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December 10, 2008
By John Trent
Core Curriculum Director Paul Neill understands the challenge all too well.
How can the University of Nevada, Reno fully assess the effectiveness of the Core Curriculum, given that each course in the 33- to 39-credit undergraduate general education sequence can be a seminally rewarding learning experience for some students while others might view it as a tedious exercise in completing yet another University requirement?
“The Core is such a complicated component,” Neil, the Core’s director since 2004, said. “It’s not a single experience, so it is difficult to get your arms around everything.”
The effort to do just that has already begun.
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Core is undergoing a rigorous program review. Self-study groups for each of the Core’s areas, from math to writing, from fine arts to science, are already working to compile reports that will be reviewed in January.
The Core, which was officially implemented in 1989 following a two-year planning process, was originally intended to augment the University’s general education efforts. The overriding goals were not only to provide a foundation of basic skills, but also to offer a group of curricular experiences that would prepare students to become full participants in an increasingly complex world. It was believed that the undergraduate experience at Nevada would be greatly enhanced through a series of shared learning experiences.
Nearly 20 years later, Neill said the Core, even as it has evolved, has still remained true to the spirit of its intent. The curriculum is not only horizontal, offering a sequence of freshman courses, but it is also vertical with a philosophy of writing across the curriculum and a myriad of senior capstone experiences. Students are encouraged to explore the world, past and present, through a variety of lenses. Neill said students should develop an appreciation of its incredible richness, complexity and creativity, bound and contrasted not only by nationalities and borders, but by technology, the natural sciences, philosophy, art, mathematics and writing.
“There is no doubt that we could do a better job of helping student understand the objectives of the Core while they are on campus,” Neill said. “However, survey data indicates that alumni develop an appreciation of the core experience and its value after they graduate.”
The Core, however, has not been without its criticisms. After more than a decade the Western Traditions humanities sequence was perceived by some to be, as Neill put it, “very Euro-centric.” Western Traditions has since evolved into Core Humanities, a sequence of courses that among other things, discusses issues of the world’s colonial and post-colonial eras.
Perceived shortcomings aside, the Core has also given the campus many intriguing and enriching learning possibilities.
Just one example occurred recently when two of the campus’ finest English professors, Phil and Kathy Boardman, joined forces. The baritone-voiced, theatrically talented Phil Boardman, and Kathy Boardman, known for her scholarship, love of students and her caring and compassionate nature, team-taught Core Humanities 201 and 202.
It was a pairing of diverse talent, teaching acumen and unbridled passion for the subject that has come to personify the value of the Core, Neill said.
“They were able to teach the ancient world class (Core Humanities 201) and the modern world class (Core Humanities 202) to Honors students in an integrated way,” Neill said. “You can only imagine the curricular possibilities exploited by Phil and Kathy: the opportunity to compare and contrast ancient philosophers with modern philosophers … the ability to tie connections over time through art and literature. Perhaps to explore the human experience across millennia … the notion that many of the issues that we wrestle with today are universal and have been around forever.
“Linking courses in this way can really enrich the curriculum and the student experience.”
Neill said that in the coming weeks and months, the development of self-study documents will be a primary focus for Core activity His charge to the self-study groups is to produce data-driven documents that will profile areas such as student enrollment, curricular additions to the Core since 2000, as well as “trying to give some sense of how well students achieve the learning outcomes associated with the Core Curriculum.”
“It’s important for us to confirm that there are no gaps in the learning outcomes,” said Neill, who will send rough drafts from the self-study groups for comment from the faculty in January. By the end of March, the final document, which will also include feedback from faculty, students and alumni, will be sent to external reviewers. The campus will host the external review site visit in April.
Neill said he is interested to see what the review process will discover. He said there have been many promising gains made in recent years, including progress made in Core mathematics courses, and a significant increase in Core assessment activity.
Neill said he is optimistic about the health and future of the Core. The curriculum helps students develop the foundational communication and quantitative literacy skills that are essential for success on and off campus. The Core provides a variety of courses where student can explore the world we live in and the many challenges the world faces as a global community.
“I believe that it is a really valuable experience,” he said. “It’s not a hard sell, once the students have taken the courses and have a more in-depth understanding of the learning experiences offered.”
Neill said that it is possible that the program review will suggest exploration of additional interdisciplinary opportunities in the natural and social sciences and developing linked curricular experiences to the Core offerings.
“Students often look at courses as little boxed pieces of curriculum. We should help them find connections between all areas of the Core,” he said. “There are many opportunities for strengthening the curriculum … creating new curricular experiences for our students … and that’s part of what we hope to accomplish with the program review.”
Paul Neill invites feedback from the faculty or students via email. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.