How does an academic department decide on their courses?

Now that I am an assistant professor, I perform scientific research, teach formal classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and I advise undergraduate students, as well as a smattering of other administrative or organizing-based activities. While I have performed nearly all of these in past job positions, the advising is a completely new aspect which has provided valuable insight into my other activities. The University of Maine serves a large number of undergraduate students, and many degree programs are specifically designed as preparation for specific career fields. Undergraduate students in my department now ask for my advice on which courses to take to best finish their degree, and this has led to some interesting discussions on why certain classes are required or not, and why certain classes are offered or not. I realized that the mechanics of course development are not well known to students, or even to academics who haven’t participated in it, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned.

Deciding on content

At the university level, courses are created and designed to offer a certain level of core material made up of basic concepts to introduce students to different fields of information; courses like introduction to biology, or general writing techniques. These may be referred to as ‘general education‘ courses and are designed for student audiences from many different programs at once. GenEd courses are taken in the first or second year of study in order to fill in any gaps from the very different high school educations students have, as well as teach the basics of information-finding and collaboration skills that they will need in other classes. GenEds are usually required before students take high-level courses in specific areas of study. Often, GenEds or introductory courses cater to hundreds of students per year, and there are several instructors to cover all the course sections, as well as teaching assistants, who provide instruction. There are additional core University requirements that each department can decide how to handle, such as the UMaine Capstone Experience requirement for students, which requires students to create a senior project related to their major. Within each academic department or unit (for example, Animal and Veterinary Sciences), there are core course requirements specific to that field of student that all students enrolled in that program need to take (for example, these requirements for Bachelor’s of Animal Science with a pre-veterinary concentration).

One factor in the decision about course content is simply which skills or knowledge students will need in order to enter the workforce related to their field of study. For example, undergraduate students who are intending to go on to a veterinary degree are often enrolled in pre-vet programs designed to prepare students for that further degree and to meet those application qualifications. As such, they will need to learn everything from anatomy to physics. Any content which is required to make the degree meaningful will also be required for students to pass in order to graduate, and means that it must be taught often enough that students have an opportunity to take it. Thus, core or required classes might be held at least annually, and sometimes multiple times a year. If the usual instructor is unable to teach it for a period of time, or there is turnover in the department, a temporary or adjunct instructor can be brought in on a short-term contract to ensure that course can be offered regularly.

Another factor is the area of expertise of the faculty instructors, who are research and/or teaching faculty with long-term contracts, such that those classes will be offered for at least as long as that person is employed. Because areas of expertise change over time, and because faculty come and go, this often drives the evolution of an academic department’s curriculum focus over decades. For example, I have a 50% research and 50% teaching appointment over a 9-month contract, which equates to 12 credits worth of teaching or formal mentoring in my department over the academic year. While I do teach some courses which were already set by the department, I had enough room in that 50% appointment to propose and teach two classes of my own design, one of which has now become a required course for animal science undergraduates specifically because my area of expertise has grown in importance and popularity in the past few decades. Departments will hire new faculty or instructors specifically because of their area of expertise and which direction they want the overall academic program to go in.

A more minor consideration on course content relates to university budget models, and whether academic departments get additional faculty or instructor salary for teaching students from outside their department – essentially a question of where tuition revenue is spent. Departmental course content is tailored to the intended student audience.  If a course is popular across the university but does not have applicability or appeal to the students within that faculty or instructor’s department, it can be difficult to justify spending time on it because most instructors or faculty are contracted to specific departments or academic unit budgets. However, a course with broad appeal could be taught outside of our contracted time, such as during winter or summer sessions, or potentially during the academic year as “overload teaching” which is above the number of credits outlined in our contact. This usually pays on top of the 9 or 12 month salaried contracts of instructors, but is restricted by the lack of free time that most faculty face.

Theory or approach to teaching

After settling on what should be taught, how, then, does a department decide how a class should be taught or constructed? How broad or specific should the information be, and how will the assignments or course requirements assess what students have learned? How will skills be taught? Broadly, this is called pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, and is something which many faculty find themselves responsible for knowing even if we have not gotten an opportunity to develop our pedagogy in previous jobs. Prior to being an assistant professor at UMaine, I taught several different courses, including ones with pre-set materials that I re-hashed and presented in my own way, and ones with materials that I collected and decided entirely how to present (taught as electives). It wasn’t until that I was a long-term member of an academic department that I was able to participate in setting the direction of departmental courses, and to consider what we teach and how.  As part of my application to my current position, and my tenure packet (application to get a forever contract for my job), I am required to explain my teaching philosophy and how I put those ideas into practice in the classroom. I have previously shared some of those working documents.

As an example: it’s important to learn about how microbes affect animal health. Do I need to spend all my time lecturing to provide that info, or is there another format of information sharing I can use? I certainly need to lecture some, to introduce new topics or walk students through reading complicated graphs. But, it’s important that I also teach students how to find this information and assess it on their own, because they will be doing that for the rest of their life after they leave the classroom. Thus, I need to design my class materials and timeline to provide information and empower students to develop those same skills that I learned to get where I am: reading graphs, considering multiple and conflicting study results, forming questions and how to go about finding the answer. I might start a class with some lecture, followed by an assignment where students have to identity a question they have about microbiomes, then write down the expertise or people needed to find the answer from multiple perspectives, and finally outline what they thought that team could get done in one year.

