The 2013 accreditation report at San Francisco State University (SFSU) highlighted deep and widespread faculty commitment to teaching as a source of institutional strength, but found that the efforts of dedicated teachers across campus – as at many large institutions – remain largely isolated from one another and from the overall planning and implementation of the curriculum. As a result, its curriculum had become unsustainable: every semester, departments attempted to meet unanticipated student demand for classes through costly, last‐minute lecturer hiring, while students complained about the time, cost, and frustration of attempting to navigate a curriculum unaligned with their needs. While general education reform has rightly received attention in the higher education community over the past decade, reform in the upper division coursework for the major is often overlooked. Yet when students fail to complete their degrees at SFSU, it is often because of problems in their major, not outside: half the respondents to a campus survey indicated that the greatest obstacle to timely graduation was the inability to enroll in courses that were required in their major.
SFSU aimed to establish that intentional curriculum design can strengthen student engagement, retention and graduation, reduce institutional costs, and sharpen the university culture of teaching and learning.
Dec. 2014-Aug. 201718
Dec. 2014-Aug. 201743
Dec. 2014-Aug. 20176,748
How It Worked
SFSU issued a call for proposals for 18 mini-grants, ranging from $8,000-$10,000, to departments. The mini grants were released in three rounds, with six departments in each wave. Participating departments were expected to focus on the goals of their major, along with the curricular pathways and benchmarks that lead students to those goals, and develop plans to assess the impact of their curricular revisions over time on student engagement, learning, and retention.
Departments could use their mini-grants in a variety of ways: a department retreat to examine their curriculum in light of a review of student work; course relief or other support for a faculty coordinator; deep assessment (such as student focus groups or alumni surveys) to supplement and interpret institutional research; and/or course development funds to redesign a set of linked core courses. Representatives from participating departments joined a faculty learning community where they came together to read and reflect on curriculum redesign and change management and to support each other’s efforts, and to disseminate their results to the broader campus community at SFSU.
The tiered award structure, with the mini-grants released in three rounds, encouraged departments to revise and resubmit unsuccessful proposals, reinforcing the principle that effective curricular design is an iterative process, rather than a bounded event. Second, by encouraging departments that were more advanced in their processes to share best practices and examples with those at earlier stages, it fostered an institutional habit of departments helping departments through the structure of the faculty learning community.
The English department observed that engaging in a share conversation created the opportunity for "a really dynamic discussion about what we value for a very large department."
Curricular Reform Highlights
The participating schools and departments represented one-third of all departments at SFSU and included the Schools of Design, Art, and Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, and Social Work; and the Departments of Sociology, Child and Adolescent Development, Biology, Dietetics, Earth and Climate Science, History, English, Chemistry, Communication Studies, Health Education and Communication Disorders. The revised curricula below are representative examples of the reforms carried out by the participating departments:
English is the largest department in SFSU’s College of Liberal and Creative Arts, and it recently absorbed the technical and professional writing program, and so some faculty met their department colleagues for the first time at the retreat sponsored by their Teagle mini-grant. The department only offers a single BA in English but has four “concentrations” in literature, linguistics, English education (for future public school teachers), and technical and professional writing. The concentrations are de facto majors with discrete curricula; the main reason why some faculty had not previously met is because there was no need to since the concentrations had been so autonomous. While the department will continue to offer the concentrations, they will now have a common core curriculum constituting 24 units. The concentrations have gone from zero shared courses to seven shared courses: two lower division survey courses (to maintain flexibility for incoming transfer students); linguistics; rhetoric; Shakespeare; history; a university-required upper division writing course; and a “global” category. Other courses for each concentration are being cut back to accommodate the common core and to keep students from taking excess credits. The linguistics, rhetoric, Shakespeare, history, and writing requirements are defined courses rather than distribution requirements. Under the “global” category, new courses are not being added; rather, the faculty will offer 3-4 topics (out of an existing list of 12) per semester. The new core enables faculty to create a distinctive approach to teaching English – for instance, the Shakespeare course will incorporate the linguistics and history of Elizabethan literature, not just the study of canonical plays and poetry, and will be a departure from how Shakespeare is traditionally taught.
The Earth and Climate Sciences department used to offer two BS degrees – in Geology and in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences – and offered two concentrations in Oceanography and Meteorology. The two BS programs had zero courses in common. In 2015, the department decided to offer a single BS in Earth Sciences and they eliminated the two concentrations. Students pursuing the BS in Earth Sciences can choose one of three areas of emphasis – geology, hydrology, or ocean, weather, and climate. Regardless of the area of emphasis, they take five common core courses in the department, participate in a senior capstone experience, and have four common science and math foundation courses offered through other departments. The faculty have committed to offering the required courses each semester to improve student retention and graduation, even though this means faculty can offer fewer electives and run those electives less frequently.
