12/06/2013 10:09 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

Avoiding Curriculum Myopia in Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities have well-established processes for bringing about curriculum change, some of which have been criticized as being too slow and lacking real world applications. These criticisms might be alleviated by altering the way some topics are sequenced. Instead of a myopic line of laddered courses, numbered 101, 102, and so on, institutions might adopt a single basic foundations course with the topic material being reinforced in a host of subsequent courses.

The current process may be inadequate because some learning outcomes can be achieved only if the topics are continually reinforced in other courses. Although other areas may need to be added, improvement must now begin with two: verbal/written communications and critical thinking. Ample evidence for these needed changes is available from employers, graduate schools and research studies, like the work of Arum and Roksa in Academically Adrift (2011).

This evidence concludes that a large proportion of undergraduates and some graduate students lack sufficient key competencies in these skills to be employable after graduation or to meet graduate school requirements. (Verbal/written communication skills are clearly understood. Professor Clarence (Chip) Sheffield, RIT's Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking, suggests the following definition for critical thinking: The ability to identify, analyze, construct and evaluate evidence and arguments in a deliberate and rigorous way.

Adding specific courses won't fill the learning gaps for these two topics, but reinforcing these skills repeatedly, in subsequent courses can help to close the gaps and ultimately become part of the students' educational DNA. This course configuration ties learning to the empirical applications. Let me provide an example from my own discipline, marketing.

A student group is given an assignment to determine which of two product shelf positions in a supermarket is best for sales. Students know from their research and statistics courses how to do an experiment and then test the resulting data for statistical difference between the two positions. When complete, students typically chose the position that has the superior sales record supported by the statistical analysis. However the professor will question the analysis by asking whether or not the choice also is economically and mission significant. Along with this question, the professor can highlight the importance of critically analyzing and evaluating the outcome, not totally relying on the statistical test of the data, as the students have done. In a similar manner, the professor must require that verbal/written assignments be completed at a reasonable professional level to demonstrate critical thinking.

What Can Be Done To Reduce Curriculum Myopia?

• Acknowledge that these issues exist in a college/university. Don't hide them under the rug. According to Arum & Roksa they are not uncommon even at elite institutions.

• Establish as an institutional policy that the faculty has an obligation to reinforce communications and critical thinking topics in their courses. The administration has to be certain that the faculty is fully aware of the higher levels of learning that can be achieved. (Applying, analyzing and evaluating in contrast to the well known remembering and basic understanding. Results of only remembering & basic understanding can be --The straight "A" student who can memorize facts and parrot the professor but who cannot think for himself.)

• This effort will be a major cultural shift for many faculties whose descriptive teaching
patterns are well established. Often these patterns are appreciated by students because faculty "tell them precisely what to do" and shield them from the ambiguities inherent in human endeavors.

• As with any cultural shift, highlight those whose teaching approaches reinforce the two areas in their courses.

• Provide mentoring, seminars and workshops for faculty who want to reinforce either of these topics in their classes. For example some may not feel comfortable evaluating student class presentations and may want assistance from communications faculty to improve their skills.

• Some students may need refresher or remedial instructions to really benefit from this curriculum change. However, some knowing that reinforcement is common in subsequent courses may put more effort in basic courses.

Deeper & More Penetrating

The value of an undergraduate education is being widely challenged. It's time to take a deeper and more penetrating look at what our colleges and universities offer of value and how it is offered to students. The abilities to think critically and communicate clearly are at the top of the skill sets that each graduate should possess. This is not accomplished in a course or two. It is developed and refined through hard work as an integral part of the undergraduate students' four-years until it pervades every aspect of their academic life. Hopefully, it prepares them for a life of learning and critical reflection. Such intellectual assets will be invaluable in their professional and personal lives.