How Survey Data is Supporting Our Curriculum Design: Five Key Points

How Survey Data is Supporting Our Curriculum Design: Five Key Points

The editorial team is hard at work this summer in the thick of planning the possible structure and features for the new Readers. This is in preparation for wider faculty discussions about which content will be included within this structure that will be happening this fall. It is an opportune moment to describe how some of the data from the surveys has shaped our editorial conversations and initial decisions. This is an annotated ‘executive summary’ for those who are interested in the process of how research can support curriculum design.

The data I am referring to is a faculty survey and a student survey that were conducted in fall 2017 with the express purpose of gathering information about how faculty and students engage with the current Readers, or online moodle materials, in their classes – In what ways do we use these materials for in-class activities and towards what aims? What are the current and aspirational prioritized skills that we want students to learn in our classes? What do students want to practice and refine through engaging these materials? What learning features could best assist these teaching and learning goals?

With 53 discrete faculty respondents (currently around ~70 faculty participate in the program at UNC Asheville) and almost 400 student respondents across the program, some important patterns begin to emerge. If you want to view some of this information in more depth, here are the data snapshots: Faculty Survey Course Comparison or Faculty-Student Survey Comparison.

Point 1: Both faculty and student surveys affirm an alignment of a few underlying core values present within the Humanities Program: engaging with diverse perspectives, context, and skills related to critical thinking.

In particular, engaging with diverse perspectives was at the top of the list overall for what faculty ask students to do with the materials, while this component came in third among student responses. To back this up further, skills related to cultural/intercultural literacy placed in the top five priorities for both faculty and students. While working with ‘diverse values and beliefs’ is already part of the mission of the program, these survey responses note a continued shared desire to work towards further inclusivity in terms of both content and skills related to respectful engagement. I’ll discuss how students are pointing to ways this might happen under Point 5.

Context and critical thinking also ranked high across different dimensions of the surveys. Critical thinking as a broad category, as well as micro-skills connected to critical thinking, especially inquiry, examining assumptions and evaluating use of evidence, found their way into the top five priorities within each course. For the editors, these data points continue to moor our conversation to the question: What do we most want to help students to be able to do through the Readers?

Within critical thinking, inquiry keeps rising to the surface of our priorities, as we begin to see the different ways inquiry could support other desired aspects of learning – and how care in choosing relevant contextual elements that support, rather than work against, inquiry creates a finely-tuned necessary partner in that endeavor.

Point 2: Students indicate that they are mostly preparing for class through passive, rather than more active modes that would begin the process of analysis and integration.

In the student survey, students report on their preparation habits as ‘often’ reading the introduction (47.2%), reading the reading (46.6%), watching video modules (if applicable) (36.1%) and taking notes (36.1%). Writing questions in advance to ask in class about the material ranked lowest: ‘never’ (43%) and ‘often’ (7.8%).

This type of information suggests an opportunity to move the needle on student preparation. Anecdotally, faculty sometimes mention their frustration about lack of preparation: ‘students don’t seem to be reading’ or ‘discussion fell flat today’. There are a variety of reasons why faculty may be experiencing these issues that all of us have observed at some point. The data reveals one major reason for this experience: passive preparation. For the editors, it points us towards figuring out ways that the Readers could assist students to prepare better for class by guiding more initial processing of the information they are encountering before they ever walk in the room.

This led to the ‘primed and ready’ or PAR strategies we piloted in spring 2018 – brief activities to enhance student preparation in relation to particular materials, as detailed in this earlier blog post. Part of our work is to clarify what skills students are beginning to work towards through the PARs and maintain faculty autonomy so that faculty can choose a PAR that supports their learning goals for that material. This is an example of how the data led to a pilot strategy that has become a possibility for the Readers.

Point 3: The most prominent in-class activity is oral discussion of questions provided by the instructor.

