Curriculum, Higher Education

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innovations in the undergraduate curriculum
deborah dezure

national reports on the undergraduate curriculum
lisa r. lattuca

traditional and contemporary perspectives
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 learningfrom 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 19981999. The United States enrolls more international students than any other countrymost 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. K16 collaborations also support the transition between high school and college by promoting curricular discussions between K12 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 othersall 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.

See also: Academic Calendars; Academic Major, The; Capstone Courses in Higher Education; College Seminars for First-Year Students; General Education in Higher Education.


Association of American Colleges. 1985. Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Association of American Colleges. 1990. The Challenge of Connecting Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. 1998. Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities. Palo Alto, CA: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Boyer, Ernest. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Davis, James R. 1995. Interdisciplinary Courses and Team Teaching: New Arrangements for Learning. Phoenix, AZ: American Council on Education/Oryx Press.

DeZure, Deborah, ed. 2000. Learning from CHANGE: Landmarks in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education from CHANGE Magazine (19691999). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publications.

Edwards, Alan. 1996. Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Programs: A Directory, 2nd edition. Acton, MA: Copley.

Gaff, Jerry G. 1999. General Education: The Changing Agenda. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Gaff, Jerry G.; Ratcliff, James L.; and Associates. 1997. Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices and Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hayward, Fred M. 2000. Internationalization of U.S. Higher Education: Preliminary Status Report 2000. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Klein, Julie Thompson. 1999. Mapping Interdisciplinary Studies. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, George D. 2001. "Assessing What Really Matters to Student Learning: Inside the National Survey of Student Engagement." Change 33:1017, 66.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Science Foundation. 1998. Shaping the Future: Volume II: Perspectives on Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology. NSF 98-128. Washington, DC: National Science Foundation.

Ratcliff, James L., et al. 2001. The Status of General Education in the Year 2000: Summary of a National Survey. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider, Carol Geary, and Shoenberg, Robert. 1998. Contemporary Understandings of Liberal Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Stark, Joan S. and Lattuca, Lisa R. 1997. Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

internet resources

Evergreen State College. "Learning Community Commons." National Learning Communities Project. Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education. <>.

Green, Kenneth C. 2000. "The 2000 National Survey of Information Technology in U.S. Higher Education." The Campus Computing Project. <>.

Humphreys, Debra. Fall 2000. "National Survey Finds Diversity Requirements Common Around the Country." Diversity Digest. <>.

Kezar, Adrianna J. 2000. Higher Education Trends (19971999): Curriculum. Eric Clearinghouse on Higher Education. <>.

National Center for Postsecondary Improvement at the University of Michigan. 2001. "Reform and Innovation in Teaching, Learning, and Assessment." <>.

Project Kaleidoscope. 2001. "What Works." <>.

Deborah DeZure


During the 1980s and 1990s critics and advocates of U.S. higher education issued numerous reports calling for reform of the college and university curriculum. These reportsfrom individuals, panels of experts assembled by federal agencies, educational lobbying organizations, and private foundationsresponded to changes in postsecondary curricula implemented in the 1960s as the baby boom generation swelled college and university enrollments; and as the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, and Vietnam War protests led to demands for more relevant and student-centered curricula.

As the era of economic prosperity that fueled the educational innovations of the 1960s ended, a number of social and political forces converged to produce a climate conducive to calls for reform of the undergraduate curriculum. Then the economic recession of the 1970s focused the attention of businesses, students, and parents on employment prospects for graduates and the marketability of a college degree. A downward trend in college admission test scores and related concerns about a decline in U.S. economic competitiveness resulted in calls for higher educational standards at elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. At the same time, a Republican administration decentralized responsibility for educational expenditures in an effort to hold the states more accountable for educational improvements, and legislators committed to cost-effectiveness trimmed allocations to higher education.

