CTE Supports Eight Units Undertaking Curriculum (Re)Design

By Elizabeth Dickens, Kristin Sloane

Monday, May 17, 2021

From the School of Data Science to the Department of Drama, the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) is engaging in curriculum design work with eight different units across Grounds.

In 2020, the CTE launched its Curriculum (Re)Design program, helping departments, programs, and schools (re)design curricula for majors, minors, graduate degrees, or any other connected group of courses.

“The curriculum is this entire set of experiences; it's not just a list of classes. It's about course design. It's about advising. It's about community,” said CTE Assistant Director Elizabeth Dickens, who leads the program. “With your curriculum, you're communicating to students, ‘this is who we are. This is the community that we would like you to join. This is the community that will prepare you, through this degree, to go out into the world.’”

For the program’s first year, the CTE took on the Department of Drama, Department of Religious Studies, and Environmental Thought and Practice program in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Urban + Environmental Planning program in the School of Architecture.

Now, the next grant cohort has been selected. The 2021 awardees include the School of Data Science, McIntire Department of Music in the College of Arts & Sciences, Teacher Education program in the School of Education and Human Development, and Master of Urban Design in the School of Architecture.

With the latest recipients, the CTE is not only expanding, but also diversifying its portfolio, which now includes representation from both STEM and humanities disciplines, more Schools across Grounds, and a mix of developing new and revising existing curricula in both undergraduate and graduate programs.

All the units work closely with Dickens throughout the process and receive up to $15,000 in funds. She also has the help of CTE Postdoctoral Research Associate Jessica Taggart and draws on expertise from across UVA, partnering closely with Organizational Excellence’s Senior Associate Mary Brackett and the Institutional Research and Analytics team for change management and assessment support, respectively.

Curriculum design is a long process that can take anywhere from 12-24 months, depending on the scale of the project. The process uses a backward-design approach, in which faculty begin by articulating their goals for student learning and use these to inform the rest of the design. Faculty in each unit are highly involved at every phase, with Dickens ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and that the focus is ultimately on giving students the best possible learning experience.

The CTE checked in with the new grantees, and also spoke with a 2020 recipient that is making great strides toward completing their curriculum redesign.

2021 Grant Recipients

There’s significant diversity among the CTE’s latest group of grant recipients: the projects span four schools and include humanities and STEM fields as well as a mix of designing two new curricula and redesigning two others.

The new grantees’ projects are motivated in part by the continually evolving nature of their fields. In the McIntire Department of Music, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs Fred Maus pointed to this as he described their undergraduate major redesign: “The Department of Music last revised its curriculum in 1997. Since then, scholarly and creative music fields have changed dramatically. We need to rethink the major requirements in light of a contemporary understanding of music and sound and our current teaching resources.”

The School of Data Science is designing its undergraduate curriculum in the context of a new school in a relatively young field. Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Program Director Brian Wright, who is leading the design work for the School, noted the importance of this unique opportunity. He said, “We're very concerned about creating a culture that's focused on students and teaching them with very cutting-edge techniques. The field of data science is moving very quickly. Despite that, it's a new field, right? There are not these norms about how you actually build a curriculum. … We feel the burden of that. We're creating this new discipline and then also this new curriculum that in very real ways will define the field.”

The 2021 grantees also have a common commitment to center equity in their new and revised curricula. Associate Professor Mona El Khafif and Assistant Professor Ali Fard are leading the design of the School of Architecture’s new Master of Urban Design. They noted that the Curriculum Design grant “presented a great opportunity to examine and rethink the histories, methods and practices of urban design in relationship to issues of social inequality and environmental justice” as they build the new degree.

