General education curriculum reviewed

Faculty senators talk adjustments to major requirements

UNLV’s Members of the faculty senate are contemplating whether or not to enact changes to the university’s academic majors’ requirements and undergraduate general education curriculum applicable for incoming freshmen.

The proposals, affecting only fall 2012 freshmen andsubsequent classes, call for a new, integrated general education curriculum that would include a set course throughout an undergraduate’s UNLV career. A decision on whether or not to implement a course — referred to as First Year Experience (FYE) — is a priority with the 2012-2013 academic year approaching.

The suggested changes, brought forth by a faculty senate issues group over the past several years, is a response to a continued effort to improve UNLV’s undergraduate education dating back to 2000.

In 2000, UNLV’s Northwest Accreditation Commission review emphasized the need for a “coherent rationale” regarding the “philosophy and goals” of general education. Further impetus for the proposals include low retention rates compared to UNLV’s peer institutions, as well as outcome data indicating students are not as “academically challenged” as those at “comparable institutions.”

In response, an advisory committee was created in 2003 and an interim core in 2004 to enhance UNLV’s general education curriculum and courses. Following a campus-wide, day-long retreat in September 2007, where 118 UNLV affiliates attended and used feedback from two fall 2008 campus events, the Advisory Committee developed University Undergraduate Learning Outcomes (UULO’s) intended to outline expectations of UNLV graduates.

The Advisory Committee released a proposal in November 2010 that included recommendations for the general education curriculum, as well as ways for faculty and students to fulfill the UULOs. The President and the Executive Vice President and Provost assigned the General Education Task Force (GETF) to examine the General Education Reform Proposal in December 2010.

General Education Advisory Committee Chair Dave James explained that the proposal would help students better understand the importance of general education in relation to students’ majors.

“We think that a more coherent general education program will help students understand why they’re coming to class,” James said. “We want to change.”

Faculty Senate Chair Gregory Brown said three models are being considered as the set course for FYE — one of two changes to the general education requirements, neither of which would increase the number of required credits for general education.

Although the March 2010 GETF addendum states that FYE would be a required three-credit course, discussions among members of the faculty have disputed that proposal. Furthermore, reaching an agreement for an FYE course has been difficult because, if approved, along with the second change to general education — Second Year Experience (SYE) — it would be at the expense of present core courses.

The Provost’s General Education Advisory Committee has suggested that if FYE and SYE are adapted, World Literature would become optional and would only count if taken towards credit for humanities. The committee proposed that Constitution courses be credited towards either humanities or social science.

Brown said that one FYE model is based upon students’ needs in order to succeed in college. Its components would include ways to improve students’ time management skills, study skills and stress management skills. Brown also said such a model has been a point of disagreement among faculty because it would not necessarily raise the rigor of UNLV undergraduate education.

“I think [this model] has broad support from the faculty. Students deserve that kind of customer service,” Brown said. “However, there is, I think, a general reticence to see that be introduced to the curriculum for credit, especially because this is being proposed at the expense of current core.”

A second FYE model would mean more reading and writing intensive and may require students to read a minimum of 40 pages per week, write 20 pages for the semester and have at least five hours of individualized study.  Such a course is geared towards fostering a close interaction between faculty and students and is intended to hold 25 students per class.

But Brown said that although the model has high support from faculty, it would be difficult to implement because the current teaching staff has been reduced while the student demand remains high.

Brown said the third FYE model would be more of a “cultural opportunity.” It would be an optional, one-credit pass or fail course and is described as a first-year seminar in which students would not necessarily have to write papers. Faculty members feel this may be the safest FYE course to introduce because it would not yield to a workload or staffing issue. Simultaneously though, because the course is optional, Brown said faculty members worry that students may not take the course seriously or may be confused as to what courses they need to take.

Brown explained the challenge for FYE is whether it should help students adapt more to the college atmosphere or if it should immediately focus on enhancing the value of a UNLV degree. FYE courses could be offered by any college and must be taken before completing 30 credits.

The Advisory Committee proposal for SYE calls for a reinforcement of the UULO’s, “using an explicitly interdisciplinary approach” to develop “communication and inquiry and critical thinking skills.” The GETF addendum explains SYE would focus on contemporary global or multicultural issues. Students must complete the SYE course before reaching 60 credits.

James said that the purpose of a revised general education curriculum would help students acquire the skills necessary to adapt to the working environment.

“The idea behind a very intentional first-year course is not to be an easy, hand-holding course,” he said. “It’s intended to be trying to learn to walk before you learn to run.”

The GETF also recommended two other courses that would combine emphasis on achieving the UULO’s in relation to the students’ major.

A milestone experience would introduce students to their major’s learning outcomes while reinforcing the UULO’s. It should be completed during a student’s sophomore or junior year and may address either the Inquiry and Critical Thinking Outcome or the Communication UULO, depending on the major.

A culminating experience course should ideally be taken towards the end of a student’s baccalaureate degree program. It would be a “review, integration and consolidation” of the general education curriculum and the students’ major. The course may consist of a research project, an internship or service-learning project or a portfolio.

James said that feedback from UNLV students has been strongly considered in the revision of undergraduate general education curriculum through meetings with students in the library and during the campus events in fall 2008, as well as through the undergraduate representation of David Rapoport in the task force. But James said feedback from incoming high school students has not been part of the study.

“We haven’t thought about going to incoming high school students,” James said. “We have looked at results of high school graduates, but we didn’t go to high school students and ask them what they thought.”

Rapoport declined to provide any comments about the proposals.

Brown suggested another way to get students involved in the discussion of the current proposal was for CSUN to combine student life activities with student curriculum. He stated as a hypothetical example that activities be introduced that would foster discussion on issues being addressed in class as part of the general education curriculum. Brown also expressed hopes for CSUN to engage in the proposal discussion as well.

Undergraduate Student Body President Sarah Saenz agreed with Brown’s call to action in regards to CSUN and said that she has started a blog in which she would keep students updated on matters such as the general education proposals.

Saenz advocated for the faculty senate to approve an FYE proposal because she felt the reasons behind the change were sufficient to press forward.

“If we’re trying new things to make the value of the [UNLV] degree go up, and if this is one of the things [the faculty senate] is trying to implement, then why not give it a try?” Saenz said. “There could be a lot of benefits from a class like this and I hope to see it work if they do implement it.”

Brown commended the dedication of the faculty members to the proposals and said that they are all engaging in a “well-informed conversation.”

“I think this shows the seriousness that the faculty takes this issue and that we’re really doing the business of trying to improve the university and [are] not focused on our own internal politics,” he said. “I think that’s a really good sign and everyone is really enthusiastic about that.”

James said that a campus-wide conversation about the proposals must never cease because improvements to the campus should be an on-going process.

“Students keep learning throughout their four years and faculty keep learning throughout their career,” he said. “You keep on learning. You keep on getting better. And you keep on refining things.”

Contact Julie Ann Formoso at [email protected]

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