In 1983 concerns about the widespread public perception of problems in the U.S. educational system were the impetus for the widely read report, A Nation At Risk (1983), issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In 1981 Terrel Bell, then U.S. Secretary of Education, directed the commission to examine the quality of education in the United States. Although the commission focused primarily on high school education, selective attention was also paid to higher education, elementary education, and vocational and technical programs. The commission's findings regarding decreases in high school students' preparation for college, declines in standardized college admission test scores and college selectivity, and general concerns about the quality of elementary and secondary education raised concerns about the impact of these problems on undergraduate education. Secretary Bell, and his successor, William Bennett, encouraged further scrutiny of college and university education and prompted calls for accountability at the postsecondary level.

An Emphasis on Curricular Content

The reports on higher education of the 1980s and 1990s often stressed the need to include specific courses or course content in postsecondary curricula, which had recently experienced a period of experimentation. Acceding to student demands for more choice of majors and elective courses, many colleges and universities in the 1960s and 1970s had relaxed requirements for the baccalaureate degree by reducing the number of required courses needed for graduation and permitting more elective coursesor by increasing the number and kinds of courses that would fulfill the requirements. Additional changes had occurred in major concentration programs, allowing students in many institutions to select from an array of courses to fulfill basic requirements or create majors based on their personal interests. Advances in knowledge and the creation of new disciplines, fields of study, and specializations also contributed significantly to changes in the college curriculum. Increased course options, increasing faculty commitment to advancing their disciplines, and growing departmental autonomy led to curricular fragmentation, while the combination of increased disciplinary specialization and student desire for degrees that would lead directly to employment created conditions conducive to the growth and diversification of postsecondary curricula.

In 1984 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), under the leadership of William Bennett, issued one of the first reports examining higher education. In To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education, Bennett, a former humanities professor, maintained that colleges and universities had lost a clear sense of the purpose of education. Defining the primary goal of education as learning about civilization and culture, he contended that students should study Western literature, history, and culture to obtain an understanding of the origins and development of their civilization and culture, as well as a sense of major trends in art, religion, politics, and society. Few college graduates, he argued, received adequate instruction in their own culture because faculty had succumbed to pressure for enrollments and to intellectual relativism, rather than assume "intellectual authority" for what students should learn (p. 20). Bennett also criticized faculty who taught the humanities in a "tendentious, ideological manner" that overtly valued or rejected particular social stances (p.16). According to advocates of the Western canon such as Bennett, the push for student choice and relevance in the curriculum had backfired, leaving U.S. democracy and society in disarray.

Bennett believed that knowledge of Western civilization and culture should be fostered through careful reading of masterworks of English, American, and European literature. He also recommended that students become familiar with the history, literature, religion, and philosophy of at least one non-Western culture or civilization. Five years later, Bennett's successor at NEH, Lynne Cheney, issued 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students. Arguing, as did Bennett, that a common core curriculum was essential to a coherent education, Cheney proposed a required curriculum that stressed the study of Western civilization, but also included the study of additional civilizations, foreign languages, science, mathematics, and social sciences.

From Curricular Content to Educational Processes

At the same time that Bennett issued To Reclaim a Legacy, a study group convened by the National Institute of Education (NIE) issued Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education (1984). Rather than prescribe the content of the curriculum, the NIE group recommended that institutions emphasize three conditions of excellence in undergraduate education: (1) student involvement, which would result in improvements in students' knowledge, skills, capacity, and attitudes; (2) high expectations, which must be clearly established and communicated to students; and (3) assessment and feedback, defined as the efficient and cost-effective use of student and institutional resources to realize improvements.

Whereas the reports of Bennett and Cheney emphasized improvements in programs of study and the quality of teaching, Involvement in Learning focused primarily on students and their learning. The report urged faculty and chief academic officers to agree upon and disseminate a statement of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required for graduation, and to systematically assess whether expectations for student learning were met. It contended that individualized and integrated education, learning communities, and the use of active rather than passive instructional processes would foster greater student involvement. Finally, Involvement in Learning called upon undergraduate colleges to expand liberal education requirements to two full years of study, and urged graduate schools to require applicants to have a broad undergraduate education to balance their specialized training.

