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W&M faculty approve new general education curriculum

  • Curriculum
    Curriculum  The Faculty of Arts & Sciences voted in favor of new general education requirements for the undergraduate program at the College of William & Mary.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Faculty Affirm, Strengthen the College's Liberal Arts Approach

At their Dec. 12 meeting, the Faculty of Arts & Sciences voted in favor of new general education requirements for the undergraduate program at the College of William & Mary. The vote caps a year-long process of faculty deliberation and refinement following a Feb. 5, 2013 vote to adopt a new framework and guiding principles.

As mandated by the state of Virginia, the general education requirements comprise about one quarter of the 120 credits needed for the undergraduate degree. They are taken by all undergraduate students alongside the courses required for majors and elective courses that round out their academic program. The College's "gen ed" requirements were last reviewed and revised by the faculty in 1993. The other three quarters of the W&M curriculum -- requirements for individual majors and electives -- were not part of the faculty review.

Called the College Curriculum (COLL), the new general education curriculum systematically links all four undergraduate years at William & Mary from start to finish. Previously, students completed a checklist of general education requirements in no particular order. Many of those requirements were fulfilled before a student arrived at W&M by credits earned in secondary school or at another institution of higher education. The revised general education courses provide an improved sequence designed by W&M faculty to emphasize connections across the liberal arts.

The COLL curriculum will provide students a common W&M experience and a more integrated introduction to the liberal arts, said Kate Conley, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences. Each year draws on the foundational knowledge and skills gained in the previous year as students move into their majors and gain a wider liberal arts perspective on the world, she added.

"Our faculty have moved carefully, precisely, and boldly to design a liberal arts curriculum that's right for our time and looks to the future,” Conley said. “This curriculum ensures that each student leaves William & Mary able to think deeply and critically and to make new connections between various kinds of knowledge – the best kind of preparation for their future success. I congratulate the faculty on their fine work.”

Innovations in the new curriculum

By design, the new general education curriculum extends across all four undergraduate years, with each year building toward an integrated liberal arts education. The new curriculum emphasizes inquiry (how to frame questions, reason, create, solve problems) and writing and other forms of communication throughout all four years.

In the 1993 curriculum, courses originated in departments and programs and were designated as satisfying one of the GER content areas (1, 2a, 2b, 3, 4a, 4b, 4c, 5, 6, or 7). The new framework turns that around: COLL (Gen Ed) courses carry explicit learning expectations and can be cross-listed back to departments and programs.

Some courses are conceived in an entirely new way. COLL 200 courses, for example, are anchored in a "knowledge domain" (one of three defined areas of knowledge) and intentionally look outward to one or both of the other knowledge domains. Interdisciplinarity is thus built into the structure of the course itself.

For instance, a current general education course in 18th-century American history, which now concentrates on primary historical sources, might be adapted into a new COLL 200 course by drawing in addition on geological, marine science, or epidemiological studies to explore how the environment affected the communities of Tidewater Virginia.  The history professor teaching the course would consult with his or her scientific peers on campus, and the history students would be introduced to different questions, materials, and methods drawing on those other disciplines.

Alongside the new curriculum are new and enhanced resources to provide a self-sustaining cycle of innovation and support for general education. A new Center for the Liberal Arts, for example, consists of rotating Faculty Fellows charged with helping to organize and infuse content, integration, and creativity throughout the general education curriculum. The first cohort of five Faculty Fellows will begin work in January 2014.

Each Faculty Fellow will design and teach a new COLL course, and they will help their faculty colleagues incorporate their research and scholarship into their own general education courses. The Fellows will also help to guide the current faculty advising system to support students, and help decide how best to formulate and provide academic support to students outside the classroom (e.g., the current Writing Resources Center and the proposed Quantitative Resources Center).

A quintessential William & Mary approach

The curriculum review was a result of the strategic planning process, which assessed William & Mary’s position as a leading liberal arts university. In 2010, Provost Michael R. Halleran charged the deans of Arts & Sciences, business and education to undertake a curriculum review that should “above all else focus on developing the most vibrant and exciting liberal arts education for our students, leveraging core values with our distinctive attributes."

That charge was followed with two years of research, design, and faculty conversations led by an appointed Curriculum Review Steering Committee. In Fall 2012 that group turned its proposed curriculum over to the elected Educational Policy Committee (EPC), which has oversight of the general education requirements. After convening various working groups to vet each part of the proposed curriculum, the EPC led the year-long discussion and refinement by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

"The faculty steering committee that initiated our review could have tinkered around the edges and suggested minor revisions to our 20-year-old general curriculum," said Lu Ann Homza, A&S Dean for Educational Policy, whose portfolio includes the general education requirements. "Instead they proposed an entirely new framework with a uniquely William & Mary approach."

The framework is designed to be both robust and flexible, Homza said. It brings the liberal arts to the center of the overall curriculum and challenges faculty members to bring their best work to the general education courses taken by all undergraduate students.

"This is a game-changer," said Homza. "It's a very exciting time to be a faculty member at William & Mary."

Making the switch

Academic departments and programs already have been reviewing their course offerings in relation to the new curriculum, looking at possible changes in courses that already exist, new courses, and courses that will no longer be needed. That planning ramps up in Spring 2014 with more formal assessments conducted with the A&S Dean's Office. Simultaneously, Provost Halleran will join President Taylor Reveley in a full review of the proposed curriculum, including projected costs.

There will be some development and transition costs, Halleran said, as faculty design and implement the new courses, and some modest increased permanent costs in expanding the engaged learning model that characterizes a W&M education. Now that faculty have approved the new curriculum, the A&S Dean’s Office will conduct a formal assessment of temporary costs, associated costs such as increased faculty support and new, direct costs.

“From what I've seen so far, those costs appear to be reasonable and appropriate,” said Halleran, adding the College will support the new curriculum through a combination of resources, including reallocation of existing funds, budget priorities through W&M’s annual strategic planning process and private donations.

"Our plan is to pilot new COLL 100- and 200-level courses as early as Fall 2014," said John Griffin, Dean of Undergraduate Studies. "In Fall 2015 we expect to launch the new curriculum with that year's entering freshman class."

The curriculum will be implemented over four years, with current students graduating under the existing general education requirements, Griffin said. This, he added, allows for a manageable transition and an opportunity to secure new funding.

The total number of credits required for a bachelor's degree remains unchanged (120), and the number of general education credits remains about one fourth of that total (~30). So once the new curriculum is fully launched, the credits per student will be comparable to the general education curriculum now in place. Pre-college credits (e.g., AP, IB) will still be accepted but will not replace COLL courses.

Transfer students will participate in many, but not all, of the new requirements. According to Griffin, "We want them to benefit from the new curriculum as much as possible, while still completing their degrees within the usual four years."

Adapting to contemporary realities

While substantial work remains on the implementation side, President Reveley congratulated the faculty for its hard and creative efforts so far. 

“The passage of two decades between revisions of our general education requirements is quite a long time in today’s world,” Reveley said. “Much has changed since 1993 when our general education requirements were last revised. The international community has drawn much closer; interdisciplinary research, teaching and problem-solving have become much more essential; and there has been an explosive advance in many areas of knowledge. While our professors have been refreshing and tweaking their courses over the years, it was time to bring many of these ideas together in an integrated way.

“Like other institutions, colleges and universities must take contemporary realities into account if they wish to remain relevant and excellent. Thus, leading colleges and universities revisit and revise their general education requirements with some frequency.”