Core Curriculum External Report 2010

University of Nevada, Reno
Core Curriculum Review
External Review Team Report
March 16, 2010

 

Rita Kean, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Chair

Paul Gaston, Trustees Professor, Kent State University

Fabio Milner, Director, Mathematics for STEM Education,  Arizona State University

Joseph Wood,  Provost, University of Baltimore

Introduction

Our four-member team conducted a review of the University of Nevada, Reno’s undergraduate Core Curriculum Program on February 25 and 26, 2010.  We met with the Provost, Vice Provost, Vice Provost for Research, Deans and representatives of various colleges, the Director of the Core Curriculum Program, the Core Curriculum Board, faculty members, advisors, and students.  We found everyone with whom we met constructively engaged in thinking about the University’s commitment to students through its program in general education.

The review team applauds the senior administration for its interest and understanding of the need for review of the Core Curriculum Program. The very fact of undertaking a review of this nature is a most positive and laudable statement about the Core and the University. We especially commend the Core Curriculum Program Director, Dr. Paul Neill, for his leadership of the Core Curriculum Program and, in particular, his commitment to the program and to fostering collegiality among the members of the Core Board.

Our report is organized in three parts. First, we provide our assessment of the Core Curriculum Program strengths, followed by observations and suggestions for faculty members and the administration to consider for program improvement. Second, we address strengths of the Core Curriculum elements and share our observations and considerations for each. In the third part of the report, as we conclude our observations, we offer the suggestion that the University regard this review as a possible point of departure for a thorough reconsideration of how it exercises its commitment to general education.

All said, we believe it is time for a campus-wide discussion about the purpose and intent of the CCP, beginning with the question of what knowledge, literacies, and competencies should define a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno. Discussion could identify student learning outcomes and overarching literacies across the curriculum that would characterize a UNR graduate, rather than on specific disciplines and courses. We will suggest rather than recommend this conversation because only the University can judge when circumstances are appropriate. But we believe that there are indicators that such an undertaking might be timely, and we will offer them for your consideration.

 

I.  Review of Core Curriculum Program

As intended, the Core Curriculum Program (CCP) emphasizes the introduction and reinforcement of foundational skills in written and oral communication and quantitative literacy, ways of knowing, and certain educational values identified by the faculty. The CCP is both a vertical and horizontal program in that students enroll in lower level foundations core courses, an upper level diversity course, and two senior capstone courses designed to integrate knowledge and literacies[1] with their major. 

 

A. Strengths of the Core Curriculum Program (CCP)

  • The CCP learning objectives, which have developed over time, suggest creative thinking about student learning and have resulted in resourceful approaches to curricular design.
  • Sequencing of courses, course pre-requisites, and co-requisites are all positive elements of the Core.
  • Establishment of directives and guidelines to ensure a degree of uniformity of content and assessment in large-enrollment mathematics courses is also very positive.
  • The Core Curriculum Writing Program is very strong and an exemplar of an intentional component of the Core.
  • Prescribed core humanities courses and required capstone courses are positive features of the CCP.  The capstone courses add verticality to the curriculum in two respects:  first, by offering an opportunity for synthesis towards the end of the course of study, and second, by maintaining expectations of learning offered in the early CCP offerings.
  • The Core Board comprised of faculty members and student representatives is committed and collegial.

 

B. Observations and Considerations of the Core Curriculum Program (CCP)

1.  Purpose and quality.

  • We had difficulty gaining a coherent understanding as to the purposes of the CCP from the institutional, collegiate, program, course, and student perspectives.  For some members of the university community, the term “core” implies more insularity than the term “general education.”  The CCP could be more intentional, coherent and cohesive.
  • Literacies such as ethics and ethical behavior are missing among the overarching objectives of the CCP.  Other literacies not in the present core include communicating in a foreign language, verbal literacies, and use and processing of digital information.  This observation suggests a need for the faculty to review the objectives of the Core in terms of literacies.
  • The Diversity and Capstone requirements represent important, distinctive elements in the Core. However, proliferation of options over time suggests that the requirements have become far more distributive than focused, far more a cafeteria of options within the curriculum than components of a genuine core. With sufficient advising, the breadth of alternatives would not necessarily weigh against curricular coherence, but because students report difficulty in gaining access to advisors following the first year, the curricular spread should be regarded as a matter of concern.
  • The number of required credit hours to complete the CCP ranges from 33 to 42, depending upon the college and program. Some people believe the CCP requires too many credit hours, and there is little understanding about how much core can be covered within the major degree program. Transfer students, especially, may not be adequately accommodated.  The University should host conversations with faculty (particularly in Business and Engineering) to respond to the sense that many students have too many credits required by the core within the total number of credits needed for a degree.