Higher education associations and other concerned parties issued responses to these federally sponsored calls for reform. All accepted the need to improve liberal or general education and decried the perceived erosion of curricular quality. In 1985 the Association of American Colleges (AAC) published Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community, which described the work of the AAC Project on Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of a Baccalaureate Degree. The AAC committee responsible for the report argued that contemporary students were less well prepared for collegiate study, were more vocationally oriented, and were more materialistic than those in previous generations. The baccalaureate credential, the committee argued, had become more important than the course of study, and colleges and universities had surrendered to the demands of the marketplace rather than developing creative approaches to a changing environment. The report also chided faculty for abdicating their corporate responsibility for the undergraduate curriculum.

In Integrity in the College Curriculum, the AAC claimed that faculty were "more confident about the length of a college education than its content and purpose" and that the major in most institutions was little more than "a gathering of courses taken in one department" (p. 2). The committee identified nine content-related experiences that constitute a "minimum required curriculum." This set of experiences, intended to provide students with the general knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes needed by citizens and workers in the contemporary world, consists of: (1) inquiry (abstract logical thinking and critical analysis); (2) literacy (writing, reading, speaking, and listening skills); (3) understanding numerical data; (4) historical consciousness; (5) the sciences; (6) values; (7) art; (8) international and multicultural experiences; and (9) study in depth (one's major specialization). The AAC urged faculty to take responsibility for designing educational experiences that provided students with a "vision of the good life, a life of responsible citizenship and human decency" (p. 6). The committee also recommended that educational programs help students see the connections among domains of knowledge as well as connections among areas of study, life, and work.

The critique and recommendations that Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation, offered in College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (1987), greatly resemble those of Integrity in the College Curriculum. Boyer noted eight points of tension in the curriculum, including the curriculum itself, the conditions of teaching and learning, and the priorities of the faculty. Boyer argued that vocationalism, intense departmentalism among faculty, the fragmentation of knowledge, and the loss of cultural commonalities and coherence in general, had weakened the undergraduate curriculum.

Boyer asserted that colleges should develop students' proficiencies in reading, writing, and composition, as well as their capacity for social and civic engagement. He recommended a set of general education objectives that emphasized seven areas of inquiry: language, art, heritage, society, nature, ecology, work, and identity. Boyer urged educators to stress the connections among these discipline-driven areas of inquiry, to relate knowledge to life experiences, and to emphasize the application of knowledge beyond college. He discussed the undergraduate major as well, arguing that such specializations should have both an identifiable intellectual content and the capacity to enlarge students' visions of the world. Boyer believed that a coherent educational experience would help students develop as individuals, and would also foster a community of learners.

An emphasis on the quality of student learning experiences in reports issued by AAC, the Carnegie Foundation, and others replaced the focus on programs and good teaching common to the NEH reports. In College, Boyer reasserted the NIE's call for greater student involvement in learning and urged faculty to incorporate active learning techniques in their classrooms. Both Boyer and the AAC included discussions, small group and collaborative projects, out-of-class assignments, and undergraduate research among the active learning strategies that faculty should employ to engage students in the educational process and to convince them to take greater responsibility for their learning. In 1988, in A New Vitality for General Education, a second AAC task force summarized the increasingly shared sentiment that what was taught was likely less important than how it was taught.

The task force responsible for A New Vitality asked faculty to engage students not only as active learners, but to see them as co-inquirers who must become reflective about their own learning. The task group noted that rather than simply suggesting useful teaching techniques, it was redefining teaching: "We propose approaches that make it possible for us to find out not just what our students learn but how they learn it and what motivates them. Informing students about the purposes of our courses and program, obtaining sophisticated feedback from them, and collaborating with them are indispensable activities under this expanded definition of teaching"(p. 39).

Continuing Scrutiny of General Education and the Major

Where Integrity spotlighted the undergraduate course of study in general, A New Vitality examined the rationale, purposes, and scope of general education, as well as issues of implementation. The report eschewed both normative proposals like those of the NEH and the typical distribution requirement system that "sidestepped" important debates about the content of the curriculum and instead offered "a conglomerate of courses conceived along specialized disciplinary lines" (p. 48). A New Vitality argued that general education programs should develop specific competencies and abilities in students, and that these competencies (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving, inquiry in writing) must be grounded in content. The question of what content was suitable for all students, the task group acknowledged, was complicated by the diversity of the student body, which differed by "age, race, sex, social and economic background, abilities, attitudes, ambitions, and goals" (p. 6).

