How Can We Improve College Learning? Turn the Curriculum Upside Down

As higher education considers the ramifications of harsh reports on academic rigor and subjects, it would do well to re-think what it means to be educated in the 21st century.
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Authors of the new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, report that nearly half of the nation's undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college because academics are not a priority at many colleges.

My institution was not one of the 29 schools in the study, and I won't comment on a report I have not yet had the chance to read.

But I can say that Champlain College students get serious academically from day one in freshman year, and I also submit that the subjects used to gauge learning in the study, while the typical academic fare, are not sufficient preparation for work and citizenship in the 21st century.

As for experiencing early academic rigor, our students take an "upside-down" curriculum, in which they choose and take courses in their major in their first year. Those who want to learn broadcasting go in front of a camera during the first semester. Student writers typically are published by sophomore year. The same is true for each of our career-centered majors.

Our upside-down curriculum lets students explore their majors, take internships earlier, determine areas of particular interest for specialization and have four full years to develop the skills essential for professional success.

They also take four years of coursework in a core curriculum unlike those found at liberal arts colleges. Champlain students must take a four-year interdisciplinary core with no electives. It was designed to foster highly developed critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills, which seem to be prominent in this report.

Regardless of major, our students take interdisciplinary courses designed to explore important themes that form the foundation for critical thinking and communications. They learn to be global citizens, think critically, and see connections between disciplines, future careers and the global economy.

Champlain has no athletics or Greek system, so for the last few years we have focused some student extracurricular time on life skills development. One of those skills, for example, is financial sophistication. We help our students learn to invest, manage their retirement accounts and network effectively so they don't get lost in a fiercely competitive employment landscape.

These activities are embedded in the total cost of attendance, so they cost students nothing but their time. It has cost the college more, as staff had to tackle the time-consuming task of developing these activities, and tracking student participation.

Based on feedback from recent graduates, employers and other college partners, we believe that formalizing life skills development in college is the way of the future in higher education. It assures that learning these important skills is not left to chance, and it gives each student a jump start as they begin their careers and lives after college.

As higher education considers the ramifications of such a report on academic rigor and subjects, it would do well to re-think what it means to be educated in the 21st century. Otherwise, we will wallow in old curricular models and produce graduates who are not completely ready for the world.

I think we have a pretty good model. I firmly believe our graduates are going to be better prepared to live engaged, meaningful lives. And that means our towns, cities, nation and global community will benefit by welcoming an annual wave of graduates who are ready to contribute.

David Finney is president of Champlain College, Burlington, Vt.

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