

Finally, King's College has devoted financial resources to support faculty in their efforts to innovate curriculum and teaching strategies that enhance student learning opportunities. The faculty have initiated a Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), an idea developed at AAC&U's first Institute on Campus Leadership for Sustainable Innovation.

In all of our efforts to sustain faculty innovation, to enhance teaching and learning strategies, and to transform undergraduate education, we have been supported by senior administration, a recognition of the need for a wide variety of faculty development opportunities, an acceptance of the advantage of both internal and external learning opportunities, and the recognition given by financial and other forms of appreciation for faculty innovation. These, combined with a structure of internal communication to convey what is and is not working, the acceptance of new forms of teaching and learning, are strategies that have worked to transform King's College from a teacher-oriented to a student-oriented learning culture.


Jean O'Brien is professor of psychology and Edmund Napieralski is associate academic vice president at King's College


Works Cited

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2002. Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Barr, Robert and John Tagg,. 1995. "From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education". Change, November/December.

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