The task group proposed a broad plan for improving general education that included integrating general education throughout the undergraduate years, improving student advising, involving commuter students and improving residential life on campuses, expanding cross-cultural experiences, creating cross-disciplinary seminars for faculty and students, and organizing campus think tanks to explore the issues of undergraduate and general education. The report also called for student involvement in the assessment of general education, and of administrative support for creative efforts toward improvement of general education programs.

The AAC issued a second report on general education in 1994, titled Strong Foundations: Twelve Principles for Effective General Education Programs. This report was based on the experiences of seventeen institutions that had revised their general education curricula. Claiming that flawed conceptions of general education as breadth requirements that merely exposed students to different fields of study needed to be replaced with a new understanding, the report outlined twelve principles focused on communicating the value of general education and fostering support for it among students, faculty, and administration.

Concerns about course requirements and the proper content of general education curricula, however, continued. In 1996 the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a group known for conservative educational ideals, published The Dissolution of General Education: 19141993. Based on a study of fifty elite colleges and universities, the report claimed that since 1964, many of the required basic survey courses that taught students about the historical, cultural, political, and scientific foundations of their society had been purged from the curriculum. Course requirements in foreign languages, the sciences, mathematics, history, literature, and philosophy were reduced or virtually eliminated, and students now chose courses from broad and formless distribution categories. As a result of decreases in general education requirements, students were not learning a common core of knowledge.

Another AAC task force focused specifically on the undergraduate major (or study-in-depth). The Challenge of Connecting Learning (1991) presented the results of a three-year review of liberal arts and sciences majors in the context of liberal education. Members of the AAC national advisory committee developed a set of organizing principles that guided the work of disciplinary task forces appointed by twelve participating learned societies. In its charge to the task forces, the committee asked the learned societies to address (1) faculty responsibility for shaping major programs; (2) organizing principles for study-in-depth; (3) processes for integrating learning; and (4) relations between the major and other parts of the undergraduate curriculum. Students, the committee contended, had a right to expect coherent and integrated curricula that addressed and encouraged relationships among subjects of study. Integrity in the College Curriculum urged faculty to help students develop critical perspectives on what they studied and to aid them in connecting what they learned to their lives and to the world of work. Finally, the committee appealed to faculty to create more inclusive communities of learners by reducing barriers to underrepresented students. Abridged reports of the twelve individual task forces were published in Reports from the Fields (1991).

In 1988 a report of the Professional Preparation Network, Strengthening the Ties That Bind: Integrating Undergraduate Liberal and Professional Study, argued that educators could use different plans to achieve similar purposes. A national task force of instructors from liberal arts and professional fields identified ten student outcomes that were common to both professional and liberal arts education, as well as specific outcomes unique to either type of program. The authors hoped that recognition of common purposes might ease tension in the debate between liberal and professional education and provide opportunities to develop proposals for integration.

General Commentaries on the State of Higher Education

A few reports of this era examined higher education in general rather than the undergraduate curriculum specifically, and these reports often included some recommendations for curricular reform. A 1985 Carnegie Foundation Special Report, Higher Education and the American Resurgence, argued that education was essential to the advancement of key national interests. To ensure political, economic, and social health and progress, higher education must produce individuals who can think creatively and act with conviction and concern. A coherent general education program would educate students for civic responsibility. To develop graduates who would think creatively and act responsibly, the report advocated active learning in the classroom and experiences in public service.

In To Secure the Blessings of Liberty (1986), the National Commission on the Role and Future of State Colleges and Universities expressed similar concerns about a constellation of social, political, economic, and educational conditions. According to this report, high dropout rates, poor achievement of underrepresented minority students, adult illiteracy, and the growth of the U.S. underclass jeopardized American society. Thus, the report recommended the integration of experiential and service learning into the undergraduate curriculum in order to expand knowledge about the workplace, cultivate a commitment to the public good, develop students' international perspectives and communications skills through the study of foreign languages and cultures, and improve graduates' abilities to understand science and technology so they could contribute knowledgeably to public discussions. The commission also urged state institutions to provide remedial education.

