Saturday, August 27, 2011


I've mentioned a few times (see here) the ongoing work of UNC Asheville's relatively new Curriculum Review Task Force, on which I'm serving as "point person" for the Curricular Sustainability Subgroup. We've spent the summer reviewing the structure of our own curriculum, breaking it down into little bits and comparing those bits with the corresponding bits of other schools' curricula.

The first component we examined were the majors and degree programs, writ large. After finding data that suggest these programs are considerably more prescriptive (in terms of the specificity of courses required) and burdensome (in terms of the number of courses required), we compared several of the most prescriptive and burdensome programs with cognate programs at several peer institutions, including both a few other COPLAC schools and a few institutions which serve as "role models" in one way or another (Bates College and Davidson College, among others). Our initial findings were confirmed: with a profusion of highly-specialized concentrations whose completion requires, on average, a relatively hefty amount of coursework, our programs are byzantine beasts, looking more like miniature graduate programs in some regards than the sort of programs you'd expect to find at a liberal arts institution. Notably, these findings suggest that those who place the blame for high times-to-graduation on the ILS program (of whom there are many at UNCA, especially among the old guard) are at least in part misguided; the majors are just as much to blame as the general education program.

We've just begun to examine the ILS program, drawing on data produced over the last several years (from NSSE, from perceptions surveys conducted on our faculty, etc.) in order to understand what parts of the program are working and what parts need work. Although there's more data-digging to be done, my hunch is that we're merely going to end up corroborating all of the findings made in the past few years: the intensive programs are doing quite well, and though the Humanities program, the first-year and transfer seminars, and a few other less-controversial components of ILS may need a little tweaking, it's the ILS clusters that'll need to be overhauled.

Several weeks ago my colleague Tyrone, a member of my Curricular Sustainability Subgroup, noted in a meeting that we may do well to consider our curricular issues from the point of view of "choice architecture," the art of arranging options for people in ways that help them make decisions more easily and to greater benefit. To learn more, Tyrone recommended the book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness by Richard J. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), which I picked up at our library a couple of days back. I'm about halfway through, and so far it's proving an interesting and enlightening read. It's full of the sort of observation that makes one think "well, duh, that's obvious" about something one likely wouldn't have thought of oneself. Example: how dumb is it to arrange the range elements in a square on a stovetop, while the knobs that control them are almost invariably organized in a row (pp. 83-4)? A better choice architecture would arrange to place both the elements and their respective knobs in similar geometric configurations.

To the matter of ILS clusters, how might close attention to choice architecture help us craft a more easily-navigable system of courses which still ensures that students enjoy a meaningfully integrative interdisciplinary learning experience? Right out of the book, we might keep in mind the following points:

We should expect students to err in their choices, and design our system so that those errors won't prove catastrophic. Example: the cluster program should be flexible enough for students to plug in a single missing course at the last minute if they've let it slip their minds until then.

We should give students feedback on the choices they've made in completing their course requirements. Example: our advising software DegPar goes a long way in this regard, letting students know what requirements remain to be completed at any given time. If we move toward a system in which students design their own interdisciplinary clusters (as we've discussed doing several times now), perhaps we can require students to craft reflective essays after each prospective cluster course is completed, ensuring that they understand the ways in which the courses interrelate.

We should help students produce "mappings" which help students translate the complex benefits of their choices into more easily understood terms. Example: in a sense, we do this already by presenting several prepackaged cluster options to our students; "complete any one of these clusters," we tell them, "and you're apt to receive a meaningful integrative learning experience." For instance, the title "The Science and Politics of Human Health and Illness" makes it clear that the contents of the cluster so named will give students a multifaceted perspective on issues related to health and wellness: though the courses may be complex and challenging, the cluster's name is an easy index that guides interested students to complete that particular cluster without having first to complete every course the cluster contains.

More to come on this matter. I do recommend Nudge; it's an easy read, but a useful one.

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