The Case for Course Consistency

GenEd courses come up for recertification every five years. Faculty reviewers read the instructor’s narrative, examine syllabi of all the course sections, look at assignment prompts, review samples of student work, check on section sizes and instructor support — a five-year tune-up to ensure that every GenEd class is humming along smoothly.  When maintenance is needed the most commonly cited problem is inconsistency across sections. Like Darwin’s finches, when each instructor is an island, their courses tend to evolve into distinct species.

Why is this a problem?

The antipodes are clearly undesirable. We cannot have entirely different classes masquerading under the same course name. This is unfair to students who sign up for a class that no longer matches the catalog description, or who do poorly and sign up to retake a class only to discover the course materials, format, and expectations are all different. But it is equally unfair to instructors to insist that the class is unalterable. I firmly believe students benefit when faculty are encouraged to play to their strengths. For example, when I teach the GenEd class, “Disasters: Geology vs. Hollywood,” I spend a little more time on Earthquakes than other instructors. I am a geophysicist and oversee Temple’s seismic station, so I bring extra knowledge and research experience to the subject. The same class when taught by the department’s paleontologist likely spends more time on asteroid impacts and extinction events.  But we cover the same set of topics. The student learning objectives and experiences match.

So what is the right balance between consistency and academic freedom?  I endorse an 80:20 split, where roughly 80% of subject matter is the same regardless of whether a class is taught by instructors from the departments of, say, History, Sociology, or Anthropology, and 20% reflects the special expertise the instructor brings from their discipline. One can argue the percentages, but to my mind, a departure of 50% or more is clearly too much. Believe me, I’ve seen even larger differences between syllabi.  These problems generally disappear when instructors get together and when there is a course coordinator overseeing the process.

Quality Control Versus Academic Freedom: Walk the line, a 2018 article in eLearn magazine tackles the issue of course consistency versus academic freedom. They make the point that standardization is even more important in an online environment — and during the current pandemic, more than 95% of Temple’s GenEd is taught online. They write A learner in a traditional classroom knows to read the syllabus, come to class, and follow the professor’s instructions. When learners enter an online classroom, it may not be evident how to find the syllabus, the professor, or the instructions. Standardization in course design within a program can effectively address these variables, without affecting an instructor’s academic freedom.

This is why GenEd mandates that all online sections start with the same Canvas template, because: While the instructor retains control of course content, adhering to consistency in course design fosters student success in navigation as they begin each new course within a program. Research indicates professors who use standard course templates observe a decrease in student confusion, and appreciate a framework that allows instructors more time to be “creative” with content.

Emerson famously wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In GenEd, the hobgoblin I fear is foolish inconsistency as a consequence of instructors working in isolation.

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