Core Curriculum Improves Academic Rigor, Identity, and Retention
Concordia University Irvine recently adopted a core curriculum as a way to increase academic rigor, strengthen the university’s identity, and improve student retention. In May, the university graduated its first students to experience the core. In an interview with Academic Leader, Scott Ashmon, director of the core curriculum, explained the core’s design, implementation, and outcomes.
The core uses an interdisciplinary approach to “help students cultivate an understanding of comprehensive knowledge, and what we came up with was to pair certain courses,” Ashmon says. “The reason that that’s helpful is because you don’t have to go to certain departments and disciplines and say, ‘Can we borrow your faculty to create and staff some other course that is nondisciplinary?’ Rather, we can say, ‘We want disciplinary courses because we want students to be able to think in disciplined ways.’ That’s the ideal. It’s also easier to get departments and disciplines engaging in this kind of conversation if they can do it from within their disciplines.”
Students take core courses in linked pairs—biology linked with theology, mathematics with philosophy, and history with literature. Transfer students take linked courses in philosophy and theology.
Paired courses meet back-to-back with the same cohort of students (typically 25). “Simply pairing those two classes gives students the idea that there’s a relationship between them. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but regardless of what the professors do or don’t do with the pairing, the students themselves will bring questions and ideas back and forth between the classes,” Ashmon says.
In addition to the back-to-back scheduling, professors of paired courses work together to create a cohesive experience, meeting regularly to talk about the classes and coordinate readings, activities, and assignments to ensure that “students are on the same page,” Ashmon says.
“There are various ways in which these classes are linked to help the students begin to make connections between disciplines that are sometimes held far apart,” Ashmon says.
Each pairing also holds convocations to explore common topics. Some classes use a common text. “They’ll read it, and both the classes will come at it from different disciplinary angles but still addressing the same questions. Or we might use those back-to-back time slots to create an hour-and-a-half or a two-hour conversation among those students and the two professors to discuss common questions,” Ashmon says.
For example, the core English 201 and History 201 each has its own “great questions,” but they also have common questions, such as “Who is a virtuous citizen?” They refer to that question a lot as they read and discuss the great works. In the subsequent pairing of the core English 202 and History 202, they discuss the question “What is a good society?”
The overall goal of the core is to “develop wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens, both for service to society and the Church,” Ashmon says. “The way that we then implement that in the core is by focusing on a few key elements, that the students would read great texts and talk about them, that they would hone their ability to think critically and creatively, to help them develop clear persuasive communication, to help them make connections between disciplines as well as the Christian faith, all of which would prepare them for life—not a specific vocation but the various vocations they might have in life.”
One way of measuring the outcomes of the core curriculum is through surveys that ask Likert-scale prompts such as:
- The core course challenged me to develop my critical thinking skills.
- The core course helped me become a more careful reader.
Approximately 75 percent of students agree or strongly agree that the core courses are meeting these objectives. Students are also asked to provide open-ended feedback in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the core courses. Students typically say things such as, “The class really helped me become an independent thinker.” “It got me out of my high school mentality.” “It got me to ask why something is true and how do I know?”
In addition to receiving feedback from students, faculty who do not teach in the core have noticed improvements in the students they teach. “I have heard with some frequency from colleagues who teach beyond the core that the students they’re getting now in their classes are better than they had before. Mind you, I would say that we are not recruiting a higher-academic-quality student. Where the faculty and I see the difference is that the students are being consistently exercised in certain ways in the core. For instance, one professor who had been teaching here for 25 years said, ‘This was the best batch of research papers I’ve ever had at this university.’ I’ve heard similar comments from other professors too. The students are able to ask questions more deeply, engage the material in a better way, figure out implications; just overall they’re becoming better students,” Ashmon says.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the university’s accreditor, gave the university a commendation for its core curriculum, and one WASC officer said that the core curriculum is like an honors program but for everybody.
When the core was first implemented, students enrolled without knowing about it. “A good number of students expected that we were another à la carte university, where you could take anything and everything you want. There was a little bit of grumbling about that loss of freedom,” Ashmon says.
Since then, the core has become central to the university’s “brand.” When students and parents visit campus, they talk to core professors and participate in mock or actual core courses to understand how it works.
“With the proper communication about what we’re about and why, students who come here have a better understanding of what to expect in their education and what we expect of them,” Ashmon says.
After a small dip in retention after implementing the core curriculum without proper communication about it, retention rates have increased by about 6 percent. “There are other factors involved in that, but undoubtedly it’s partly connected to what we’re doing with the core,” Ashmon says.
Building on community
The core curriculum was developed and implemented in three years, a relatively short time in higher education. Ashmon attributes the ability to develop the core curriculum so quickly in part to the underlying culture of the university. Concordia University Irvine has a relatively small number of full-time faculty members—approximately 120. “The community that the core curriculum needed was already kind of there. There has been a long-standing relationship between the biology professors and the theology professors,” Ashmon says.
However, having good relationships across departments does not guarantee that the disciplines would work together effectively. That required “using our academic freedom in common,” Ashmon says. “We decided we wanted to work together for the good of the curriculum, for the good of the students. We decided that we needed to work together regularly and frequently.”
The core curriculum committee had representatives from the various disciplines who talked about what the core would look like. Ashmon talked with people all over campus, including staff from the provost’s office, advising, admissions, advancement, and athletics “to get their input and allay their fears, to explain the core and reexplain it.”
Asked to offer advice to other institutions looking to develop a core curriculum, Ashmon said there are three questions to consider:
- Can you use your academic freedom collectively? “There is such a push to use academic freedom in ever-more individualized and specialized ways, so that you see regularly at large universities that if they want to get professors to teach at the freshman level they have to let them teach whatever specialty course they want to teach; otherwise, the professors won’t do it. [These professors] are using their academic freedom individually. A major hurdle [to implementing a core curriculum] is whether institutions and professors are willing to pool their freedom to come up with something that’s common. Are they going to use their academic freedom communally? If they’re not, they’re going to have a very tough go of it,” Ashmon says.
- What is foundational for being an educated citizen? “When you look at a university’s general education program, you see the university’s philosophy of what it thinks education is about, what it takes to be an educated citizen. A core curriculum refines that even more. Debates on this can easily lead to what’s been called ‘core wars.’ But this is where professors need to work together to determine what’s the most fundamental educational platform students need to build on, not simply argue for their discipline because it’s their discipline” Ashmon says.
- How does that idea become manifest in a curriculum? “Having a commonly agreed upon ideal of what a core should be for all students is a huge step, but professors and administrators also have to figure out very carefully how to make that a reality. Taking the ideal and making it manifest in sustainable ways is crucial to the success of a core curriculum,” Ashmon says.