The Communication Studies major used to be organized in eight “breadth” categories and students were required to satisfy each category. Students also needed to take two introductory lower division courses and two electives, for a total of 46 credits for the major. It was difficult to offer the right mix of courses and ensure there were sufficient sections as there are over 1200+ students in the major and just 12 tenure-track faculty in the department. The major has now been transformed into three breadth categories – social contexts and interaction (8 units), rhetoric and performance (8 units), and research methods (4 units) – and a senior capstone (2 units). With the introductory lower division coursework and electives, students now complete 40 credits for the major. Because SFSU has an upper division writing course requirement for graduation (known as GWAR), there used to be GWAR versions of many courses (e.g., there were GWAR and non-GWAR versions of communication inquiry, popular media, interpersonal communication, social semiotics, etc.); sometimes both the GWAR and non-GWAR versions of a course would be offered in the same semester, leading to student confusion. The Communication Studies department is moving to offering just GWAR versions of these courses so students can satisfy a university requirement efficiently while minimizing confusion.
Faculty members at the School of Social Work were able to time their Teagle mini-grant to engage in curricular reform while preparing for re-accreditation, and successfully integrated their self-study with the redesign process of the project. They mapped their entire curriculum and devised a new draft roadmap that has removed several course redundancies, removed one class and combined two in a course on "intersectionality", in the process opening up space for a new, shared core course. They also developed templates for syllabi, aligning program leaning outcomes with course content and goals.
The Department of Earth and Climate Sciences shared that "because we are debating the meaning of our program as a whole, we feel like this revision will give students an integrated approach for the first time."
Lessons learned from the process have been captured by SFSU faculty in a “survival guide” for curricular change in a shared governance setting as well as a symposium on “Redesigning our Majors” that attracted 120 faculty from across the California State University system.
Project leaders noticed that some unsuccessful mini-grant proposals represented minor revisions to the curriculum focused on electives and concentrations or on courses. Other unsuccessful proposals were aimed at creating new courses or concentrations to add to their majors or programs. These proposals usually contained important thinking about student outcomes and career readiness, but had the potential to worsen the already great proliferation of concentrations and courses, and to complicate both scheduling and students' pathways to graduation. This pattern is indicative of how many faculty think effectively about the outcomes and modes of delivery of individual courses, especially as they reach midcareer, but have yet to embrace the alignment of courses with each other and with broader programmatic goals. Departments that submitted successful mini-grant proposals and participated in the project found there is a need for continual curriculum revision instead of discrete projects within their own departments.
Intentional curricular revision takes a great deal more time than most programs anticipated. Perhaps the most difficult part of the process is creating an inclusive environment to encourage faculty participation; the faculty learning community was instrumental in that regard. Participants found that much of the value of curricular revision is embodied in the process itself. The English department observed that engaging in a shared conversation created the opportunity for a "really dynamic discussion about what we value for a very large department." The Department of Earth and Climate Sciences shared that “because we are debating the meaning of our program as a whole, we feel like this revision will give students an integrated approach for the first time.” The team from the School of Art commented that “To our surprise, these workshops have led to great discussion about the meaning of ‘art’ and the major. We have a new culture, open to change.”
SFSU is poised to build on its Teagle-funded work in its response to the new California State University system’s Graduation Initiative 2025, an ambitious effort to increase graduation rates for all CSU students and ensure they have the opportunity to graduate in a timely manner. SFSU has revised its entire program review cycle to stress ongoing reflection and innovation in curricular development through short reflection and reporting on an annual basis. The process encourages departments to regularly take stock and prune course offerings with an eye to student learning and success. In a process focused on the Academic Senate, SFSU has redesigned its curricular approval process to streamline innovation approval and assessment by removing roadblocks at the university level and refocusing on departmental consultation and intellectual/pedagogical thought. SFSU has also inaugurated an alumni survey focused on curriculum.
SFSU illustrates the need for new paradigms of curriculum development. Less than a generation ago, faculty members were hired with the promise that they could “teach whatever they liked” (in the words of one disillusioned mid‐career English professor). While recognizing the demise of this status quo, the strong culture of faculty autonomy and shared governance in higher education resists the imposition of curriculum from above. Meaningful change will only come when faculty lead and embrace it on terms that they recognize and build themselves.