What goes into making sure Wheaton’s curriculum remains vibrant, cutting edge, and relevant?
Wheaton’s curriculum has been nationally regarded for having introduced some unique elements that demonstrate how forward-thinking the faculty are. Our curriculum consists of three general components—the general education (Gen Ed) program, what each student studies in his or her major(s) and minor(s), as well as electives. The current curriculum was introduced in 2002. What made it so innovative at the onset was its focus on some unique elements such as interdisciplinary and independent scholarly thought (Connections), diversity (Infusion), and non-western study (Beyond the West). We remain proud of our Gen Ed curriculum, yet understand that it is always wise to review what we do and make changes or adjustments. The Gen Ed curriculum’s purpose is to introduce all students to a set of skills, competencies and content that will serve them regardless of their major. With regular review of Gen Ed, we can ensure that we provide our students exactly what they need for success both while at Wheaton and after graduation.
It is necessary to conduct a thorough review of the curriculum for a number of reasons. First, research on how students learn evolves over time and provides faculty with new insights that can translate into the student classroom experience. The “sage on the stage” classroom model (traditional lectures) are no longer the primary mode of teaching. Students often spend class time engaged in small group discussions, working with faculty to organize classroom conversations, debating course content, and hosting content experts for co-curricular programs. Project-based learning—where small groups of students address a specific issue or question, and must draw upon a variety of skills and disciplines—is much more common as well.
In addition, the tools used by faculty in the classroom (pedagogy) are very different now than even five years ago and we know that technologies in support of teaching can enhance student learning when used well. Colleges use digital clickers, a real-time electronic response device that allows faculty to ask questions during their lecture and—in a matter of seconds—post students’ responses. Social media platforms are used in the learning process, and the ability to collect data in real-time is what students are used to, so information literacy is important. Over the past few years, we have installed makerspaces on Wheaton’s campus that allow for 3D printing, computer programmed milling and soon we will have a digital loom. All of this opens up new opportunities for how faculty engage students in the learning process.
Beyond that, the skills employers seek in future employees change with time, and the job market itself looks markedly different today. We know that employers want workers who are adaptable, work well in teams, and are culturally sophisticated. We know that the kinds of jobs students will seek include ones that don’t yet exist. For all of these reasons, it is important to look at what we teach, how we teach, who we teach, and ensure that we continue to meet the needs of our students so that they are prepared for the workplace of the future.
A Cohesive, Integrated, and Transformational Education
Prompted by discussions during the strategic planning process and by the results of a whole faculty survey, our campus embarked on the Gen Ed curriculum review during the 2016-17 academic year. The process for our review has progressed through several phases. Last academic year, the faculty elected a steering committee of peers to coordinate and facilitate the review process. Faculty have attended conferences, discussed our curriculum in faculty meetings, and met in small working groups on specific subject areas. They have reviewed an array of data on students, consulted with one another, and considered existing literature throughout this process. As a result of this work, they have agreed that our curriculum must support the following set of student learning goals: encourage them to be collaborative; explore the breadth and depth of our courses; to be interdisciplinary learners; use a variety of tools in their studies; become adept critical thinkers; communicate effectively in oral, written and digital modes; be capable of learning from perspectives that are different from their own; and foster their own notion of civic responsibility.
Faculty have agreed that the existing components of our Gen Ed curriculum, such as Connections, Infusion, Beyond the West, Writing, First Year Seminar and Quantitative Learning are effective and still relevant. What they have also determined is that we have a chance to use new pedagogy, technology and other tools to refine what we offer students in each of these components. Furthermore, we know from scholarship on student learning that high-impact practices, such as experiential learning (i.e., research, study abroad, study away, internships), careful planning and integration of co-curricular initiatives with coursework (e.g., student organization participation, field trips and on-campus programs), enhance students’ academic success in ways that extend into their work within their majors. With that in mind, faculty are presently collaborating with many offices—Career Services, the Office for Student Activities, Involvement and Leadership (SAIL), Advising, the Marshall Center for Intercultural Learning, and the Center for Global Education, among others—to ensure that what our students experience offers them a cohesive, integrated, and transformational education. In the coming year, we look forward to seeing this hard work realized.
—Renée T. White, Provost