 

2.  Student learning outcomes

  • Learning outcomes do not always represent student learning objectives, nor are they in most instances measurable. Learning outcomes statements should very nearly demand the questions that will measure their accomplishment.
  • Student learning outcomes need careful thought and development and should be programmatic, not just course-based. 
  • Key questions include, “what do you want students to know, be able to demonstrate that they know and, finally, how do you know that the students know?” To be able to answer these questions will be the mark of real intentionality in the program.

 

3.  Assessment

  • The very fact that the self-study segregates assessment from discussion of the core and its elements suggests assessment may not presently be of central value to the CCP. 
  • There is not a clear understanding or articulation of appropriate assessment methods and how to use assessment information.
  • Most assessment is conducted at the course level and does not translate to the core curriculum program level and institutional level. 
  • Students’ achievement of core objectives can be realistically determined holistically only through a formative assessment that comprises both horizontal and vertical integration, e.g. via carefully designed capstone courses or a Bachelor’s Thesis.
  • Program success cannot be evaluated just from satisfaction surveys. Some deliberate, objective in-house evaluation of students’ achievement of program objectives should be put in place (e.g. in the capstone courses).
  • Faculty members do not generally understand the value of assessment and how it can be used to improve student learning outcomes and its impact on student success, such as in the form of persistence and graduation rates. Many faculty members see assessment as a compliance issue rather than an opportunity for program strengthening.
  • The timing may be right for revisiting and rethinking the purposes of assessment for the Core Curriculum Program.

 

4.  Governance

  • Under the current program, courses are owned by each discipline. Such disciplinary sovereignty limits creative responses to achieving CCP objectives for student learning. Because of disciplinary sovereignty, the collective faculty does not exercise responsibility for the Core, except as that ownership may be exercised by the Core Board.
  • The Core Curriculum Program Director should not only coordinate the CCP, but he should also coordinate funding for program initiatives and faculty development.
  • Deans, chairs and faculty members in general should employ shared governance to initiate change and continuous improvement in the CCP through the assessment process.

 

5.  Student Issues 

  • Students report difficulty getting sufficient advising due to recent reductions in staffing.
  • Students, even those who like and appreciate the Core, report uncertainty about the Core, its purpose, the integration of its elements, and how to navigate it. 
  • Both students and faculty members raised concerns about equivalency issues for transfer students, especially for students transferring in from out of state.
  • Faculty members express concern about enforcement of sequencing and prerequisites, e.g., math to natural science and writing to core humanities. The concern is how to get students through in a timely fashion without just worrying about checking off requirements. 

 

II.  Review of Core Curriculum Components

A.  Core Writing Component. The two major outcomes of the Core Writing Component (CWC) are 1) students will compose and communicate effectively in a range of media for a variety of rhetorical and creative purposes, and 2) students will demonstrate ability to frame and analyze a problem, find and interpret relevant information, develop and evaluate possible solutions, well grounded conclusions, craft appropriate argument, report, application, other expressions of inquiry.  Students are required to enroll in English 101 and English 102.  Students may be exempt from English 101, but English 102 is a gateway course serving as a prerequisite for the Core Humanities sequence and the Capstone course.

 

 Strengths

  • The CWC is well-designed, time-tested, and effective.
  • The CWC benefits from good leadership, continued assessment, and courses taught mainly by tenured faculty.  Its assessment methods are the most developed of any of the Core Curriculum Program components. 

 

Observations and Considerations

  • A withdrawal of support for writing-across-the-curriculum may have sent the messages that 1) teaching writing is the responsibility of the English Department, and 2) students will not be called upon to reinforce writing throughout their college program.
  • Concerns about the effect on learning from increasing class size from 22 to 24 and Nevada’s decision to lower the ACT Combined English/Writing score from 21 to 18 for requiring remedial writing are legitimate concerns. 
  • Increased reliance on LOA and fixed-term instructors burdens the administration of the CWC and makes it more difficult to keep high quality instructors in the large numbers needed.

 

B.  Core Mathematics Component.  Students select core courses in mathematics based upon their level of quantitative literacy and requirements of the major.  Placement into core mathematics courses depends upon the student’s ACT score and Accuplacer test score.

 

Strengths

  • Students have an option to fulfill the core mathematics requirement via course(s) that are not algebra-based.

 

Observations and Considerations

  • Mathematics and science faculty are concerned that the level of the Core Mathematics requirement does not align with college-level but, rather with high school-level instruction.  (For Math 120 this concern will soon become a legal one because adoption of Common Core Standards in Mathematics by the State of Nevada means that almost all the content of MATH 120 will become a requirement for graduation from high school.)
  • Evidence of mathematical thinking should not derive solely from course grades, which can be quite independent of students’ analytic ability and creativity in problem solving or conceptual understanding.