In 1986 the Education Commission of the States, in an attempt to identify how the states might effectively support improvements in postsecondary education, published Transforming the State Role in Undergraduate Education: Time for a Different View. Noting the challenges facing higher education (including student preparation for a changing society and workforce, diversity, and student involvement), the report recommended student assessment at all levels. The National Governors Association, in its 1986 report, Time for Results, also considered assessment a key to improving undergraduate education, arguing that assessment results should not only be used for improvement but also shared with the public. The recommendations on assessment in To Secure the Blessings of Liberty were more cautious, with the authors advising that assessment be used primarily to enhance program quality rather than as a means to ensure accountability.

In January 1993 four leading private foundations convened a working group to examine the question of what society needed from higher education. The resulting report, An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education, echoed concerns about student dropout rates, low educational standards, and credentialing: "The simple fact is that some faculties and institutions certify for graduation too many students who cannot read and write very well, too many whose intellectual depth and breadth are unimpressive, and too many whose skills are inadequate in the face of the demands of contemporary life" (Wingspread Group on Higher Education, p. 1). The report challenged higher education institutions to model the values they taught, to offer students' educations opportunities to experience and reflect on their society, and to include moral and spiritual development among their goals. Furthermore, institutions needed to recommit themselves to student learning by setting higher expectations for learning and by effectively helping students to meet those expectations. Finally, the report urged institutions to align education with the personal, civic, and workplace needs of the twenty-first century. Many of the specific recommendations of the report focused on setting, communicating, and assessing goals and expectations.

The higher education community has responded in different ways to these various reports. Some colleges and universities have used the reports to stimulate discussion about the curriculum on their campuses, while a number of campuses have revised their major and general education programs. It is unclear, however, which of these actions were directly attributable to the calls for reform. The reports also had their critics. Feminists and pluralists disagreed with the NEH recommendations for assuming that a canon of works that all students should study could be identified, and for insisting on a Western humanities curriculum that excluded ideas from individuals of different classes, ethnicities, nationalities, faiths, and gender. Others challenged the ideas that students should passively accept tradition and that liberal education truly served society. For example, Daniel Rossides (1987) claimed that liberal education masked a conservative social agenda focused on preserving the self-interest and power of social elites. According to Rossides, the humanities were no longer relevant because the world they interpreted had disappeared.

See also: Academic Major, The; Curriculum, Higher Education, subentry on Traditional and Contemporary Perspectives; General Education in Higher Education.


American Association of State Colleges and Universities. 1986. To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Report of the National Commission on the Role and Future of State Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Association of American Colleges. 1985. Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Association of American Colleges. 1988. A New Vitality in General Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Association of American Colleges. 1991. The Challenge of Connected Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Association of American Colleges. 1991. Reports from the Fields. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Association of American Colleges. 1994. Strong Foundations: Twelve Principles for Effective General Education Programs. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

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Lisa R. Lattuca


The term curriculum has been associated with academic study and training in higher education since its appearance in vernacular English in the sixteenth century. At several points in its history, the term not only defined an identifiable course or plan of study in a university context, it also referred to the corollary body of scholars engaged in that coursework. As such, curricula refer to both an individual and collective learning experience. In common terminology, a curriculum vitae (literally, the course of one's life) is the accepted form of an academic resume, a brief account of a scholar's education and career.

In the United States, the curriculum designated the form and content of baccalaureate experience in early American colleges beginning with Harvard College in 1636. Because the term lent itself readily to documents in both English and Latin, university administrators and faculty used it frequently, and it appears consistently throughout seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sources. As institutions of higher education expanded rapidly throughout the period preceding the Civil War, the essential curricula forming the core of their instruction continued to follow the academic inheritance of the classical Greek schools and medieval European universities. The quadriviumthe "higher" arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and musicfortified more basic instruction in the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. As early American universities matured, national and institutional leaders influenced curricula and advanced new ideas concerning university philosophy and purpose, especially as land-grant institutions and state universities were founded across the country in the nineteenth century. Academic course offerings in higher education typically reflected both federally recognized and funded curricula along with more localized learning needs. In this respect, curricula continue to serve functions recognizable in higher education today.

