Curriculum Reform in the Professions: Preparing
Students for a Changing World. ERIC Digest.
by Jones, Elizabeth A.
Ideally, an undergraduate education should provide students with the
necessary skills, attitudes, and values that are critical to navigate the
dynamic complexities of the business world. Employers are searching for
graduates with strong abilities in problem solving, teamwork, communications,
and leadership (Carnevale, 2000; Rao and Sylvester, 2000; Oblinger and
Verville, 1998; Miles, 1994). Although most employees enter new positions
with adequate technical skills, it is the process skills--especially communications
and problem solving--that count toward successful job performance over
time, and it is these skills that are most often absent (College Placement
Concerns about the educational quality of professional preparation programs
have generated fairly specific sets of recommendations about the interventions
or reforms necessary to strengthen undergraduate education. While some
reports are very critical, others suggest that the gap exists between the
ideal outcomes and actual performance because there has been considerable
"upskilling" across sectors of different professional fields (Business
Higher Education Forum, 1997; Carnevale, Gainer, and Meltzer, 1990).
There has been very little recent synthesis and analysis of the progress
that has been made within the United States in response to these criticisms.
The ASHE-ERIC Report upon which this Digest is based focuses on the major
changes that college and university faculty have designed in their undergraduate
professional education programs in three areas: accounting, nursing, and
teacher education. Each of these areas represents a different emphasis.
Accounting is characterized as an enterprising field, nursing as a helping
profession, and education as an informing profession (Stark, Lowther, and
Hagerty, 1986). Examples of curriculum reforms in each of these professional
preparation areas are highlighted.
ACCOUNTING PROGRAM REFORM
Accounting curricula have been criticized as being too narrow. Students
have been exposed to a rule-based model in which they were expected to
memorize content in order to prepare for tests and the certifying public
accountancy exam. Textbooks did not help students to develop the ability-to-learn
skills, nor did students have sufficient contact with businesses, which
left them unprepared for the ambiguities that exist in businesses (Albrecht
and Sack, 2000, p. 45; Needles and Powers, 1990).
Several reports calling for reform in accounting programs (for example,
Albrecht and Sack, 2000; Big Eight Accounting Firms, 1989; Bedford, 1986)
stressed the importance of preparing accountants for broadened functions
that include the identification and development of knowledge for a wide
variety of decisions. In addition, there has been a uniform call to emphasize
communication, intellectual, and interpersonal skills. The Accounting Education
Change Commission and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education
have often been key supporters of these curriculum innovations.
NURSING PROGRAM REFORM
Nurses in health care settings need to be effective critical thinkers
as they strive to address multiple demands in changing environments. Rapid
advances in science and technology, the expanding body of knowledge, and
the dynamic health care delivery system require practitioners to think
critically (Jacobs, Ott, Sullivan, Ulrich, and Short, 1997). A crucial
criterion set forth by the National League for Nursing as one standard
for measuring the quality of an educational program is the strength of
the critical thinking skills of its graduates (Poirrier, 1997).
The Pew Health Professions Commission, in its final report in 1998,
recommended that curricula be redesigned to ensure that students acquire
broad general education competences, including "critical thinking and clinical
judgment skills, effective organizational and team work skills, service
orientation, cost awareness, accountability of clinical outcomes and quality
of care, and a commitment to continual learning and development'' (Bellack
and O'Neil, 2000, p.16).
Some nursing programs have developed in-depth competency statements
that are intended to define the knowledge, skills, and abilities of nursing
students. For example, the Mississippi Council of Deans and Directors of
Schools of Nursing developed a model that articulated their vision of nursing
for students in their own state (Eichelberger and Hewlett, 1999).
Other nursing faculty, for example, at the University of Memphis, moved
from a traditional program to a competency-based curriculum (Luttrell,
Lenburg, Scherubel, Jacob, and Koch, 1999). Statements of performance-based
abilities necessary for contemporary practice were used to guide the design
of all learning experiences and as the basis for assessing student learning
(Luttrell, et al, 1999, p. 135-136).
Problem-based learning (PBL) has also been implemented in selected undergraduate
programs within the United States (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001, p.6). The
PBL approach was developed as a way to help students gain a stronger understanding
of concepts through the use of practical applications. Each decision problem
required students to learn new concepts in order to solve the problem.
TEACHER EDUCATION PROGRAM REFORM
A common criticism of teacher education programs has been that they
lackrigorous course work and intellectual challenge (Romanowski and Oldenski,1998).
There are recurring issues associated with relevance of course workand
its redundancy as well as lack of critical thinking abilities, and weakrole
models in both college faculty members and classroom teachers(Applegate
and Shaklee, 1992). Some employers believe new graduates whoenter the teaching
profession are not prepared with the practical knowledgeand skills that
are needed to perform effectively in their new roles.Critics have argued
that theory is separated from practice and thus deeplearning about complex
issues or problems in the real world are neglected.Others have argued that
courses in teacher education programs have becomefragmented and often have
very little relationship with one another (Tom,1997).
Recently, there has been major reform in teacher education programs.
In particular, many schools of education have created programs that extend
beyond the traditional four-year degree program and include strong relationships
with local schools (Darling-Hammond, 1999). These revised programs require
students to receive a strong disciplinary background and extensive study
of teaching and learning that is integrated with intensive clinical training
Some colleges offer one-or two-year graduate programs while others offer
a five-year model that allows for an extended preparation program for prospective
students who are undergraduates pursuing the teacher education major. The
fifth year of these teacher education programs helps undergraduates focus
their last year solely on preparing to teach and gaining experience in
school-based internships connected to coursework on teaching and learning
(Darling-Hammond, 1999). Many of these programs are collaborating with
local school districts to create professional development schools that
plan the students' clinical preparation. Similar to teaching hospitals
in medicine, these schools provide sites for "state-of-the-art practice
that also train new professionals, extend the professional development
of veteran teachers and sponsor collaborative research and inquiry" (Darling-Hammond,
1999, p. 31).
The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future assessed several
innovative teacher education programs and found that they have many features
in common, including: explicit and specific standards constituting what
teachers should know and be able to do in order to teach their subject
matter to diverse groups of students (Darling-Hammond, 1999, p.32); a systematic
program of study grounded in substantive knowledge and taught in the context
of practice; extensive use of problem-based learning methods including
case studies, research on teaching issues, performance assessments, and
portfolio evaluation (Darling-Hammond, 1999); intensively supervised, extended
clinical experiences (typically at least 30 weeks) that were designed to
support what students learned in their courses; and partnerships with local
schools that "support both the development of common knowledge and shared
beliefs among school- and university-based faculty" (Darling-Hammond, 1999,
These changes offer lessons for faculty in many different disciplines,
especially faculty who work with students in various professional fields.
From a review of these curriculum reforms, several common thematic elements
can be identified: Many reforms require students to be actively engaged
in their studies, students often work on real world issues or problems,
problems are usually open-ended with no single correct answer, and assessments
of student learning are used to gauge whether students are mastering the
intended learning outcomes.
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