 

C. Core Natural Science Component.  The purpose of the Natural Science core courses is to provide students the opportunity to gather and analyze data in a laboratory setting and continue to develop quantitative and critical thinking literacies.

 

Observations and Considerations

  • There is no effective connection between the math and natural science components as there is between the core writing and humanities components. Stakeholders do not understand the contribution of courses or components to the CCP objectives.
  • The difference between category A and category B core sciences courses has been lost. That difference should be clearly defined or done away with.
  • Establishment of an integrative laboratory experience (as presently being discussed by the Natural Science subcommittee) could be enormously beneficial to students and provide for a natural way to assess achievement of Core objectives.

 

D. Core Social Sciences Component.  The purpose of the core social science courses is to provide students with tools for analyzing human actions; to understand and apply scientific approaches in the study of contemporary individual and social issues and problems and in their own lives; and to reinforce development of critical thinking, writing, and quantitative skills.

 

Observations and Considerations

  • Faculty members in the social sciences do not have a good understanding of the Core Curriculum and believe students do not either. Junior faculty members do not know how their courses fit in the larger curriculum—what the link is between social science courses and the Core, and course syllabi do not necessarily clarify that a course is part of the Social Science Core.
  • Social science faculty need to engage in a conversation about the objectives of the core and how the social sciences can best contribute to its success.  For instance, present social science objectives do not address qualitative approaches in the social sciences.
  • Assessment of student learning outcomes and methods used to assess are unclear and need attention.

 

E.  Core Fine Arts Component.  The purpose of the Core Fine Arts is to introduce students to new and different ways of thinking through the arts. 

 

Strengths

  • The Fine Arts faculties recognize the value of the core curriculum in that ‘if not for the core curriculum, students would not think of the arts.”
  • The interdisciplinary course, SOTA 101. Introduction to the Arts, is a unique component of the fine arts core. Its value may be compromised, however, by the uncertainty of long-term support for the course.
  • Faculty members realize the need for appropriate assessment measures of student learning outcomes and are working closely with the University Assessment Office.

 

Observations and Considerations

  • The CCP self-study is not clear as to intended student learning outcomes or methods for assessment; however, faculty members did address these concerns in conversation.
  • Student demand for courses is unmet due to space constraints and lack of faculty members to teach the arts core curriculum. Hiring additional faculty members to teach in the program is the priority of the college rather than additional space.
  • Faculty members are open to experimentation with an interdisciplinary approach in the arts core, as exemplified in the SOTA 101 course.  Maintaining and expanding this effort would require a dedicated course coordinator and commitment from faculty outside the Fine Arts.

 

F. Core Humanities Sequence.  Students are required to complete the three-semester Core Humanities Sequence once they have completed ENG 102, the prerequisite.

 

Strengths

  • Faculty members who teach in the program appear to have high regard for program evolution and appreciate its accomplishments.
  • Class size is limited to 22 students with a prescribed format of 2 hours of lecture and 1 hour of discussion.
  • Some students expressed considerable enthusiasm for the humanities core.

 

Observations and Considerations

  • The core humanities course sequence appears too Western-centric and could have much more diversity embedded in it; some students, though, indicate that faculty members teaching the core do reference diversity in the course.
  • Nothing required includes a global perspective.
  • Non-humanities faculty members view the humanities core as make-work.
  • Students do not always understand the purpose of the core sequence. Many in-state transfer students have already met the core sequence at the community college; however, for some out of state transfer students, this core sequencing increases their time to graduation.
  • Orientation is needed for teaching core humanities courses and for academic advisors who need to respond to student questions about the purpose and sequencing of the humanities core courses.
  • The core humanities curriculum should be viewed as a positive experience and a model for how other core components could develop.

 

G. Core Diversity Component.  Students are required to complete one three-hour Core Diversity course at the 200 level or above.  Core Diversity Courses must address non-western culture(s) or groups traditionally excluded within western culture. Writing is reinforced. The Core Diversity subcommittee is developing new criteria and an assessment rubric for this core component.

 

Strengths

  • Faculty members are very engaged in working on the definition and purpose of the diversity core requirement.
  • Interest in diversity courses has spawned or been spawned by clusters of courses leading to programs, such as Basque Studies or Women and Gender Studies

 

Observations and Considerations.  

  • Diversity is not treated in a sufficiently purposeful fashion in some courses and appears in some courses only by implication.
  • Distinction is inadequately made between differences within the dominant culture on the one hand and differences with non-western culture on the other. Both are important elements of a core curriculum, but they are not the same thing. 
  • Diversity courses could offer a unique opportunity for co-curricular involvement and for service learning in the curriculum.
  • The diversity requirement is met through a separate course and not embedded and reinforced throughout the core curriculum.
  • Interest in diversity courses appears not to have spawned clusters of courses in all of the areas of diversity in Nevada, such as the study of Native American culture. 