While most modern academic departments can trace their roots to the historic plans of study described in the quadrivium and trivium, more recent developments reflect the increasing specialization of academic and administrative systems within institutions of higher education in the United States. In the twentieth century, most societal institutions invoked rational principles and a scientific method of development. Just as the Industrial Revolution fueled technological advances in the nineteenth century, technological revolutions have propelled the form and function of educational institutions. In the latter half of the twentieth century, increasing percentages of the adult population in the United States enrolled in increasingly diverse types of colleges, universities, and vocational programs. The national demographic of education has shifted, and the curriculum in higher education has responded to and reflected changing political, socioeconomic, and cultural dynamics. Growing recognition of professional fields and the attendant expansion of professional education has also fostered curricular adaptation and evolution. As these developments have changed expectations for higher education, they have also transformed perspectives on the meaning and development of curricula.

Reflecting on Curriculum in Higher Education in the United States

Curriculum enables people to make sense of our lives and the world around them. Individuals use curriculum with varying degrees of intentionality to interpret events, to deepen their understanding of what they learn and who they are as learners, and to create a shared experience for teaching and learning. In simplest terms, any curriculum presents an academic plan, a designed progression of coursework framing a student's experience in higher education. Certain curricula or designed plans mandate more rigidity and more refined coursework for the student, but minimum undergraduate requirements commonly include these emphases: inquiry and critical thinking; enhanced literacy; numerical comprehension; historical consciousness; scientific, ethical, and artistic pursuits; some kind of international or multicultural experience; and in-depth study in the student's chosen topic or field.

Consonant with emerging conceptions of curriculum, contemporary perspectives on the curriculum in higher education in the United States consider the necessity of such academic plans and planning as representative of both educational and social experience, as a way of being in, understanding, and assessing a constantly changing world. In turn, researchers and practitioners alike are focusing on learning experiences in general and shared learning experiences in particular. Researchers in curricular studies regularly engage sociological, historical, cultural, psychological, and pedagogical issues in quantitative and qualitative inquiries. Increasing emphasis has been placed on measuring the outcomes of curricular design and implementation, measurements that help students and teachers alike determine the efficacy of curricula, the students' balance between a breadth of knowledge and depth in training, and the continuity of learning and experience.

Developing Shared Learning Experiences: Recurring and Emerging Models of Curricula

Several theorists have described the design, organization, and delivery of curricula in higher education, and scholars and practitioners from all disciplines have suggested approaches to curricular planning. Many of these approaches are anchored in the rationalist tradition underpinning institutions of higher education in the United States and offer rational models to guide contemporary curricular planning.

Ralph Tyler, arguably the first commentator on postsecondary curricula in the United States, published Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction in 1949. He posited four essential questions that could be used to structure knowledge in educational contexts: (1) What purpose shall the curriculum serve? (2) What experiences should the institution and its faculty provide to meet these expressed purposes? (3) How might the curriculum be organized most effectively? (4) How can one best determine the outcomes of learningthe purposes and attainment of the curriculum?

In her 1962 book Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice, Hilda Taba provided, in essence, the first manual for curricular planning for a generation of college and university leaders. Taba furthered Tyler's essential questions by arguing that a change in the curriculum signals a change in the institution and charges teachers to play an active role in establishing goals and objectives for learning. Taba introduced a seven-step model for developing curriculum, and her efforts to create an orderly process spurred educational scholars to develop additional models and approaches.

Paul Dressel (1968) and Clifton Conrad (1978) advanced rational approaches that acknowledged Tyler's and Taba's seminal works but provided a more modern perspective on topics such as decision-making strategies, political influence, and the role of stakeholders in the curricular planning process. In the early 1980s, William H. Bergquist and his colleagues described eight curricular models that encompassed all undergraduate experience in the United States, models that described knowledge structured according to institutional mission and purpose: thematic, competency, career, experience, student, values, future, and heritage. Since the publication of their 1981 book Designing Undergraduate Education, other leading curricular scholars have refined and revealed diagnostic and formulaic assessments drawing upon the taxonomy of Bergquist and his colleagues and the curricular dimensions, or elements, essential to organizing curriculum. In a 1983 article Conrad and Anne M. Pratt examined these elements and introduced a model that considered inputs or curricular design variables that influence the process. Joan S. Stark and Lisa R. Lattuca, authors of the 1997 book Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action, also considered influences upon the planning process, in particular the characteristics of academic disciplines. They revisited the idea of curriculum as an academic plan and suggested that this can be used to develop a course, a program, or even a comprehensive college curriculum.

