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Higher Education Curriculum

National Reports On The Undergraduate Curriculum, Traditional And Contemporary PerspectivesINNOVATIONS IN THE UNDERGRADUATE CURRICULUM

Deborah Dezure

Lisa R. Lattuca

Kathryn Dey Huggett
Nora C. Smith
Clifton F. Conrad


During the last decade of the twentieth century, significant changes occurred in American higher education generally and in the undergraduate curriculum in particular. These changes were propelled by several developments. Together they provided the momentum to enable higher education to make unprecedented strides. Educational leaders debate whether these changes are primarily additive and limited to small scale programmatic innovations or truly transformative for institutions and higher education. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement that the academy and the undergraduate curriculum have evolved in significant ways.

Defining Curriculum

An undergraduate curriculum is a formal academic plan for the learning experiences of students in pursuit of a college degree. The term curriculum, broadly defined, includes goals for student learning (skills, knowledge and attitudes); content (the subject matter in which learning experiences are embedded); sequence (the order in which concepts are presented); learners; instructional methods and activities; instructional resources (materials and settings); evaluation (methods used to assess student learning as a result of these experiences); and adjustments to teaching and learning processes, based on experience and evaluation. Although the term curriculum is variably used, this definition is sufficiently inclusive and dynamic to account for the many innovations in the undergraduate curriculum that involve instructional methods, sequencing, and assessments as well as instructional goals and content, all of which have been implemented in order to improve learning.

Forces for Change

During the 1980s critiques of American higher education were increasing in frequency and stridence. Reports such as A Nation at Risk (1983) and Integrity in the College Curriculum (1985) underscored the need for reform, citing a lack of accessibility, quality, and coherence. Business and industry leaders decried the inadequate skills of graduates who were unable to problem-solve, communicate through writing and speaking, engage in ethical decision-making, work in teams, and interact effectively with diverse others. Citizen groups noted the disengagement from civic life of recent graduates, citing low voter participation.

Calls for increased accountability came from outside the academy, including government agencies, state boards, regional and professional accrediting bodies, and professional associations. Their concerns resulted in mandates for assessment of student learning outcomes and the growth of the assessment movement in higher education. Against a backdrop of fiscal constraints, competition for students from for-profit educational vendors was considered a threat to colleges and universities, further fueling the impetus for reform.

Demographic changes led to increased participation by students with varied academic preparation, declining student enrollments, and falling retention rates. The pool of students pursuing science and math was shrinking, and women and minorities were underrepresented. Scientific literacy was weak among non-science graduates, posing a threat to the economy as well as the future of scientific and technological endeavors.

Concurrently, there were great strides in research on effective college teaching and learning, with shifts in emphasis from what teachers do to what students learn. New conceptions of learning that emphasize the social construction of knowledge gained advocates. New interdisciplinary fields were burgeoning (e.g., women's studies, ethnic studies). The publication of Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered in 1990 promoted the re-conceptualization of faculty roles and rewards, giving legitimacy to the scholarship of teaching. From the mid-1980s, faculty development emerged as a field of practice to assist faculty in their instructional efforts; during this time, numerous institutions founded teaching and learning centers. Last but not least, new technologies had implications for new fields of study and their use in instruction and research. Taken together, these forces enabled significant reforms to develop and proliferate in higher education.


Many of the curricular innovations and reforms during the last decade of the twentieth century reflect three shifts in emphasis: (1) from learning goals that focus on mastery of content and content coverage to demonstration of broad competencies; (2) from learning in disparate disciplines to integrative learning experiences across the curriculum; and (3) from changes in subject matter as the primary means to improve learning to innovations in instructional methods and assessments as integral to curricular reforms. Diversity and global competency have emerged as major undergraduate curriculum issues, as well.

From content to competencies. In the first years of the twenty-first century, the undergraduate curriculum continued to consist of general education or liberal studies (averaging 37.6% of bachelor of arts degree requirements), a major specialization, minors, and electives. The rationale for this configuration has been to ensure breadth through distribution requirements and depth through the major. At the structural level, this model is holding fast at most institutions. What has changed are the goals for learning–from emphasis on knowledge of disciplinary facts and concepts (what students know) to broadly defined competencies (what students are able to do with what they know) to ensure that graduates have the skills needed by citizens in the twenty-first century.

The expanding list of proficiencies commonly identified by colleges and universities include: critical thinking and problem-solving; multiple modes of inquiry in the natural sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, and arts; communication skills, including writing, speaking, and listening; technology and information literacy; sensitivity to diversity, including multicultural and intercultural competencies for participation in a pluralistic democracy; civic, global, and environmental responsibility and engagement; interpersonal skills, including teamwork and collaboration; self-awareness; moral and ethical reasoning, and integration of knowledge from diverse sources.

Integration across the curriculum. The majority of colleges and universities indicate that general education is a high priority among administrators and faculty, and their institutions are actively engaged in reviewing their general education programs. Given the difficulty of learning all the aforementioned competencies within a general education program, many institutions are blurring the boundaries between general education and the major by infusing these competencies throughout the collegiate experience. This can be seen in the adoption of upper division writing requirements and writing-intensive courses in the major; integrative capstone courses that require collaborative teamwork and projects; courses in the major that emphasize ethics and civic engagement; and the integration of technology, information literacy, and multiculturalism throughout the curriculum.

