Transforming a Core Curriculum-And Minimizing the Battle Scars

By Dwyer, Patricia M. | Liberal Education, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Transforming a Core Curriculum-And Minimizing the Battle Scars


Dwyer, Patricia M., Liberal Education


It is notoriously difficult to change a core curriculum. As credit hours and course requirements are revised, politics quickly come into play and turf battles arise to create obstacles. In my experience, there are two default approaches to curricular change. The first is simply to "tweak" an existing core-renaming a few courses here and there, or sequencing them differently, but keeping the curriculum essentially the same. The second default approach is for the president or the vice president for academic affairs to assign a committee or task force to explore current trends, attend conferences, and develop a curriculum for the faculty to review and, ultimately, approve- or, at least, that's the plan. More often than not, two or more years of committee work culminate in a proposal that the faculty does not support; after all, they haven't attended the conferences, listened to the speakers, or discussed the committee's innovative ideas. Accordingly, the faculty object to the proposed curriculum on the grounds that it would involve too many changes, or that it does not include the right mix of courses, or that it is not financially feasible, or that they like their courses the way they are.

Between 2010 and 2013, the core curriculum at Wesley College was successfully transformed through an entirely different process-a process that left all involved with far fewer battle scars than typically result from major curricular change efforts.1 Wesley is a Methodist-affiliated four-year college in Dover, Delaware, with a total enrollment of approximately 1,500 students, high percentages of whom are first-generation students and students of color, and approximately eighty faculty members. The new core, which was fully implemented in 2014, replaced a curriculum that had been in place for more than twenty years.2 Rather than taking either of the default approaches identified above, we approached the revision of the core through a process that can best be understood by applying the eight-steps for leading change devised by John P. Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, emeritus, at the Harvard Business School.3

Step 1: Create a sense of urgency

When a new strategic plan for the college was launched in 2008, revision of the core curriculum was identified as a prominent goal. The following year, a Middle States accreditation visit resulted in a strong suggestion to revise the core and align it with student learning outcomes. Both factors provided the urgency needed to start a conversation about a change to the core.

As it stood at the time, Wesley's core curriculum offered students a plethora of choices under an umbrella made up of five thematic strands. To fulfill core requirements, students could opt for course choices throughout their college careers that were all at the one hundred level, with the single exception of a literature course at the two hundred level. There was no clear development of skills, knowledge, or dispositions over time, and no real sense of how the curriculum helped shape a Wesley graduate. Previous attempts to change the curriculum were driven by the administration with no solid participation from the faculty. Perhaps inevitably, these efforts did not result in lasting curricular change.

When I arrived as the new vice president for academic affairs in the spring of 2009, I knew that reforming the core would be a major task on my plate. But the prospect excited and challenged me. Before going to Wesley, I had read an article in Liberal Education about a campus community that had taken a fresh approach to changing a core curriculum.4 Instead of creating the ubiquitous committee, campus leaders decided to bring experts to campus so that everyone could hear the latest on trends in general education. Faculty were invited to participate, but only as facilitators of the process, not as generators of content. In the article, the authors describe energetic conversations among all campus constituencies about curriculum and pedagogy, and while I thought that might be too much to ask, this approach made perfect sense to me. …

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