 

H. Core Capstone Component.  The purpose of the core capstone courses is to provide a senior student experience using an integrative approach.

 

Strengths

  • The purpose of the capstones is to integrate and build upon knowledge and skills.
  • That UNR requires two capstones is unique among our experience with general education.

 

Observations and Considerations

  • In some fashion, the capstones have, to quote a faculty member, “lost their way,” this despite their comparative success. 
  • There is not sufficient recognition of the required integrative quality of the capstones.
  • The Core Capstone courses appear to be too major-oriented in contrast to the original interdisciplinary intent.
  • In practice, some intent has been eroded because caps have been raised as high as 50 students in at least one capstone course. 
  • Faculty members must develop a common understanding of the capstone courses; a thorough review of the Core Curriculum could lead to a redefinition and strengthening of this valuable program element.

 

III. Conclusions and Considerations.

We conclude with a well-intended suggestion, namely, that the University’s faculty considers whether a thorough reconception of its approach to general education might not be appropriate. Throughout our review we observed symptoms characteristic of programs that deserve such review, even as we have also observed healthy, creative, even exemplary elements of the UNR Core Curriculum Program. But the current core program has been in place for 20 years, a period of dramatic evolution in student demographics, in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, and in the understanding of what general and liberal education can and should provide for students. A shift in emphasis consistent with the national conversation about the meaning of liberal education from “what is taught” to “what is learned” might itself justify review of a program in which much instruction continues to be provided through lecture. The major question to address is what literacies the faculty at UNR wants for its baccalaureate degree students.  For instance, if, consistent with the institutional mission, the UNR faculty wants its students to be competitive at an international level, then addressing the need for more effective science and mathematics learning must become an imperative. The same can be said for learning in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. If diversity really is a shared educational value, then the faculty collectively must ensure that its courses address diversity comprehensively. And if integration in capstones is also an education value, the faculty must attend to this. 

 

We can offer the following general observations to guide your conversation:

  • UNR’s present core curriculum is less of a core than its title would suggest.  As one team member put it, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
  • Efforts to initiate discussion of underlying principles of the CCP in almost every instance defaulted to discussion of courses, how they have evolved, what they offer, how well they are received. Expected student literacies and learning outcomes rarely arose as an unprompted subject of discussion. Some entire conversations concluded without mention of students and what they learned or did not learn.
  • Accretion without “pruning” inevitably leads to curricular proliferation. One member of the Core Board, when asked whether the Board ever recommended courses for discontinuation, responded, “When you’re in, you’re in.”
  • Budget challenges are cited as justification to delay thorough review rather than as a possible prompt for such review. Budget challenges might instead offer an opportunity for more purposeful and effective re-conceptualization of the Core.
  • Many students view the current Core Curriculum as an obstacle to be surmounted or circumvented, not as a welcome opportunity to define themselves as learners in higher education.

 

In summary, the UNR faculty should seriously consider employing a more systematic effort than it has in the past to engage students and faculty in owning the Core Curriculum Program and being responsible for its success. That the University has just recently undertaken academic reorganization offers an opportunity to review the CCP and introduce creative, responsive, and effective student-learning centered approaches to a core general education curriculum. In doing so, the faculty should also,

  • Tie overall curricular development to assessment and vice versa, as opposed to assessment on a course-by-course basis.
  • Require that all core-eligible course syllabi carry reference to the Core Curriculum and the place of the course in the overall Core Curriculum, not just the Core element.
  • Require routine and regular orientation for teaching core-eligible courses.
  • Engage advisers in orientation to Core Curriculum.
  • Link program reviews at the degree program/department level to the core; include in reviews what the program does to support the Core Curriculum and what the Core Curriculum does to support the degree program.
  • Link core courses from different core components so that students have an option to participate in an inclusive experience that may help make their experience one in which the whole is greater than sum of the parts.

We offer these observations in the spirit of suggestion rather than recommendation because only the University can determine when such reconsideration would be consistent with its priorities and its challenges. But from our perspective, much might be gained through a reconsideration that would inform itself regarding best practices, approach desired student learning outcomes ab ovo, and only then consider what structures, courses, support services, and co-curricular offerings might be leveraged to accomplish those outcomes. Such an approach would capture a vision that would not have been possible in 1990. It would focus on the needs of students, and it would ask questions that should be asked.


[1] We use the word literacies in this report as objectives of the program, not to be understood just as a list of skills but rather as broader and deeper syntheses of knowledge and skills that should be pervasive across the curriculum.

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