Core curriculum change to greet this year’s freshmen

New curriculum at a glance

• All Kansas University undergraduates will have about 36 credit hours’ worth of general-education requirements, called the KU Core.

• A Bachelor of Arts in the College of Liberal Arts of Sciences will require, at most, 56 hours of general requirements — down from 72 before.

• Core requirements are divided among six learning goals: critical thinking and quantitative literacy; communication; breadth of knowledge; culture and diversity; social responsibility and ethics; and integration and creativity.

• Some goals can be satisfied by out-of-classroom experiences, such as study-abroad trips, service projects or internships.

• The final goal is designed to serve as a capstone experience, such as a research project, creative work, product design or internship.

Parents of incoming Kansas University students sit through a presentation by the department of Undergraduate Studies during new student orientation, Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at the Kansas Union. A new curriculum at KU will enable more flexibility for students with less restrictions on certain general education requirements. Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

Incoming KU freshmen and their parents crowded the halls of the Kansas Union on the Kansas University campus on a Wednesday in June.

They clutched informational folders, wore name tags on their shirts and met with advisers before enrolling for their first semester’s classes, just as new KU students have done at orientation sessions in years before. But their session was dotted with a two-word phrase that was on the lips of nearly all the advisers, assistants and officials they heard from during their day on campus: the “KU Core.”

That’s the name of KU’s first-ever universitywide curriculum for undergraduates. It marks the biggest change to undergraduates’ curriculum in perhaps 50 years. And while it’s been in the works since this year’s KU freshmen were just entering high school, they’ll be the first students to experience it.

KU officials say the new requirements will help students graduate more easily in four years, give all of the university’s undergraduates a common focus and, above all, steer focus onto what students are learning instead of what courses they need to take.

“My hope is that it will induce students to think differently about their education — like, ‘What do we get to learn about?’ instead of ‘What do we have to do?'” said Greta Perel, an assistant director of KU’s Undergraduate Advising Center.

Years in the making

The seeds for KU’s new curriculum were sown in 2009, when Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little organized a task force to examine ways to improve KU’s retention and graduation rates.

Among other issues, the group found that KU’s general-education requirements were putting a burden on many students. About 18 percent of students who applied to graduate were being denied because of general-education requirements they’d failed to meet.

Many KU students had to fill 72 credits’ worth of these general requirements, while students at some of KU’s fellow institutions in the Association of American Universities had to fill only about half that many.

“We were really out of whack,” said Sara Rosen, KU’s senior vice provost for academic affairs.

But KU’s undergraduate curriculum, which had not been changed much in about 25 years and had not been totally revamped in as long as 50 years, was also behind the times in another way.

It was too “course-based,” Rosen said: The focus was on ensuring students took courses from certain subject areas. The focus was not on what skills or knowledge students would actually gain from those courses, and that’s what officials say has now changed.

“We also really want students to understand: ‘Here’s what I can do because I took this course,'” said Sarah Crawford-Parker, an assistant vice provost who leads KU’s Office of First-Year Experience.

That’s why the requirements of the new curriculum are organized into different learning “goals,” such as written and oral communication, social responsibility, quantitative reasoning and others.

KU leaders are telling instructors to design their courses around those goals, spelling out to students at the beginning of the semester what they can expect to gain from a course.

“They’ll know that that’s why they’re there, is to get that skill, and they know that, darn it, by the end they’ll have it,” said Bob Goldstein, an associate dean in KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

More flexible

For the first time, all KU undergraduates will have a shared set of requirements: 12 different units that can be filled with about 36 credit hours.

And the options for many of those requirements are plenty. KU’s two introductory Western Civilization courses, once a universal requirement for many students, are now just two of dozens of courses students could pick to fill a requirement.

Students seeking a Bachelor of Arts in the CLAS — the single most common degree at KU — will need to fill 56 general-education credits at most, though most won’t need to take that many, for various reasons.

That’s a full semester’s worth of credits fewer than the 72 once required of those students, meaning they’ll have a great deal more flexibility — one of the major aims of the new curriculum.

“It lets the students explore. It puts them in the driver’s seat,” Goldstein said. “They’re very much in control of their destiny.”

Officials say that flexibility won’t just give students more freedom; it will also help them gain experiences, skills or perhaps certificates that might make them more marketable to potential employers one day.

At that orientation session in June, CLAS official Larry Fillian told students and parents during a presentation that they could use that flexibility to double-major, pick multiple minors, or maybe take additional foreign-language courses. A student in the College could complete two majors while still taking as many as 30 credits’ worth of electives. But he advised them to use those electives wisely.

Goldstein said the CLAS would explore offering certificates in marketable and relevant subject areas such as geographic information systems or energy studies.

Emphasis on skills

Of course, the additional freedom in course selection for many students will mean that they’ll need some additional guidance.

“Advising is going to be so critical,” said Ann Brill, dean of KU’s School of Journalism.

And for some requirements in the Core, students don’t even have to take courses at all — they can check off some goals with out-of-classroom experiences, such as a study-abroad trip or a service-learning project.

Those hands-on experiences, Rosen said, are another way the new curriculum emphasizes skills and experiences that will be useful to students later on.

“I think that’s where a tremendous amount of growth can happen,” Rosen said.

At orientation in June, incoming freshmen and their parents said they liked the sound of the new curriculum.

Freshman Jack Bruntzel of Overland Park, planning to major in business, said he thought he might use the curriculum’s additional flexibility to study abroad or learn a language.

“I think it’ll hone what I want to study,” Bruntzel said.