What does it mean to offer students a curriculum as opposed to a series of related courses? How does a program, major, or minor encourage students to make meaningful connections between courses so that they develop strong professional identities? I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions. I used to teach at a larger, public university where students tended to take an “à la carte approach” to completing a program of study. Recently I started teaching at a smaller, liberal arts college, and here students follow a more prescribed sequence of courses, and they’re required to make connections between courses. Teaching here, I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily the sequence of the courses (which our students mostly take in cohort groups) that matters most—although that does add program coherence—rather, it is the intentionality with which instructors provide opportunities for students to make meaningful connections between their courses. In our department, courses are seen as comprising a curriculum.
Granted, there were many wonderful, dedicated professors and hardworking, intelligent students at my previous university who did make meaningful connections between courses, but as a general rule there wasn’t much communication about how courses formed a curriculum. In his book Designing the School Curriculum, P. Hlebowitsh defines curriculum as “the deliberate, thoughtful and conscious design of the totality of the school experience in the interests of producing an educational effect.” In my new teaching venue I have discovered that there are some fairly straightforward things professors can do that turn our courses into a curriculum. Yes, some of these are easier to implement at smaller institutions; however, my colleagues and I would argue that these strategies could also be adopted at larger institutions.
The first strategy we use is to provide our students with a set of questions that guide their thinking. These questions may appear on the course syllabus, but they don’t stay there. As students move from course to course through our program, they are continuously asked to think about these questions in light of new content and experiences. The questions help students see how the content in each course addresses fundamental issues in the discipline and how each course contributes to a broader disciplinary understanding. We believe this enables students to leave our program with a clear sense of professional identity.
We also require students to make connections between classes by having them work on an assignment throughout the initial sequence of three courses. This major assignment, called the Teaching Story, is started in the first course and then revisited in the next two. The assignment encourages students to think deeply about the guiding questions and to make sense of them within the framework of their shared experiences. Every time they revisit the assignment, the content in those subsequent courses encourages them to look at it with fresh eyes and renewed purpose.
We also make our courses more connected by assigning the same texts in more than one course. Rather than selling back the text when a course ends, our students know that they need that same book in another course. What justifies our decision to have students reading material more than once? It’s the reason I regularly reread important works in my field—to remind myself of the ideas that have shaped the discipline, particularly as the context in which I read them changes. In our department we believe such purposeful overlapping of content encourages students to see connections and make meaning of the material at deeper levels. Just as students’ understanding of our guiding questions changes as they progress through our program, so does their understanding of the content. Furthermore, each professor brings a different interpretation of the text, so even though students are reading the same materials, they are being asked to think about them from a different perspective.
My department uses another strategy that I found extremely helpful. All new faculty have a reduced teaching load their first term here, and that allowed me time to sit in on the first and last courses in our program’s sequence. I learned firsthand exactly what students were learning in the course prior to mine and what they were expected to know, do, and become right before graduation. I could have just read those course syllabi, but sitting in a colleague’s course is a much more powerful way to learn. I have grown tremendously from the opportunity to watch my colleagues teach, and I now design my courses knowing how they teach and what they teach.
I asked my students how they thought courses in the program were connected and was a bit surprised by their responses. They mentioned things I felt were less obvious. For example, several students pointed out that we used similar teaching methods in our courses. I suspect we do because we mostly share a philosophy of education in the department. We feel that openly discussing what it means to teach and learn among all faculty can be a healthy way to examine how and why we do what we do in our classrooms. This leads to overlap between both content and pedagogy in our classes.
Much has been written about student engagement, active learning, and high-impact instructional practices. These are desired experiences in the college classroom, and it is easy to endorse them as a pedagogical movement, which many faculty do. Even though reflecting on one’s own courses and teaching practices is critical, it is insufficient. Unless we examine how our courses fit together to create a curriculum and purposefully design experiences to require our students to see these connections, course silos remain intact.
Michael Scarlett is an assistant professor of education at Augustana College.