Since the 1980s several curricular scholars, including Kenneth A. Bruffee, William G. Tierney, Jennifer Grant Haworth, and Conrad, have advanced a perspective that acknowledges students as active participants in determining and assessing their learning experiences in higher education. Their work, along with that of Marcia Baxter Magolda, Marcia Mentkowski, and Becky Ropers-Huilman, marks a departure from traditional, rational approaches and embraces the view that curriculum is more than a static plan created by faculty to direct the academic progress of students. These scholars contend that curriculum is socially constructed and, as such, reflects the engagement of students, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders. This perspective is attracting renewed attention as enrollment and hiring patterns continue to shift in higher education. College and university students embody the most culturally diverse segment of the national population in the history of the United States, and they will inherit a complex of social, political, economic, and environmental problems. While the composition of student enrollment has changed, so has the number of students. In the early twenty-first century some 70 percent of high school graduates in the United States matriculated in some form of higher education, and educators have pointed to the need for the curriculum to address more holistically a learner's lifelong experience and the profound variation characterizing these experiences.

Emerging Challenges in Creating Shared Experiences

Arguably the most significant opportunity for leaders of learning communities will be to create enriching shared experiences in healthy tension with diverse individual needs and interests. Existing and emergent perspectives on learning and curricular design, however, are not value-neutral and have engendered unprecedented competition and conflict. Fewer and fewer curricula, too, accommodate comprehensive training for individual learning styles and needs; national trends reflect increasing specialization and fragmentation of subject matter and methodology. Those who wish to create shared learning experiences will face challenges from within and beyond academe, challenges that ask people to understand their roles as teachers and learners, incorporate multiple perspectives on curricular content, and reconsider established curricular features including general education, the liberal arts, and the academic major.

Incorporating multiple perspectives on curricular content. Like any other aspect of an educational institution, the curriculum responds to external and internal forces and reflects the identity, assumptions, and perspectives of decision makers affecting it. Curricular development and practice are not apolitical processes, nor are they static. A flurry of publications in the national media in the early 1980s testified to the importance of curricula in higher education; not only was the curriculum seen as an academic construct, it was also understood to be the repository of cultures, both national and multinational, and the historic medium for the transmission of cultural themes. The conflict of the so-called Culture Wars at the center of the discourse over educational missions and curricula in the 1980s and 1990s reflected a larger and longer shift in the national demographic of education. As more and more women and minorities matriculated in institutions of higher education, the curricula available to them as learners broadened as a result of this development. Some educational leaders and programs balked at more inclusive measures to redesign the curriculum, but the resurgent interest in control of curricula clearly signaled that what students read, and who decides what they will be reading, still shapes the national conversation about higher education and its purpose. Unlike any other single feature of an educational institution, the curriculum represents the core values and shared beliefs of communities. Developing shared learning experiences, then, requires that educational leaders invite and engage the values and beliefs of not one, but many communities.

Balancing the individual and collective experience. Curriculum is the rational conversation between learner and coursework in higher education. It is the students' experience, on any given campus, of any given course; each syllabus represents one sequential or supporting piece of evidence that students have indeed engaged the institution. Curricula are as distinct as learners, and more differentiated than ever before in the history of education, in terms of guiding framework, applications and practices, and enrollments. Just as the term was used to imply both direction and pace in its original context in Latin, curriculum, much like a river, follows both a recognizably fluid and formed course.

In the United States, people in the twenty-first century will likely change careers and jobs several times in the course of their productive years. As the nature of employment changes within society, educational goals likewise shift. Curricula serve as an important measure of learning and student achievement within a shifting landscape, so any institutional assessment of curriculum should provide compelling answers to increasingly demanding questions and needs of the society, the state agencies funding higher education, and the individual learners and participants themselves.

