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Questions Every New Department Head Should Ask, Part II: Improving the Curriculum

Curriculum Planning and Development Leadership and Management

Questions Every New Department Head Should Ask, Part II: Improving the Curriculum

Last month I discussed ways to build on faculty strengths. This month, I take a close look at questions that new and continuing department heads will want to ask about the curriculum. The goal here is to help you deliver the best possible student learning experience while maintaining and even growing unit productivity.

Are you graduating the students you have?

To answer this question, let’s back up a bit and create a foundation from which to inquire. Institutions typically use a variety of data points to measure the size and productivity of programs and departments. You want to begin by understanding what these are, when and to whom they are reported, and how they contribute to decision making. Such data may include the number of majors enrolled, the number of graduates per year, and the ratio of full-time faculty to student credit hours generated, among other metrics. You may need to take a workshop or meet with a specialist from institutional research to fully understand how the data are generated and what they do and do not include. For instance, are second majors counted just as first majors are? Do undergraduate and graduate hours count the same or differently? What about credit hours generated by students majoring in your department versus those majoring elsewhere? The answers can vary depending on the revenue model.

Once you have identified sources for baseline data, such as number of majors and number of students graduating per year, you will want to take a closer look. Ask for a five-year trend on these numbers. What is your current trajectory? Consider the trends you see in light of intra- or extradepartmental factors that may affect the numbers. For instance, are overall university enrollments up or down compared to the numbers in your department? Has there been a change in the demand for graduates in your field that may affect the numbers? Is the degree you offer harder to obtain than the same degree at comparable institutions in your region—or other degrees at your own institution? A change in your numbers may also have any of a wide variety of internal causes. Does your department have a friendly and well-informed presence at advising sessions for incoming students? Are students enrolling in your entry-level course early enough in their college careers to complete the degree in a timely way? Are there particular attrition points in your curriculum? These may show up as disproportionately high fail rates in certain courses. If grade reports by course are not already supplied to you, you can submit a custom request to institutional research. Compare the number of majors declared and the expected time to degree to the number of graduates per year. Do they stand in the relation you expect? If you are graduating fewer students per year than the number of majors suggests, then you’ll want to look closely at where and how you are losing students who initially had enough interest to declare the major. Finally, determine the number of majors versus minors for each of your programs. What stands in the way of having more students earn the major rather than the minor? In the department I headed, programs that had timely, hands-on advising and clear communication about the degree path were able to achieve a higher major-to-minor ratio.

How are you attracting students to your program?

It is well worth making the effort to understand how your current students learned about your program and why they enrolled in it. With this information, you can continue to do what works while addressing barriers to recruitment. A simple survey of current students will help you discover what types of information dissemination work well and where there may be gaps.

Additionally, consider how students enter your program. Are they placed according to scores from ACT, SAT, or AP exams? If so, has the process been set up so it occurs automatically? And are you taking steps to reach out to high scorers who have not yet found your program? Institutional research can help you identify those students. If students need to take a placement test, such as for world languages, is the test readily available and affordable? Or do students have a first encounter with your discipline through a general education course? If so, are spots available early in their college careers? When I became department head, I discovered that our entry-level general education courses were filling with seniors. This radically reduced the recruitment potential of these courses. It was a problem I needed to address as soon as possible if we were to grow our programs.

In addition to finding out how current students learned about your programs, consider engaging in a general checkup for your marketing materials. Make an appointment with the admissions, communications, or general advising office to find out what modes of communication are effective for today’s prospective students. Share with them your current print materials, website, and social media. Ask them to comment honestly. Request examples of approaches they would recommend. You may discover that you need to shift budget and effort to newer modes of communication.

Finally, engage your faculty in a discussion about when and how they encourage current students to major. Talking about this as a group is important. You may discover that not everyone feels comfortable with the idea. You may also learn that your colleagues are already engaged in creative recruitment strategies. This is a great opportunity for everyone to learn from each other and to coordinate your approach.

How does your curriculum prepare graduates for successful careers?

Humanities departments need to pay special attention here. But it’s not just the humanities. Students, parents, and higher education administrators are asking hard questions when it comes to the value of an education in general and of particular programs. Faculty and administrators alike need to take responsibility for assessing the curriculum and learning outcomes as they contribute to career readiness. If it is not already your practice, begin by surveying recent alumni about how they are using their degrees. Ask what components of the curriculum were most and least useful. What do they wish they had learned during their time with you? How can you improve?

Work closely with the advising office on campus to learn about the market outlook for your field. What hard and soft skills are in demand nowadays? Where do current job applicants seem to come up short? How can you adjust the learning experience in your program to deliver a set of experiences that makes your graduates more competitive? Do you offer a capstone course that requires students to identify openings for which they qualify, finalize a resume, and take part in mock interviews? With appropriate support from your faculty in coordination with the career advising office, this experience can be both eye-opening and motivating for students. It is not ridiculous to build these things into the overall learning experience. Graduates of the program I directed reported that after good preparation and several rounds of practice interviews, they went into the real thing with surprising confidence and excellent results. There’s nothing quite like seeing your graduates employed and happy. This is part of building a healthy relationship with your alumni.

In part three of this series, we’ll take up a series of topics to which new and continuing department heads will want to devote attention.

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.


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