The new "Archways" curriculum at Nebraska Wesleyan University features an integrated core organized around pressing global issues and requires all students to participate in experiential learning.

An Integrative Approach to Global Learning at Nebraska Wesleyan University

May
2013

Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU), a private liberal arts university in Lincoln, Nebraska, is in the process of developing a new general education program. The new program, titled "Archways," would replace the sixteen-year-old "Global Citizenship Preparation" curriculum. But despite what the change in title might suggest, the new curriculum does not put any less emphasis on global and civic learning at NWU. Rather, the Archways curriculum represents a new understanding of what "global" means in the twenty-first century, says Kathy Wolfe, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a member of NWU's curriculum revision team. Archways still has a strong focus on global issues, but it approaches these issues through more intentional, integrated experiences designed to scaffold key skills across students' full college careers. An integrated core organized around global "threads" helps students make connections across disciplines, and new cocurricular partnerships ensure that all students apply their learning in real-world settings. "Our goal is still to prepare global citizens, but our understanding of that has shifted," Wolfe says. "It's not just having some courses in international culture—we want students focusing on the global commons, these issues that are transnational and require global interdependence, so they engage and develop empathy."

Core Threads and Scaffolded Skills

One of the biggest changes in Archways is that it replaces many of the old distribution requirements with an integrated core in which students complete two course "threads." Each thread is a series of three courses linked by a common theme of global significance. Faculty working on the threads have been rethinking what diversity means in a global context—"it's not just race and ethnicity, but also gender and sexuality and class," Wolfe says—and they have developed threads addressing issues ranging from global warming to migration, identity, and death. Students in a global warming thread might study the ecological ramifications of climate change in a biology class, the rhetoric of the public debates in English, and the difficulties of implementing international climate initiatives in a political science class. While the individual courses are still based in discrete disciplines, the connections between those disciplines are made explicit as students approach the same issue in each class with a different set of perspectives and problem-solving tools.

Perhaps the second biggest change in the core curriculum is the new emphasis on scaffolding skills—especially writing, oral communication, and civic discourse—across all four years of the curriculum. The old curriculum was full of high-impact practices designed to help students build these skills, Wolfe says, but they were heavily frontloaded in the first two years.

The general education committee has been working with faculty across the university to look at where these skills can be taught explicitly in courses within the majors so students continuously develop their skills and build on what they learn in introductory courses. The global studies major, for instance, requires students to write a senior thesis that demonstrates advanced writing skills, and the major's learning outcomes include the ability to assess and analyze global issues and develop an appreciation for other cultures, which puts a continued emphasis on civic discourse.

The global studies program also models the intentional, integrated approach to global education emphasized in the core curriculum. Students majoring in global studies share in the responsibility of developing their personal program of study and meet regularly with faculty advisors to discuss their educational goals and decide what courses and projects will best help them achieve them, says Sarah Jane Dietzman, director of global studies. Students choose an area of concentration—Asian studies, development studies, foreign policy, industrialized nations, or Latin America—and build a program that draws on classes from departments across the university. The broad range of disciplines exposes students to many different ways of thinking about issues, Dietzman says, and senior theses and independent study projects require students to make connections between their courses and cocurricular experiences such as study abroad.

Integrating the Cocurriculum

A stronger connection between students' courses and their cocurricular experiences is also a goal of Archways, Wolfe says, and the curriculum committee is looking for more ways to partner with student affairs staff. One such partnership is already underway with a series of living learning communities— designated housing areas for students who collaborate on campus programing related to a particular theme or issue chosen by those students. Current communities include a Green House focused on environmental issues, an International House, and a Sanctuary House that works with local refugee communities.

Archways will also feature a two-tier experiential learning requirement for all students—an exploratory experience (about twenty-hours engaged in service, an internship, field research, or other experiential settings) and an intensive experience (about forty-five hours). Kelli Wood, director of service learning, says many faculty members are already incorporating service learning and other applied learning experiences in their courses. Service learning can be a useful way for students to develop global perspective, Wood says, because the Lincoln, NE, area has a large refugee population, and Wood tries to match up community needs with courses studying relevant issues.

Wood also works with faculty members to develop assignments that make service learning reflective and deliberate. "It's important for students to know ahead of time about the community they are working with and what they want to learn, and to be intentional about their service," Wood says. "They shouldn't have the experience in the vacuum." Structured reflection after the service experience is crucial, she says—students should think not only about the connections to course material, but also the values at work in the communities and organizations they are working with, and how those resonate with the students' own values. Sometimes it's hard to evaluate the impact of their service in the community, Wood says, but the impact for students is immediate and apparent. "It really does change the students and the paths that they take... they've learned more about themselves in relationship to the world."

Reflecting on Experiences Abroad and at Home

NWU also strongly encourages all students who are able to study abroad. Some majors, including global studies and all the modern languages, require study abroad, and about a quarter of all students spend either a semester abroad or participate in winter-term or summer programs of several weeks. Like service learning, the study abroad experience should be deliberate and reflective, says Sarah Barr, director of global engagement. Students studying abroad are required to attend pre-departure orientation, and some elect to enroll in Barr's "Preparing for Education Abroad" course. "We can go into more depth there, really talking about how this fits into the rest of their education and their life after college," Barr says. "Hopefully then they'll remember what their goals are when they're abroad and maybe having trouble adjusting...so they can make choices that help them continue to work toward those goals."

Barr also teaches a course for students returning from abroad, "Processing the International Experience." The course meets once a week to discuss a range of issues related to their readjustment—from cultural issues such as gender relations to differences in scheduling and pace of life. Neither the pre-departure nor the returning course is required, but many students also stop by Barr's office to discuss such issues, she says, and she hopes that all students, either in their coursework or in such informal meetings, will engage in some reflection about their experiences abroad. "I hope they'll gain a broader appreciation of culture generally and a more critical understanding of their own culture, as Americans or other aspects of their identity. I think it's easier for students to get a sense of that somewhere else, where that's not the norm."

To ensure that all students participate in this kind of self-conscious reflection about their education, the university will begin using e-portfolios for assessment. The curriculum committee is still working out the details about what key learning artifacts students will upload at what stages for the general education assessment, but several departments are already using e-portfolios to assess their majors. More important than the assessment role, however, is the role of e-portfolios in helping students be more reflective about their education. NWU students tend to be very involved, Wolfe says, with multiple majors and dozens of projects and activities, but many students "collect all these things like badges, and they can't tell you what it all adds up to." E-portfolios can help students and faculty engage in vocational reflection during advising sessions—"talking about the connections between their knowledge, skills, values, passions, and the communities they will join, and discuss where those things intersect so they can figure out what to do," Wolfe says. "It's going to help them be more intentional."

Institution: 
Nebraska Wesleyan University