Requiring an education

University-wide core requirements occasionally discussed in recent years, vice-principal (academic) says

Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane says mandating certain courses is one way of ensuring that all Queen’s graduates have a certain level of base knowledge.
Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane says mandating certain courses is one way of ensuring that all Queen’s graduates have a certain level of base knowledge.
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Each department at Queen’s has their own set of core requirements which students must take in order to graduate.

Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane said he thinks these departmental requirements are enough and Queen’s doesn’t need across the board requirements.

“University-wide core requirements have been occasionally discussed in recent years,” he told the Journal via email. “But at present any proposal to introduce such a thing seems a long way off.”

Deane said the University doesn’t have any core programming because some faculties already have so many core requirements that students can’t fit anymore into their schedules, but that this could be re-evaluated.

“An opportunity might present itself as a result of the academic planning process presently underway,” he said, adding that it’s still uncertain whether this could be financially or academically beneficial.

“Whether or not standardized programs would reduce costs is unclear, although it is obvious that less choice, coupled with the practice of teaching common courses in large sections could save money.  The academic benefits or cost of doing this is also unclear.”

The Queen’s Diversity and Equity Task has suggested the University implement a mandatory course to decrease discrimination on campus.

“Mandating certain courses is one way of ensuring that all Queen’s graduates have a certain level of base knowledge; similarly, if the University wishes to mandate courses that would increase awareness of racial issues —or of economic issues, or whatever—that might be an effective means of ensuring all graduates have an appropriate level of understanding of the subject,” he said. “Personally, I believe a more effective approach would be to ensure that such globally-important issues become integrated in the curriculum as part of the academic planning process, with appropriate modifications determined by discipline or program.”

John Pierce, Arts and Science Associate Dean (Studies) told the Journal in an e-mail that he agrees with Deane that it’s better to integrate core material into courses which students are already taking.

“To stipulate a set of core course requirements would restrict a student’s ability to explore areas of interest outside of a Major, Minor or Medial,” he said. “The general feeling in Arts and Science is that our students like the freedom to construct portions of their degree according to interests they may discover in the course of study.”

Pierce said he thinks instituting a required writing course, like at some other universities, would stifle this freedom.

“The high caliber of students entering Queen’s, with all of those entering Arts and Science required to have a 12U English, means that a writing course is not considered essential to their success here,” he said. “In addition, it is hoped that writing experience is built directly into courses for each discipline, thereby keeping students active in writing assignments and writing skills across the curriculum.”

Another proposal for a broader approach to required courses is a liberal arts program like the University of Toronto’s Trinity One Program.

“There have been some ongoing discussions about creating a liberal arts program at Queen’s, but there has not yet been a formal move to develop such a program,” he said. “The academic review and planning exercise undertaken by Principal Woolf may lead Arts and Science to consider more concretely the implementation of such a degree.”

With the academic planning process in place many departments are reviewing their core requirements, Pierce said. Each department decided which courses they will teach and which ones will be core requirements. They then send their proposals to a number of boards for approval.

“They are approved by the Departmental curriculum committee, are then forwarded for approval to the Faculty of Arts and Science Curriculum Committee, and finally are approved at the Faculty of Arts and Science Faculty Board,” he said, adding that the boards have been busier than usual with proposals.

“There are many changes to requirements underway at the current time,” he said “There has been a significant increase in submissions to the Faculty of Arts and Science Curriculum Committee and many of these submissions are attempts by departments to maintain academic quality within increasingly limited budgets.”

Biology department head Mel Robertson said the whole process of changing courses from idea to implementation takes about a year.

He said the core requirements for the biology department have evolved over years of teaching and many proposals to boards at the departmental and faculty level.

“The latest changes [to the core requirements] were made in the mid-’90s,” he said. “We added a bit of flexibility primarily to give some choice at the 300 level.”

Although major changes haven’t been made in a while, Robertson said the department is constantly re-evaluating its course offerings.

“We just went through an internal academic review last summer,” he said. “We had a retreat ... and reviewed all our courses and core requirements.”

The University mandates that each department have an internal academic review every seven years but other reviews are continuous, like the Undergraduate Studies Committee which meets all the time, he said.

“There are still a few things that need to be discussed a bit. It’s not a trivial process to change our curriculum,” he said. The process includes incorporating student opinion through direct feedback and USAT evaluations.

French department undergraduate chair Agnes Conacher said evaluations are especially crucial to required courses because enrollment doesn’t fluctuate very much from year to year.

“I teach one of the core courses. I share it with a another professor, and we’ve had to change our core course because 17th and 18th century literature was getting harder for the students,” she said. “It’s now a PowerPoint course and because we’ve had to get rid of TAs, we’re doing certain readings in class. … It’s much more interactive now.”

Next year the second year core course, FREN 221, will be revamped and combined into one section instead of two, she said, adding that although the structure of the core courses is often changed to keep them current, the list of required courses hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years.

“This was done a long time ago, I’m sure they decided students are to do a certain number of courses in grammar, the pre-modern world, in fracophonie, etc,” she said, adding that budget cuts haven’t changed this.

“The curriculum has changed, but the required courses haven’t,” she said, referring to the fact that although professor Eugene Nshimiyimana, the only francophonie specialist, left Queen’s last summer due to budget constraints, francophonie is still a core requirements for all French majors.

Core requirements work a little bit differently in engineering than in other faculties because it is accredited by a third party, Kimberly Woodhouse, dean of applied science, told the Journal in an e-mail.

“Engineering is a professional degree granting faculty and as such our programs are accredited in a manner similar to medicine,” she said. “The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science offers, in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Science, 10 engineering programs accredited under the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board of Engineers Canada (CEAB) that cover multiple disciplines found within the Profession of Engineering.” 

 In addition to the 10 programs, there are also a number of options and streams. While streams direct students into one area of study and don’t need to be accredited, options have a set of core courses associated with them and each option is separately accredited, she said.

“Accreditation requires that graduates possess 12 key attributes upon graduation, several of which require that students obtain education outside the traditional disciplines of engineering including an understanding of the interactions that engineering has with the economic, social, health, safety, legal, and cultural aspects of society, the uncertainties in the prediction of such interactions; and the concepts of sustainable design and development and environmental stewardship,” she said. “This aspect of the curriculum is met through complementary studies requirements.”

Woodhouse said engineering students have program requirements but also must also complete courses in Complementary Studies amounting to at least 225 Accreditation Units (AU). One credit in Arts and Sciences is the equivalent of 72 AU. Students must have over 2,000 AU to graduate.

“The complementary studies program encapsulates the requirement of understanding the central issues, methodologies and thought processes of the humanities and social sciences,” she said. “These include courses taught through classics, development, drama, film studies, environmental studies, political science and music.”

In addition to complementary studies and program-specific requirements, students must take courses in engineering science, she said.

“The curriculum must include engineering science content that imparts an appreciation of the important elements of other engineering disciplines within the Faculty for all programs,” adding that with so many requirements, engineering students who wish to do a dual degree must take a fifth year. Woodhouse said the Applied Science faulty is undergoing a complete curriculum review because CEAB is undergoing an overhaul of their accreditation process.

“In response to other jurisdictions and in recognition of the need for a more flexible curriculum structure, the board is moving to an outcomes based assessment process that will come into full effect in 2014,” she said. “The move to an outcomes based accreditation, similar in many ways to those used in medical accreditation and common for Faculties of Engineering outside of Canada, including the United States, Europe, Australia and Britain, means a fundamental change in how courses will be developed and assessed.”

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