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New Approach to Liberal Arts Takes Hold at SAS

corecurriculumWhen the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) graduated its first class last spring, the event marked a milestone in the transformation of undergraduate education at Rutgers.

This fall marks another major step in the transformation that created SAS as the unified liberal arts program for the New Brunswick Campus. The incoming class of first-year SAS students will be the first to pursue their studies under a new Core Curriculum.

The Curriculum, in the works since 2007, is a bold new approach to the liberal arts and sciences. It’s designed to prepare students for a world in which technological and scientific breakthroughs, growing cultural diversity, and rapidly changing career paths and intellectual disciplines require ever higher levels of communication, critical thinking, and analytical skills.  

One of the more visible aspects of the Curriculum have been the Signature Courses, which were launched in 2009 and examine the perennial questions facing humanity, while exploring compelling topics in the contemporary world, from the ethics of food choice to the variety of soul beliefs.

susan_lawrence_largeThe full Core Curriculum that goes into effect this fall is unique in its emphasis on learning goals that will help students understand why they are taking particular courses throughout their undergraduate career. The Curriculum was developed by a broadly representative group of faculty, which also included some student representatives.  

Susan E. Lawrence, Dean for Educational Initiatives and the Core Curriculum, and a political science scholar, recently discussed the Curriculum and how it improves upon older models.


Q: One of the key innovations of the new Curriculum is the emphasis on mastery of specific learning goals as opposed to completing a checklist of courses. Why did you take this approach and how does it differ from previous efforts?

A: The learning goals explain right up front why you have to take a particular range of courses, and what you achieve by taking them. Higher education and the liberal arts and sciences have always had a series of learning goals in mind, but they’ve been much more nebulous and not as closely connected to - or closely identified with - specific courses. By structuring the Curriculum in terms of learning goals, students see why they are taking the courses, and we see how well they are achieving the goals we have set for them.

Q: There are 28 learning goals in all and they range from appreciating human differences, to understanding scientific principles, to being able to submit written work and then make improvements as others edit and suggest revisions. There are also goals pertaining to information technology as well as quantitative reasoning. How did you come up with the range?

A: It’s a broad, encompassing range aimed at preparing SAS graduates to meet the diversity of challenges they will face at work, at home, and in both the public sphere and private life over the next 80 or 90 years. The goals, including the ones you mentioned, all are specific examples of critical thinking and problem-solving, and that’s what ties them together. Rather than just pursue this broad, general goal of "critical thinking," the Core goals all begin with active verbs we have action verbs that communicate precisely the skills students should and will have: analyze, explain, identify, communicate, formulate, and apply.

Q: With the economic challenges facing the United States, as well as the fast-changing technology, employees in the 21st century need to be more flexible, competitive, and entrepreneurial than ever before.  Were these developments a factor as you designed the Curriculum?

A: Very much so.  As we were actually writing the Curriculum, the economy was going into recession, and that highlighted anew the concern about students’ need to find fulfilling careers, and be sustained economically.  Because we are a research university, we’ve been applying the latest research to these issues, examining workplace trends and what employers are looking for.

One of the big lessons is that it’s not enough to prepare for a career. You need to prepare for multiple careers, and to be a lifelong learner.  We believe that the ideal liberal arts and sciences program should provide the kinds of skills in critical thinking, communication, information technology, and research that are essential for lifelong learning, whether it’s in a formal graduate program or in the workplace, where you are constantly going to be retooling.

Q: What systems have you put in place to assess whether the Curriculum is working?

A: We’ve built assessment right into the Core.  Every course certified as meeting a Core Curriculum goal or goals will include an assessment of student achievement of those goals.  Faculty members are developing particular assignments in the Core courses that require students to actually perform the goal. We have rubrics we use to categorize students responses as outstanding, good, satisfactory, or not satisfactory.

That will give us some data identifying where the weak points are and what we need to do differently in teaching the Core. These assessment tools aren’t about grading the students per se; they are about determining where we may need to put some additional attention.

Q:  The Core Curriculum is supposed to help students discover not just "what" they want to be, but "who" they want to be. What does that mean?

A: A lot of students come here concerned, understandably so, with what their career will be.  But we think that, equally importantly, college is a time for our students to explore who they are and what kind of person they want to be; what their place in the world is, what their values are, and what talents and skills do they have that will become their unique contribution to the 21st century. The depth and scope of the Core Curriculum provides students with many resources and many opportunities with which to think through those introspective and important questions.