Diversity learning. Diversity learning is a high priority, including multicultural and intercultural understanding. Although variably defined, diversity learning often refers to sensitivity to difference, including race, gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. In Debra Humphreys's report of a national survey in 2000, 62 percent of reporting institutions had a diversity course requirement or were developing one; among these, 58 percent require one course and 42 percent require two or more courses. In the most common model among schools with requirements (68%), students select a course on diversity from a list of options. Increasingly multicultural perspectives are also infused throughout the curriculum, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Internationalization. Global competencies are often identified as a valued goal of liberal learning, but currently few American students develop intercultural competence during college. Four elements commonly associated with internationalization include foreign language study, study abroad, global studies, and the presence of international students. Foreign language enrollments comprise 8 percent of total enrollments, concentrated in a few languages (55% Spanish, 17% French, 8% German, 6% Asian languages, and less than 2% Middle Eastern). This is in sharp contrast to other developed countries where language study is emphasized.

Participation in study abroad is equally limited. Despite indications from incoming first-year students that they hope to study abroad, only 3 percent of American students study abroad, and increasingly they select programs shorter than a semester. Although global and intercultural courses are available, fewer than 7 percent of college students meet even basic standards for global competence. International students accounted for 3 percent of undergraduates and 11 percent of graduate students in the United States in 1998–1999. The United States enrolls more international students than any other country–most of them from Asia. American higher education is likely to increase its emphasis on global competencies in order to better prepare students to participate in global issues during the twenty-first century.

Curriculum Coherence and Integration

In response to mounting criticism that the undergraduate curriculum is fragmented, burdened with too many isolated bits of information, and lacking coherence, institutions have developed strategies and structures to help students integrate the disparate elements of their college experiences. One strategy has been to clarify, tighten, and sequence requirements so they provide greater coherence. Requirements and prerequisites increased in the 1990s, reversing the trend toward reduced requirements during the 1970s and 1980s. A second strategy has been to provide educational experiences calibrated to the developmental learning needs of students at different stages of their collegiate lives. The most prevalent model is the first-year program, often comprising orientation programs, orientation courses, cocurricular offerings, developmental courses for underprepared students, access to academic support services, first-year seminars, courses of which many are interdisciplinary, and learning communities.

The goal of these offerings is to ease the transition from high school to college, to teach skills and attitudes to enable students to succeed in college, and to improve retention, particularly among at-risk students. K–16 collaborations also support the transition between high school and college by promoting curricular discussions between K–12 teachers and college faculty and by providing collegiate experiences to motivate younger students.

To ease the transition from college to the work world, institutions offer senior seminars and capstone experiences. These are designed to help students integrate intentionally what they have learned in their major specialization and to relate those insights to other disciplinary perspectives, the community, or the work world. Other variants include experiences designed for sophomores and keystone courses that mark the mid-collegiate transition from general education into the major, providing a supportive environment to assess student readiness to move forward.

Learning communities. Learning communities comprise curricular models that link courses or course work to reinforce their curricular connections, maximize opportunities for students to collaborate with each other and their instructors, and provide interpersonal support. Although often designed for first-year students, learning communities now appear throughout the curriculum. They are designed to build communities of learners, and in many cases, provide the structure to promote interdisciplinary study and integration.

Interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinary studies, which are considered a major trend in teaching and research, have grown exponentially since 1990. Two widespread innovations are first-year interdisciplinary seminars and courses based on themes or problems, many of which are team-taught. Courses in new interdisciplinary fields are flourishing (e.g., neuroscience, bioengineering) as are courses in multiculturalism, often spurred by diversity requirements. Courses that apply ethics and environmentalism to professional areas, such as undergraduate nursing and engineering, reflect accreditation mandates. In addition, faculty across the disciplines use innovative pedagogies and course structures that promote integration and interdisciplinary perspectives, such as academic-service learning, multidisciplinary group work, internships, fieldwork, and study abroad.

Innovative Instructional Methods

Innovative instructional methods are proliferating in higher education and are integral to curricular reform efforts. Supported by research on how students learn, instructional innovations emphasize active and experiential learning (i.e., learning by doing); inquiry, discovery, and problem-based learning; collaborative and cooperative learning in groups; writing to learn; undergraduate research; academic-service learning; and instructional technology. Although lecture and small group discussions are still the dominant instructional methods, active and collaborative learning is now commonplace in higher education. As reported by George D. Kuh in 2001, 90 percent of seniors polled in a national survey indicated that they had participated in group work in class during college.

Reform efforts in science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) characterize the integral relationship between innovations in instructional methods and curricular reform in the last decade. In Workshop Physics, for example, lecture and lab sections are integrated. All class instruction is done through hands-on experiments and demonstrations that rely heavily on microcomputers to assist in data analysis. Students work in cooperative learning groups based on the principles of discovery-based learning, emphasizing problem-solving. Similarly, in Calculus Reform, a curricular innovation with roots in the 1980s, students work in groups to problem-solve, often using story problems that relate to the real world, geometric visualization, and instructional technology. A National Science Foundation study published in 1998 indicates that among the most important innovations in SMET since 1990 are (1) Calculus Reform; (2) undergraduate research in which students work on research projects with faculty; and (3) collaborations among institutions, business, industry, and research labs to promote student learning.

Assessment of Student Learning

Widespread efforts to assess student learning are also having an impact on the undergraduate curriculum. While multiple choice tests are still widely used, new evaluation methods provide opportunities to assess and to promote higher-order critical thinking skills and the competencies now valued in higher education. Methods include self-assessments, student portfolios, student journals, case studies, simulations, poster sessions, group projects, and technology-based innovations, among others–all of which reflect the shifts from content to competencies, from fragmentation to integration, and from passive to active modes of learning. Increasingly, assessment results are being used to improve programs and promote the ongoing process of curricular reform.


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