Faculty and students indicate a significant amount of focus on discussion in class, but with less consistent preparation for engaging in this type of learning activity. As a further data point, this in-class oral discussion relies on faculty asking questions rather than student-led inquiry, whether in advance of class through email or in class (some faculty do note their own pre-class assignments that involve students posting discussion questions online). All of this helps us to begin to clarify the following questions: What do we expect students to learn through the pedagogy of discussion? How do we support students in preparing for discussion? Can we get students to a point of taking more of a lead in their own inquiry through learning how to craft productive questions? This data encourages us to become clearer on how discussion supports particular aspects of learning and create structures to help students learn how to ask better questions.

Point 4: Student responses that differ from faculty perceptions help suggest possible approaches to teaching interdisciplinarity and multiple perspectives.

While Point 1 was about alignment, the differences may be even more illuminating. Students rank ‘viewing materials from disciplinary perspectives’ as their second highest priority after contextualization of materials. In contrast, faculty rank this in the middle of their priorities. This provides some insight into an approach to teaching interdisciplinarity that might resonate with students through marking and modeling various disciplinary perspectives.

A second observation is the high value students place on wanting to ‘identify missing perspectives’ and ‘points of view that agree or disagree’, neither of which made it into the top five for faculty priorities. This gap might flesh out what students see as valuable entry points when learning how to engage with diverse perspectives. One person in the student focus group was keen to note how these two components would be of great value to him in a current project he was working on in his major, but also beyond his academic life.

And as a third observation, the largest gaps between faculty and student surveys showed up in two areas – contemporary connections and note taking ranked very high for students and very low for faculty. I will leave discussion about the latter for a different post and focus on contemporary connections. Faculty are clear that they do not want to reframe every material to make it relevant to students’ current, shifting interests. Faculty do not want to dismiss the value of examining an idea on its own merits or cater too much to student self-orientation, or ‘why should this matter to me?’ standpoints. At the same time, during focus group discussions, faculty wanted to primarily share the contemporary examples they regularly use in classes to either initiate discussion or explore the implications of what is presented in the materials.

How do we navigate these different perspectives? While it is important to not include news items, ideas, or questions in the Readers that will be outdated quickly, we also need to acknowledge the value of creating a connection for students – it may be more about asking students to consider a particular concept, such as ‘national identity’ or ‘what makes something sacred’ in their own experience before or after engaging with a source. That small invitation signals how learning is personal and relies on checking in with one’s own prior-knowledge in relation to what is being encountered in the source. The editors are invested in finding ways to help students connect through PARs or other inquiry processes while addressing the valid concerns of faculty.

Point 5: Data is only part of what can inform curriculum design.

Statistics provide a baseline for discussion rather than an end point. What I have most enjoyed about this work is how the data has led to several important conversations among faculty in the focus groups and beyond about our own understanding of pedagogy and mission in this liberal arts core program. I am thinking about the critique from a few colleagues about the ‘language of skills’ – a valid red flag in light of the push for higher education to market itself as teaching skills related to employment to prove its relevancy (See Molly Worthen’s New York Times Op-Ed, ‘The Misguided Drive to Measure Learning Outcomes‘ or Linda Adler-Kassner’s article [1]).

While we may agree that students are learning and practicing particular habits of thinking, the sooner we can take control of the value-laden language of skills and define it in relation to what we most want students to walk away with at the end of their time in our classrooms, the better. Why? It creates more flexible possibilities for our students to understand how their education influences a wider landscape – for jobs, maybe and likely, but more so for their own lives as ethically aware citizens, as intellectually curious humans, as problem-solvers and community-responsive members, as empathetic listeners able to respectfully navigate multiple perspectives, and creators and enjoyers of beauty in one’s own and others’ cultures, among other potential outgrowths of engaging with the Humanities — what does it mean to be human in all its various dimensions?

This question is at the heart of the Humanities Program and we are taking the opportunity to listen to the feedback from students and faculty to help attune the Readers so that they may become better curricular allies for students who are just beginning to undertake this life-long journey.

[1] Adler-Kassner, Linda. “Liberal Learning, Professional Training, and Disciplinarity in the Age of Educational “Reform”: Remodeling General Education.” College English 76:5 (2014): 436-457.


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