Similarly, the School of Education and Human Development’s Teacher Education program sees equity and justice as a primary motivator as they redesign one undergraduate and two graduate degrees to better prepare teachers to meet the challenges of P-12 classrooms. Associate Professor Natasha Heny, the chair of the curriculum design committee, noted, “Teacher Education faculty and staff are working to redefine our identity and programs through a social justice lens where we are committed to putting into practice (and curriculum) an Antiracist pedagogy. The announcement for the grant was the spark that ignited our already smoldering commitment, and we are thrilled to have received it. We now have the resources, structure, and support (financial and human) to do this hard work well!”

2020 Recipient Spotlight: Department of Drama 

As these new grantees begin their work, the Department of Drama is nearing the completion of their undergraduate redesign, since applying to the CTE’s Curriculum (Re)Design program in Spring 2020. Their faculty initially tried to undertake the process on their own, but quickly realized they required some expert help.

“The department had sensed a need for several years to revisit its B.A. curriculum—[the result of] new faculty, new trends in the field, new areas, new interests among both current and prospective students,” said Richard Will, who is an Associate Professor and holds joint appointments in the Drama and Music departments. “I became chair (of Drama) in 2018. There had already been some effort toward [revising the curriculum], and there was more during my first year, but it became clear that this was going to need a process like CTE runs.”

Leading the work is Dave Dalton, who is the chair of the curriculum committee and an Assistant Professor, General Faculty in Acting and Directing. He said the group is proposing integrating dance and theater into the Drama major, a change prompted by student interest in more elective opportunities that count toward their degree. With Dickens’s help, the group is balancing retaining the best parts of its existing curriculum, while identifying opportunities for improvement.

“The goal wasn't ever to wipe out what we have and come up with something completely new,” said Mona Kasra, an Assistant Professor of Digital Media Design. “We, very carefully in conversation with faculty, tried to identify, especially in the beginning, the strength of the current curriculum and try to build upon that.”

Fundamental to the curriculum process is focusing on the overall goals for student learning: What is the purpose of the new curriculum? At the end of the program, what should students know, value, and be able to do? Drama faculty collectively identified a few of their goals as wanting students to be able to develop and build upon their own analytical, creative, and technical abilities as an artist scholar as well as collaborate with others to express ideas, perspectives, and stories, among other competencies.

During this process, Kasra said the department had some difficult, but productive conversations around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We want to look into each course and think about who will be privileged in terms of the community or diverse backgrounds of our students, what communities we serve, what kind of learning technologies we’re adopting. It’s going to be a work in progress, even after we're done. There's a lot of work that needs to go into changing something that has been in place for 20 to 30 years. It’s going to take some time.”

Time, along with open mindedness and patience—Drama faculty have acknowledged how challenging yet rewarding this experience has been.

Will shared, “This is probably the hardest project I've undertaken with a group of faculty. … There really is a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm and willingness to do the hard work to make the changes, and that is a big deal because it is a lot of work. It's a lot of meetings, and in the middle of everything else that's going on and has been going on for the last year and a half especially, I have felt privileged actually to be working with a group that has that kind of enthusiasm and sense of purpose.”

Dalton said initially there had been some unease among faculty as they’ve had their courses in the spotlight. “Seeing the faculty shift from that anxiety to the perspective of seeing things from a potential student’s point of view and responding from the place of wanting the curriculum to grow and change to represent the students that we want to have in the future has been really rewarding. I think it has helped us grow as a department and brought us together a lot more than any other moment.”

As the department nears the end of their process, Dalton believes Drama faculty are beginning to see the payoff.

“Overall, the understanding now that the faculty has of these new proposed curricular requirements I think is deeper and more fundamentally integrated into their understanding of what the future of the department may be,” he said. “What we're hoping is that that investment in this process will help them to be advocates for a new curriculum and help the students to navigate and get the most from it.”

The CTE expects to open the call for proposals for the next round of grants in Fall 2021.

“If anyone may be considering applying, it's definitely a process, but a process that's rewarding,” Dalton said. “I think we can see the difference that it has made, having tried it a little on our own and then seeing how far we've been able to come with the CTE.”