Understanding general education as the formed course. In the typical college and university setting, general education courses structure the core instruction that is provided by and required by the institution, and these courses usually occupy the first two years of coursework, regardless of a student's designated or intended field of study. These courses stress skills rather than specialized intellectual training, and they are usually designed to overlook disciplinary boundaries, to articulate and expand the implications of knowledge for students. Educators have long agreed that the integration of general requirements within curricula should repeatedly emphasize learning how to learn, the common process by which each individual student integrates their advancing knowledge and skills. Students must be able to meaningfully relate their classroom experiences and the insights they gain in less structured environments. Likewise, general education courses, or core requirements, at most institutions of higher education are designed to evoke the analytical and interpretive sensibilities of scholars and of learning communities, while also providing broader frames of reference for students.

The purpose of general education requirements is to provide coherence and unity in an otherwise specialized undergraduate experience, and to promote the social and intellectual integration of the students enrolled in these courses. Many university leaders have also argued that general education requirements provide students with readily accessible strategies for discerning truth, knowledge, and insight, that is, developing the most general and most useful skills and habits of the mind.

General education requirements are intended to provide a common experience but critics contend that such requirements cannot resolve the problems created by fragmentation and specialization. General education must be considered in concert with liberal and disciplinary studies in order to create meaningful, shared learning experiences.

Recognizing liberal arts as a tradition of fluidity. In historical consideration of higher education, the liberal arts have formed a core curriculum since the formation of medieval universities in Europe, and they comprise a tradition of intellectual training that transferred to most American universities. In theory, a liberal education affords educational experience that encourages and sustains lifelong learningan education defined not necessarily by specific knowledge, as Paul L. Dressel explained in 1968, but instead by the ways in which individuals think and behave. In practice, the curricula of liberal arts balances innovative and imitative subject matter for undergraduates, generating a breadth of knowledge and depth of insight in the course of required readings. The historical emphasis of the liberal arts is tangible and includes the essential courses listed in the quadrivium and trivium; in modern institutions of higher education, however, the subject matter, pedagogy, and consequential learning of a liberal education typically orient students to the broad array of disciplines represented in the humanities in the evolved curriculum of medieval universities. A liberal arts curriculum asserts that certain texts have been proven historically to be most instructive to think with, although all texts might be useful to think about. In closer reading of these selected textsthe canonlearners engage in elemental inquiry, gaining insights into the nature and meaning of life, human purpose and ethos, and societal organization and improvement.

Leading theorists of liberal curricula have suggested that such an education improves students' cultural awareness and supports the education mission with an identifiable moral agency that affords students an appreciation of wisdom gained in the past. The emphasis is on knowledge as its own endthat learning is valuable for its own sake, and that learners engaged in learning on such levels inherently contribute in service to their communities, in the solution of complex problems, or in the creation of more informed public policies.

Understanding the purpose of the academic major. Under the influence of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European university models, specific academic fields of study began to appear in the United States in the twentieth century, and since the 1950s, majors have become the standard units of curricular organization, the most obvious identifying feature of any student's coursework. Faculty and scholars affiliated with institutions of higher education have rearranged and aligned themselves according to subject matter and specialized areas of interest and research; departments have relocated themselves within institutions in more segmented and narrowly defined components. Learners are asked to organize and align their own interests and coursework according to these educational constructs. The dominant scientific paradigm mandates increasingly refined focus in order to further inquiry and specify useful study. Rapidly expanding numbers of departments, majors, minors, and subspecialties have occurred throughout American higher education since the 1970s. Recognizably interdisciplinary fields of study (such as the liberal arts) have subsequently receded. This, some critics charge, has encouraged an overemphasis on specialization and denies students the opportunity for a liberal education.

See also: Academic Major, The; Curriculum, Higher Education, subentry on National Reports on the Undergraduate Curriculum; General Education in Higher Education.


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Kathryn Dey Huggett

Nora C. Smith

Clifton F. Conrad

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