Following a yearlong planning and development process involving hundreds of members of the campus community, “Leading With Distinction,” Syracuse University’s new academic strategic plan, was unveiled earlier this month. A launch symposium will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 26, from…
Shared Competencies Course Tagging Project Builds Momentum
In 2018, the University Senate adopted six Shared Competencies, a set of integrative learning goals that apply across the University. The goal is to help students connect what they are studying in their courses and majors to skill sets that are valuable to future employers and graduate programs. Students can use the competencies to track their personal and professional development and tell their own story.
In an effort to make this process transparent, faculty from across the University are adding tags to each course. Students will be able to use these tags to work with their advisors and choose courses within their major requirements to support these learning goals.
“The course tag applications are flowing in, the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Shared Competencies is reviewing them and we’re sending out approvals! Despite the pandemic, Syracuse University is on track to incorporate the Shared Competencies into the online course catalog and MySlice course registration starting in 2023,” says Anne Mosher, Provost Faculty Fellow and associate professor of geography and the environment in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
“Undergraduate faculty in each school and college started this work during the Fall 2021 semester to demonstrate to students how individual courses relate to the Shared Competencies,” Mosher says. “Course tags are simply labels that indicate that at least 30% of a course’s grade relates to a specific competency. A tag means that students are going to have a chance to practice and get useful feedback on the competency-related work they do in class.”
Course tags in every school and college help students connect the dots between what they are learning in different classes so they can see how they are building skills needed to succeed after graduation, Mosher says.
“All of this makes the Shared Competencies course tags a critical strategy to ensure that the University brings transparency to undergraduate education that enables every student to navigate their experience and use it to its fullest,” she says.
Faculty can tag courses with at least one and up to three of the Shared Competencies.
“We have a responsibility to demonstrate that we’re delivering a learning experience that is worth the time, effort and overall investment that students put into it,” says Maureen Thompson, associate professor of public health in the Falk College and a member of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Shared Competencies.
William Robert, associate professor of religion in the College of Arts and Sciences and an early course tag adopter, agrees.
“We can be more transparent about what we are doing in the classroom. We’re not just dumping a bunch of content on top of our students. There is a certain skill set and a set of methodological practices that are underneath how we deliver the content,” Robert says. “These shared learning goals help students see what they’re learning more concretely in ways that are practical, so that they can tie in the world that they live in.”
While tagging close to 3,000 courses over a two and a half-year period may seem intimidating, the University has provided resources for faculty, including a Course Tagging Toolkit, in-person and Zoom-based working sessions, an overview video and a professional development series.
Thompson and Robert both say that the process of course tagging helps them be better teachers and have clarity about how to meet course objectives. Through this process, faculty are being exposed to different ways of approaching material and exchanging ideas about how to connect what they are teaching to what students need to learn to reach their career aspirations.
“Course tagging has forced me to articulate in clear and accessible language what I’m actually doing in the course and how I am doing it. I have to write it down; I think it makes me a better teacher,” Robert says. “When I go into the classroom, I go in with a clarity about exactly how this plays out in the course, depending on the particular shared competency—like communication skills or ethics, integrity and commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Faculty who are participating in course tagging find that it yields positive dividends for just a little work.
“In my department we have an assessment committee that decided to use a team approach where we’re pairing faculty members with another faculty member who has done the professional development on course tagging. It’s a coaching model and provides someone to dialogue with and help faculty think about issues like how and when they give students feedback, how different parts of an assignment fit together, how they can address timely topics within the structure of the overall course,” says Thompson, who recently received tag approvals for several public health courses.
“Faculty come back after we’ve reviewed their syllabi together and tell us that they know their course is better after a structured session thinking about what their course addresses, the appropriate tags and how students can connect activities to the skills they are acquiring,” Thompson says.
“Other institutions—like Stanford, Harvard, the University of North Carolina—have found that integrative learning approaches like the one we’re adopting with the Shared Competencies helps students know what to expect in a course, connect what they are learning and how they are learning across their courses, while simultaneously meeting their requirements,” says Mosher.
“Within the scholarship on teaching and learning in higher ed there’s mounting evidence that students learn better when they know not just what they are supposed to do in a class, but also why they are doing it,” Mosher says. “This helps them not only make better sense out of their path through Syracuse, but also enables them to tell their Syracuse University story in ways that really highlight the skills they picked up in their courses, major, co-curricular and extracurricular activities. That is something that prospective employers and graduate schools value.”
Thompson says that understanding this aspect of the Shared Competencies helps drive student engagement.
“In the past we’d recommend that public health majors take statistics as one of their math classes because our accreditor wants you to have a stats course. Tagging that same course as teaching scientific inquiry and research skills opens the door to talking about how the foundations of an introductory stats course will help you interpret data to recommend a public health intervention or understand epidemiology,” Thompson says. “It’s not checking a box, it’s showing how the courses can be strung together as building blocks.”
Robert says, “I have a rule in my classes that anyone can raise their hand at any time to ask why we are doing what we are doing. Then we stop and we, as a class, will articulate a response.
“I need to be able to tell students why we’re doing the activity, how it connects to other activities, the skill set it’s building and how it’s going to help them succeed. Then all of a sudden what seemed an opaque activity becomes clear. Even if they don’t like the reason we’re doing it, they know that there is one and can appreciate the method and logic behind it. It helps to make teaching more transparent.”
To ensure that a course’s tags will appear in the 2023-24 course catalog and in MySlice for Fall 2023 registration, course tag applications must be submitted to the Senate Ad Hoc Committee via the Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment portal by Sept. 1, 2022.