September 16th, 2010

Curricular Design Problems


Dan Klionsky makes some excellent points in a letter to the editor published in Cell Biology Education. He’s objecting to how departments design curricula. He’s writing about biology, but what concerns him doesn’t just happen in biology.

“Curricular development … no longer involves rational and integrated course design. New courses are added based on faculty members’ expertise rather than students’ needs… .And typically, no one has a clue as to what is taught in other courses in the curriculum, and certainly no idea at all as to what has been learned in previous courses. The result of this approach is chaos, repetition, and wasted time and effort by both students and faculty members.”

Most of his letter is devoted to the introductory course and how routinely it’s criticized because it “does not adequately meet the needs” of upper-division courses. He points out that the problem is the result of the flawed way curricula develop. “In my experience new courses are added because new faculty members are told that they can, and should, develop a course in their area of expertise, with little thought as to whether the target audience will actually benefit from this material.”

But shouldn’t the latest material be conveyed to students? Isn’t that what makes a curriculum credible? Klionsky thinks other goals are more important. “It is much more important to show students how to learn and think than it is to try (in vain) to fill their heads with the latest esoteric facts.” Adding this new material is what fuels complaints about the introductory courses which should, in Klionsky’s opinion, focus on five or 10 “crucial” topics which are used to build the information synthesizing and problem-solving skills that will be used throughout the rest of the college career and beyond.

“It is important to remember that the purpose of a university education is not to produce a finished product. Rather, it is to produce a lifelong learner who will continue to seek out information as necessary and apply it to solve unforeseen problems.”

Reference: Klionsky, D. J. (2009). Letter to the editor: Putting the upper-division cart before the introductory horse. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 8 (Fall), 155-156.