Getting courses approved

There are many steps in the course approval process and, naturally, plenty of paperwork. In addition to a draft syllabus, a course proposal form is required which provides the logistical details (how many credits, lab or lecture, in person or online, and more), and describes the goals and scope of the content (introductory or experienced level), intended audience (students in which departments and which year of study), and how it will provide necessary skills or info to them. Importantly, the proposal form must describe how the new course will complement current courses that are offered at the University. Being able to show that there is a demand for this specific course, or that it is needed for professional development of the students, will support the course proposal during the approval process. This last part requires the person proposing the course to communicate with instructors of similar classes who might have students that will want to take this class. Are there aspects that you could include in your new course to make this more relevant to them, or to connect this new class to existing classes?

Once the proposal form is complete, it gets sent to the unit or departmental faculty committee for discussion, and may be returned for revisions. This committee might be made up of senior faculty in the department, or all the faculty if it is a small department. Not only can other faculty help improve the courses, but the time you spend teaching a course is time you can’t spend teaching other things that the department needs. So, your colleagues need assess whether this course is a good use of time and effort.

If the course is approved by the department, the proposal goes to the college curriculum committee which is made up of faculty from multiple different but related departments (for example, one from each department in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture). Often, faculty sitting on this committee are Undergraduate Coordinators in their own department, and have a lot of input into the scope of what undergraduates study.  After that committee, the proposal then goes on to the university curriculum committee to make sure it complies with university-wide standards and formatting. There are different forms and committees for undergraduate or graduate courses, and if you create a cross-listed course which can be taken by senior undergraduates and graduates, you’ll need to submit both forms and talk to both committee sets.

If a course is approved by the university, it will be assigned a number and will start appearing on the course catalogue. If the course is going to be required for students, though, it will usually be offered as an elective for the first year or even two before it is required for incoming students (current students can take it as an elective). Courses may also fulfil multiple requirements at once. For example, my AVS 254 Intro to Animal Microbiomes is required core subject material for AVS students, but also fills a university general education requirement to take a course that includes population and environment-scale information. In learning about the microbial communities, students also learn about microbial transmission between individuals, lifestyle choices and impact on host microbes, and interaction with the environment and affect on host microbes.

Matching faculty expectations to student experiences

An important consideration for course design is matching faculty expectations with student experiences. For example, the course materials which faculty see describe the course, but those faculty do not attend the course and experience how that information is shared. Thus, faculty may think that students are receiving information or skills, but the way that it is presented is not approachable or pertinent for students and they are unable to reuse what was presented in the course. Even faculty did audit a whole undergraduate course, we don’t have the same perspective that students do in that we might already be familiar with the material and we would not be able to identify where a lecture left out general information that would be critical for someone who is new to this. The student perspective is also driven by their need to do well in the course, not only by receiving a high grade but also by absorbing as much information which can help them in other classes or in their future career. Thus, aspects of the course which students think are interesting or important are not necessarily the same aspects that faculty identify as important.

Aligning the faculty and the student perspectives requires regular assessment of the course to make sure it is providing the necessary training and information to students. Often this assessment takes the form of faculty input and opinions, or changing needs of post-graduation industry career needs. It also relies on end of the semester evaluations of student performance (grades), and student feedback and evaluation of the courses. Student feedback can be unreliable when feedback on the course is preoccupied with comments which come from a place of personal bias or outright hostility. And, most course evaluations don’t provide enough granularity in the questions to thoroughly assess student perspectives on different aspects of the course, forcing students to give overall ratings. However, student feedback can be valuable when combined with other sources of information or asks more detailed questions.

To that end, Samantha Coombs, an AVS senior undergraduate researcher and I are designing surveys to gather student and faculty mentor perspectives for the UMaine AVS program Capstone Experiences courses, AVS 401 and 402. These courses are required for undergraduates to take to earn their bachelor’s degree, and require students to propose, conduct, and present results on research – often for the first time in their time at UMaine. If this wasn’t stressful enough, students typically work on projects which are part of faculty’s research portfolio,  and both students and faculty can be impacted by mismatches in expectations versus the reality of those collaborations. While we won’t be fully sharing the results of those surveys, we will be sharing summaries, and how the responses impacted future course materials in AVS 401 – the course in which students are first launched into research.

Improving the Curriculum for Future AVS 401 Undergraduates

Authors: Samantha Coombs and Dr. Sue Ishaq

Affiliations: School of Food and Agriculture at University of Maine, Orono

Keywords: Capstone, AVS 401, Undergraduates, Faculty, Stress, Mentor, Curriculum


AVS undergraduates are not prepared to complete the requirements of AVS 401, before taking the course. In the AVS degree program, it is expected that undergraduates will gain knowledge, experience, and ideas to create a research project of their own. In many cases, AVS undergraduates are completing their capstones with never having performed a research project on their own. This is stress-inducing due to undergraduates having to learn both how to complete a research project, and how to write and complete a proposal. Undergraduates are given the choice to join a research project guided by a faculty mentor, but this leads to striving to meet expectations. Others struggle due to not knowing what project or path to go down. Each student needs a different situation that best fits their needs; this project will assist in trying to create a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The question I want to figure out is, can we adjust the curriculum in AVS 401 to meet the requirements of all AVS undergraduates for them to succeed in their capstone research? I hypothesize that we can create a curriculum that meets the requirements of undergraduates by surveying both faculty and undergraduates on their different expectations and experiences. Methods of research that will be conducted are, surveying AVS and other degree professors, surveying undergraduates who have taken AVS 401, reading syllabi, and reading scientific articles. The impact that this research will have is to create a class that is a one-size-fits-all for AVS 401 undergraduates. The curriculum will be adjusted due to the responses from both parties. The results will be a class that teaches undergraduates what they need to know to improve: the quality, efficiency, and reduce the stress of capstone projects.

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