Redefining The Academic Experience

 

By Susan White

When first-year student Caroline Olvera attended an orientation session during the summer, she experienced momentary anxiety. As a member of SMU’s class of 2016, Olvera was introduced to the new University Curriculum (UC), which provides the foundation and structure for undergraduate education. The pre-business/accounting major says that all the requirements to fulfill the University Curriculum “felt overwhelming; I thought I was going to have to take all these credits that wouldn’t apply to my major.”

On the other hand, first-year English/creative writing major Matthew Anderson thought the new UC “sounded unique and was different from other places that I applied,” says Anderson, a Dedman College Scholar and a Hunt Scholar. Also considering courses in film and music, he says the UC “lets you explore interests in more than one thing and still graduate on time.”

Fortunately for Olvera and Anderson, as well as the 1,430 other first-year students who enrolled in SMU this fall, academic advisers assured them that not only were the new University Curriculum’s requirements doable, but many of those courses more than likely would be counted toward their majors. Olvera learned that her courses in microeconomics and introduction to calculus meet three requirements under the UC as well as apply toward her accounting degree. Theatre major Parker Gray realized that his theatre history course would count toward a history requirement as well as toward his major.

SMU administrators emphasize the flexibility of the University’s latest version of the undergraduate curriculum that all students are required to take during their four years at SMU. The new University Curriculum replaces what was known as the General Education Curriculum (GEC) to classes entering SMU since 1997. Classes before that entered under the Common Educational Experience, and even earlier, University College starting in 1960.

Flexibility in the new University Curriculum allows students to put their own stamp on their education and makes it easier for them to pursue multiple majors and minors, while still graduating on time with 122 credit hours (more in some majors). That aspect appealed to Sasha Davis, a Meadows Scholar majoring in theatre with an interest in arts activism, who says she wants to “build my own degree by taking courses in human rights and anthropology.”

Preparing 21st-century innovators and creators

Every so often, universities take stock of their academic offerings, particularly those in the liberal arts. In 2008 President R. Gerald Turner asked SMU’s provost to review the General Education Curriculum to ensure that it was meeting the needs of 21st-century students entering a global marketplace. Provost Paul Ludden asked a committee of 17 faculty and staff members, “What will be the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experiences that characterize a person with an SMU education, regardless of major?”

The committee used SMU’s liberal arts core as a guide – preparing students to communicate effectively orally and in writing, increasing their critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, and developing their ability to innovate and create. The goal was to come up with something new that remained true to SMU’s intellectual tradition, laid out in the 1963 Master Plan that states, “Professional studies must rise from the solid foundation of a basic liberal education.”

Part of the committee’s directive was to ensure that SMU meets the intellectual needs of students with higher SAT scores. In the past 16 years, entering students’ SAT scores have risen 134 points.

“Today’s students are more demanding, expect greater challenges from their education, and want more options and flexibility in designing their degree plans,” says committee co-chair Dennis Cordell, professor of history and Dedman College associate dean for General Education and the University Curriculum. “The new curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary knowledge and research, introducing students to what is unique about higher education and offering faculty opportunities for collaborative teaching.”

In addition, the curriculum will accommodate more Engaged Learning opportunities that include international study, undergraduate research, service learning, internships, and creative and entrepreneurial activities.

‘Knowledge today is profoundly interdisciplinary’

The UC comprises courses in four components: Foundations, Pillars, Capstone, and Proficiencies and Experiences.

Foundations include Discernment and Discourse (previously Rhetoric), Quantitative Foundation, Ways of Knowing, and Personal Wellness and Responsibility. Although some of the components are similar to requirements under the General Education Curriculum, Ways of Knowing is new. The courses in this category, which students take as sophomores, will be team-taught by SMU faculty from various disciplines who will consider a common topic.

“Knowledge today is profoundly interdisciplinary,” says Vicki Hill, assistant dean for the University Curriculum. “Ways of Knowing will introduce students to the different ways in which university communities define and create knowledge. Such as, how do physicists think? What matters to a sociologist? What questions do accountants ask? But what happens when they are all in the same room looking at the same issue?”

The Pillars are five two-course sequences devoted to different ways of pursuing truth in Pure and Applied Sciences; Individuals, Institutions, and Cultures; Historical Contexts; Creativity and Aesthetics; and Philosophical and Religious Inquiry and Ethics.

The Capstone requirement, usually taken during senior year, allows students to use the skills, knowledge and methodologies learned throughout their undergraduate careers and apply them to a course, thesis, project or performance, or an internship, combined with a paper in which students reflect on the experience.

A paradigm shift for the entire University community

In addition, there are eight Proficiencies and Experiences that can be satisfied by coursework or out-of-class activities: writing, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, oral communication, community engagement, human diversity, global engagement and proficiency in a second language.

“The new curriculum encourages faculty to create courses that satisfy more than one requirement,” Hill says. “When courses can be double-counted, students have an easier time pursuing additional majors or minors. The more areas of inquiry with which a student is comfortable, the more equipped he or she will be to face a competitive job market.

“The UC represents a major paradigm shift for the entire University community – teachers and learners alike,” Hill adds. “This change will be accomplished in part through its focus on student learning outcomes (SLOs). The UC’s organizing principle is not where students fulfill the learning objectives, but rather what students have learned and how they demonstrate this knowledge.”

Other ways that the proficiencies can be satisfied include hands-on engagement or thoughtful reflection through a paper, says Hill. For example, “A student tour guide may be able to petition to have that work satisfy the expanded emphasis on oral communication. Or a student who spends spring break volunteering with Habitat for Humanity may be able to have that experience satisfy the emphasis on community engagement.”

In every case, she adds, faculty will review the student’s work to determine if the experience satisfies the requirement.

The “second language proficiency” gave many incoming students and their families pause, and was asked about most often during orientation, says academic adviser Tim Norris. The new UC requires students who enter SMU to improve their second language proficiency through college-level courses or by taking placement exams that show they have attained college-level proficiency. Both Parker Gray and Sasha Davis plan to take Italian because of their interest in the Commedia dell’arte style of theatre from that country. Olvera, who took French in high school, is taking a beginning French class this fall and intermediate French in the spring. All will fulfill the language requirement.

Wes K. Waggoner, dean of undergraduate admission and executive director of enrollment services, is on the front line of recruiting students to SMU. He, as much as anyone, has seen a rise in expectations along with a rise in student quality.

“In sending their children to college, today’s families look for a return on their investment, expecting a university education to be relevant and to give their students skills that prepare them for work in a global marketplace,” he says. “We like to tell potential students and their parents that their degree not only will help them get their first job but also their first promotion; the University Curriculum is designed to make them valued employees by giving them the ability to learn new skills in a changing workforce, as well as adapt to and manage multiple careers.”

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