In much of higher education, as at UP, most course titles and descriptions have served a utilitarian function: they identify the disciplinary perspective on offer, and the basic content to be covered. Such titles and descriptions serve their purpose. They allow us to describe basic curricular components, to evaluate transfer credits, to meet accreditation requirements, etc..
Such titles and descriptions are also often dead boring. They don’t reflect the real energy, thought, and wisdom that goes into our courses. Most of our titles and descriptions don’t tantalize students and our shared educational community with all the wonderous things they can learn.
In my new role as Core director, I’ve found myself recently spending more time than I’d thought possible thinking about course titles and descriptions. Why? Because one major impetus for the Core curriculum revitalization is to bring more coherence, intention, and engagement to the shared educational experience at UP. While most of that work will happen in classrooms and the curriculum itself, some of that work starts before classes ever meet in how we think about our Core courses. The most basic manifestation of that thinking is course titles and descriptions: what, at their essence, are our courses up to?
Historically, many Core courses have doubled as disciplinary introductions. That won’t change, and there is lots of disciplinary content that is important for students to learn. But there are also many students taking Core courses who may never again need said bits of disciplinary knowledge. They will, however, need ways of thinking offered by the liberal arts. These ways of thinking, in our revitalized Core, are summarized by the six “habits of heart and mind” that organize Core classes. And we can help to make them coherent, intentional, and even tantalizing by crafting learning-centered titles and descriptions.
Making distinctions between educational materials and pedagogy that are “learning-centered” and “content-centered” is central to much contemporary educational research. The old “sage on the stage” model of education is “content-centered,” while the new interactive educational experiences we use to engage students and enhance how they learn and grow is “learning-centered.” Titles and descriptions exist at various places on the continuum between learning and content centered, with the best ones striking an engaging balance.
As one example from UP of how to strike this balance in a title, I like our English department Core course ENG 112: Thinking through Literature. The title used to be more content-centered: Introduction to Literature. But the faculty realized the course was about more than just introducing students to a discipline. It was also about helping student who might never again take a literature course to recognize the value of using literature to enhance our ways of thinking and understanding the world. All it took was a subtle, but meaningful, change of a few words.
I’ve also been playing with this shift for my department’s introductory psychology course, which we’ve forever called “General Psychology.” Fine, but not very engaging. We’re moving the title to something like “Psychological Science” to better reflect the scientific lens on offer. And I’m thinking through ways of making the shared description more inviting and learning-centered (while still under the registrar’s 60 word limit), moving from:
General Psychology offers an overview of psychological science, which uses theory and empirical methods toward understanding thought, feeling, and behavior. The course will introduce students to the methods of psychological research, and to topics including personality, learning, development, cognition, social psychology, abnormal psychology, the biological basis of behavior, and mental health.”
To something more like:
How does the mind work, and how can science help us better understand human experience? This course approaches such questions through an overview of major topics in contemporary psychology and through an integration of biological, cognitive, and sociocultural perspectives. Students will deploy a scientific lens in the exploration of human nature and examination of contemporary social problems.”
By themselves such changes may not have a huge influence on student learning experiences. But over time the hope is that they can help faculty, students, and any other interested community members to share an understanding of how we can all benefit from a broad engagement with the liberal arts and with the specific knowledge, skills, and values on offer at UP. There is even some evidence that such “invitational” framing of college courses in material such as syllabi can enhance the actual learning environment.
And Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning further offers a guide on creating good “catalogue materials” with a nice summation:
Course catalogue materials…may seem somewhat disconnected from the process of course design. You may consider these aspects of your course to be mere “advertising” (or, depending on how you believe students select their courses, to be altogether irrelevant). Yet the act of composing your course description can be a useful “self-test” on the road to great course design. Challenging yourself to describe the central issue(s) of your course, the kinds of material students will encounter, and the goals which you have for them by the end of the semester in a brief paragraph can be just the thing to clarify the voice in which your syllabus and assignment prompts will speak.”