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Great Books at Wright College: Building Curricular Coherence
Curriculum and Assessment Project for 2004-2005
by James C. Palmer, Ph.D and Dianne C. Gardner, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Administration & Foundations
Illinois State University

(Editor’s Note: Nationally recognized figures in community college education, Professor James C. Palmer and Professoor Dianne Gardner were enlisted at the inception of the National Great Books Academic Community grant project to help its participants conduct assessment projects and to consult in the need for the Wright College Great Books Curriculum and its faculty to evolve. (The assessment work they did can be found in the First Year FIPSE report section.)

Their latter efforts had two purposes. One was to help Wright faculty to create and agree upon a set of pedagogical goals, mechanisms for implementing them and instruments for measuring their effectiveness.These were necessary to give greater focus and direction and effectiveness to the Great Books education being offered students at Wright. In so doing the second goal was to create a “second stage” model for other Great Books Curricula at other campuses who were either looking to get an idea of what a new Great Books Curriculum could ultimately look like and do or who themselves were in the process of initiating a new Great Books Curriculum and were looking for possible ways to evolve the program once they had been established for a period.

Below, then is the methodology they used to work with the Wright College Great Books faculty over a series of meetings and is offered here in the hopes it will prove illuminating and useful to others.

Overview of the Project: The 2003-2004 Formative Evaluation of the Great Books Program at Wright College was based on student interviews and surveys as well as faculty interviews and focus groups. This process yielded a set of recommendations, which included the need to build curricular coherence, identify key learning outcomes, and then develop course and program-level assessments accordingly. These recommendations address a key outcome of the evaluation: while the Great Books Program had its devotees among the College's study body, many students did not realize they were taking Great Books courses, nor did they realize that the courses were intended to form a curriculum - courses that constitute an organized set of connected and challenging learning experiences.

The limited cohesion of these courses as a curriculum stems from the minimal criteria used to designate a "Great Books" course. At the time of the evaluation, Great Books courses were those in which at least 50% of the readings were from a master list of classic works. But if curricula are understood to be organized sets of learning experiences with aligned teaching, learning, and assessment processes, then the designation of the readings can only be seen as the first step in the curriculum development process. Ultimately, the strength of the program is not in the books per se but in the faculty members and their clear intention to offer Wright students a challenging curriculum and the necessary pedagogical support to help them succeed with it. Accordingly, Wright faculty members met four times with facilitators from Illinois State University to:

  • Develop a model of the curriculum;
  • Characterize key learning outcomes as a means of strengthening curricular coherence;
  • Develop course and program-level assessments, beginning with an audit of assessments that are currently used; and
  • Characterize and more fully describe effective pedagogy in the Great Book curriculum, so that it might be shared between Great Books faculty at Wright as well as with the faculty members other colleges participating in the FIPSE program.

Progress during the 2004-2005 Academic Year: After four facilitated meetings, the Great Books faculty working group at Wright College has accomplished two major tasks. First, they have developed a curriculum model that is based on four clusters of learning outcomes. A more complete description of this model is provided below. The development of this model, coupled eventually with a description of the pedagogy used toachieve desired learning goals, will help other colleges in the FIPSE program develop their own Great Books programs and assure that the curriculum remains alive at Wright College even if faculty members leave the institution. Second, the faculty working group has begun an audit of assessments that are currently used. This is an important starting point for developing course-level and program-level assessment protocols.

What Remains to be Done: Fall 2005, the group could complete its curriculum and assessment work by:

  • Refining the model (i.e. deciding on final wording of the three core areas);
  • Defining specific outcomes within each cluster;
  • Determining the evidence that the college and Great Books faculty members already have to judge the extent to which outcomes have been achieved;
  • Determining what additional evidence faculty members will need to collect in order to determine if students have achieved these outcomes;
  • Developing strategies for gathering, analyzing, sharing, and using evidence of student learning for these outcomes;
  • Identifying and documenting exemplary approaches to teaching within the Great Books curriculum
  • Studying the experience and performance of specific student subgroups, including women and minorities;
  • Disseminating information about the Wright Great Books curriculum - including assessment techniques, outcomes, and pedagogy - to faculty members within the FIPSE consortium and community colleges generally.

The Great Books Curriculum Model at Wright College: This year's discussions led to a curriculum model identifying four clusters of student outcomes that represent the faculty's goals for student learning: enhanced critical thinking, enhanced communication skills, aesthetic appreciation, and engagement with the larger society. Specific outcomes for each cluster are grouped at three levels that represent the student's growth as she studies the Great Books, moving from the personal insights that are gained through reading the books, to deeper understandings that emerge through discussions about the books with others, and (finally) to lifelong artistic and civic engagement that is in the spirit of the great writings. (See illustrations below.) The model is not intended to be a linear learning model but rather a means of articulating what students will learn and, consequently, how the Great Books Curriculum will be assessed. Faculty work on assessment will involve collecting evidence of the extent to which these learning goals are achieved, as well as using this evidence to reflect on the curriculum itself and how it may need to be changed over time.

Great Books Curriculum Model

Level One:

  • Understanding and Interacting with Text
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Aesthetics
  • Social Engagement

Level Two:

  • Sharing knowledge and insights with others
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Aesthetics

Level Three:

  • Extending understandings from interacting with the text and GB Community into the larger college community and beyond
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Aesthetics
  • Social Engagement
Assessment Matrix
  Critical Thinking Communication Aesthetics Social Enactment

Outcomes Evidence Outcomes Evidence Outcomes Evidence Outcomes Evidence
Level 1                
Level 2                
Level 3                

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