One of the most striking things about college is the deep-seated understanding that it lasts four years. Whether it’s how college is represented in popular media or how the higher ed community talks about college, there is a general assumption that it should last exactly four years. When discussing pathways that would allow students to graduate in three years, faculty often complain that it would “ruin the college experience!” When faculty and administrators talk about graduation rates, they express concern if students take more than four years to earn their degrees. So, there is clearly a strong sense that college should last four years; and yet, when you look at our actual practices, we seem intent on determining students’ futures in their first year, semester, or even quarter!

In my previous posts, I have discussed potential shortcomings in how we determine prerequisites and structure majors. I have also challenged the prevailing idea that college is a competition that pits students against each other. Finally, I have written on how creating an artificial scarcity of good grades and treating courses as gatekeepers are often mistaken for true academic rigor and excellence. Additionally, I have seen university policies based on the statement “if they aren’t successful in their first two quarters, they won’t be successful in the major.” In various ways, all of these practices and cultures focus on compressing the selection of “successful” students into the first year of the curriculum and treating the rest of the four years as—well, in this model, I’m not sure what the point of having four years is!

When I reflect on my own experience through physics, the reality is that the curriculum is designed as a spiral. We circled back through the same material multiple times, adding incremental complexity as we went. I saw most material at least twice (if not more) as an undergraduate and then at least one more time in graduate school. It is not an understatement to say that at the early stages in my higher ed journey, it was my natural ability to be a student and NOT my actual level of physics mastery that allowed me to continue. 

Starting with my very first semester of undergraduate physics, I was excellent at solving word problems. So, I scored high enough on my exams to make it into the “physics track.” I relied on my test-taking skills again to make it through my first electricity and magnetism course, but my lack of understanding persisted through many versions of this material. It wasn’t until I was studying for senior exams that I had some key breakthroughs in comprehension.

Why do I share moments of this journey? First, I think many physics faculty and graduates of undergraduate physics programs would agree that it takes many iterations through physics concepts to really understand the material. So, that part of my journey makes sense and is probably unavoidable. And I think most higher-level academic skills, independent of the field of study, require a similarly iterative process to master. Second, this raises the question of why did I deserve the privilege of continuing along the physics track when others (who had the same potential to master physics but couldn’t perform on the initial tests) were denied this opportunity? 

This second question is critical for institutions to investigate going forward. Currently, many majors use a particular set of first-year courses to control enrollment in years two through four. And, because students who pass the initial set of hurdles typically manage to learn the material, we declare the system as “rigorous” and having the right “standards.” We can even point to data that supports this because years two through four are structurally designed to match the selection criteria utilized in year one. 

As just one example of structural elements that may be causing problems, consider my experience in physics where first-year success was evaluated almost exclusively based on a student’s ability to solve word problems. In this system, a student like me does not have to spend much time worrying about that skill and can instead focus on trying to learn the material. (So, even though I do not feel like I fully learned the material, I certainly started to.) For these students, their test-taking abilities or familiarity with solving word problems make them more likely to get an A, which serves as external validation of their abilities and allows them to approach the next year with a higher level of confidence. 

In contrast, a student that struggles with word problems likely spends most of their time focused on that aspect and has little bandwidth for absorbing the actual physics concepts. Unlike me, they do not even begin to learn the really important material. And they may earn bad grades as a result, which plants doubt and adds additional stress going into the next year. Some students may even be dropped from the program and forced to select a new major.

With this example, it’s easy to see how the design of first-year courses can create unnecessary barriers for students that would otherwise excel. While this example specifically discusses physics, I suspect the general issue of structural barriers embedded in first-year course design applies broadly across undergraduate institutions. 

Rather than this approach, imagine a university designed around the central idea that any student who wanted the full four years to master a subject would be granted this chance. What would that look like? One possibility would be to design the program by working backwards. A department would identify the outcomes they want for students. Some outcomes might be competencies like solving complex problems. Some might be more conceptually focused, like having an understanding of the core principles of a discipline. Each course would address a subset of these outcomes, and students would receive a score for each outcome in the course. Students would be required to reach a minimum level of competency in each outcome by the end of four years. In this system, students would know which outcomes each course focused on and would have more flexibility in selecting their path over the four years.

At first glance, this may appear to be a radical change. But in fact, for many majors, I believe that making this change would consist of two steps. First, a one-time investment in mapping outcomes to courses (something Engineering has already done for ABET and other units at UCI, like History have done to various degrees). Second, a one-time investment in a gradebook tool that converts traditional grading efforts into scores in the competencies. Of course, faculty that wished to modify their approach to assessment to directly align with this approach could do so. But, once these one-time steps occurred, the right programming and mapping of data would mean that faculty that wanted to essentially teach the same way could continue to do so as well. 

One might ask, what about the student that can not be successful in four years? Wouldn’t they end up wasting four years trying to master all the outcomes for the major? Done right, I suggest that this system provides students with even more information about their interest and ability to successfully complete a major in the first year than we currently do. Right now, they have a single letter grade in each course with limited understanding of how that correlates to what we expect them to be good at! The new system would provide a clear picture of the overall outcomes, what each course addresses, and what future courses will address. This will offer students a richer set of data to make decisions about the challenges they will face over the next three years and the degree to which they enjoy struggling to learn the different components required by the major of their choice.

This is just one example of how we can explicitly change the “transfer function” that is the undergraduate curriculum to better serve our diverse student population and provide them with more flexible—but well-defined—paths through majors. It also allows for a broader set of standards by not requiring a particular sequence of mastery while maintaining the high standards of excellence that we expect. While I made it through undergrad based on problem-solving skills and ultimately had time to develop conceptual understanding; in this design, students could make it through on their conceptual understanding (or other core skills), and ultimately develop problem-solving skills! In the end, new approaches give us a chance to evaluate if the outcomes we expect for our degree programs are really being met by the courses we are teaching.