Yale-NUS’s Common Curriculum, a signature of the young liberal arts college, will adopt a more condensed form next academic year.
Announced last Thursday, changes to the Common Curriculum program — a set of courses compulsory for all Yale-NUS students — will include reducing its current size, designating an inaugural director of the Common Curriculum and designing a common science class for both science majors and non-science majors. The changes follow months of review by the Yale-NUS internal review committee and an external review committee made up faculty members from Yale and the National University of Singapore.
Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said the results of the two committees showed that the Common Curriculum has been successful since the school opened in 2013. But the school will not share a summary of the reports submitted by the two committees, which was meant for “internal circulation only,” according to Yale-NUS spokeswoman Fiona Soh.
“The primary finding of the self-study committee was that the Common Curriculum seems to be working quite well overall,” said Charles Bailyn ’81, Yale-NUS’s dean of faculty and the chair of the internal review committee. “Faculty and students are strongly behind the program as a whole, particularly the fully common first semester … [The changes] are modest improvements to a program that is already working well.”
Beyond the structural changes in the Common Curriculum, Yale-NUS is looking to appoint an inaugural director of the Common Curriculum.
Responsibilities of the new position, Lewis said, will include bringing different parts of the Common Curriculum together, assigning faculty members to teach courses within the curriculum and reviewing course syllabi. Currently, these responsibilities are shared among the dean of faculty and directors of different academic divisions.
Lewis said having one person oversee the Common Curriculum will give the program greater focus, adding that the body currently in charge of the Common Curriculum must fulfill other duties such as faculty recruitment and responsibilities toward majors. He added that having one person instead of several heading the Common Curriculum will foster greater communication among instructors and help coordinate the courses’ content.
Bailyn acknowledged the need for improved synergy between courses so as to maximize the benefits of a common curriculum. He called this the most important recommendation proposed by the internal review committee.
Lewis said the director will also ensure a standard grading guideline across various classes, which might ease students’ complaints regarding grading. According to a September article in the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times, Yale-NUS students voiced concerns about erratic marking standards in Common Curriculum courses.
Currently, the Yale-NUS Common Curriculum is made up of either 12 or 13 courses, depending on whether a student chooses the two-semester course called “Foundations of Science,” or the three-semester course “Integrated Science.” This number will be reduced to 10 for every student next academic year.
Lewis said by reducing the current size of the Common Curriculum, which comprises 38 percent of a Yale-NUS education, the school will give students more time to pursue electives and classes in their majors.
The fact that under the current system students can end up with one extra Common Curriculum course also motivated the change, according to Yale-NUS life sciences professor Neil Clarke ’80. Under the current academic requirements, those who opt for the “Integrated Science” track have to take eight Common Curriculum classes in their first year, leaving them with no room to fit an elective class into their schedule — unless they decide to overload. But students choosing “Foundations of Science” have one slot open in their second semester of the first year.
“This disincentivized the taking of Integrated Science,” Clarke said.
Yale-NUS professor of physics Shaffique Adam said many students, who were already passionate about a particular field of study before joining Yale-NUS, were dissatisfied with being unable to select a major-specific class until much later in their Yale-NUS careers.
Students interviewed echoed the concern about the lack of flexibility under current requirement.
Rohan Naidu YNUS ’17, a physics major, said the structure of the Common Curriculum prevented him from taking more advanced science classes earlier. Coming from a strong background in science, Naidu said he was prepared for a jump start but did not have the opportunity.
COMBINING SCIENCE COURSES
The two different science courses, “Foundations of Science” and “Integrated Science,” will be combined into one required course common to all Yale-NUS students.
Currently, a student has the choice of either taking “Foundations of Science” or “Integrated Science” to fulfill the Common Curriculum requirement. “Foundations of Science,” which focuses more on the interaction between science and humanities, is mainly taken by non-science majors, whereas “Integrated Science,” a more intensive science class, is most popular among science majors.
After the change goes into effect, all students will take the same science course, although the content of the course has not been decided and will be debated and determined within the next few months, according to several Yale-NUS professors. This new consolidated course will only be one-semester long.
When asked about whether a common science course will disadvantage non-science majors, Lewis said students can still decide which section to select. Different sections will accommodate students with different science backgrounds, he added.
Bailyn said he also supported the idea of a common science class. Bailyn said a physics-oriented student may know as little about biology as their non-science peers, and therefore teaching all students together will strengthen the breadth of a Yale-NUS education and reinforce the school’s philosophy of a common curriculum.
Previously, the “Foundations of Science” class received many negative reviews from students, ranging from trying to cover too much ground to not articulating learning goals clearly. Naidu said he heard students calling the course a “complete fiasco.” For example, Naidu said, four professors taught the class and each professor dealt with a different subject, so students were lost as to what was expected of them.
Still, Clarke said science classes at Yale-NUS are the most innovative and exciting teaching he has encountered, either as a student at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or as a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“What we’ve tried to do is very, very hard. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to teach real science, with smatterings of philosophy and history, to a student population with wide ranges of prior education in the sciences,” Clarke said. “We’ve done alright, but we need to keep experimenting to make it better.”
Students interviewed said they are happy with the consolidation of the science classes.
Wan Ping Chua YNUS ’17 said the change will make the Common Curriculum “truly common” to all, allowing students to have the same ground from which they can build off future studies.
Naidu said although it is hard to predict the effect the new consolidated course will have without knowing its content, having the class only be one-semester long will give students a lighter course load.
“Too many have been too miserable for too long,” Naidu added.
Following the implementation of the new curriculum, “Current Issues” will no longer be a component of the program.
A study of pressing problems in the world, “Current Issues” differs from other components in the Common Curriculum in that it is more like a distribution requirement than an actual class. In the past, concerns were raised as to which classes counted toward the distributional requirement and which did not.
“We found that students were already covering the topic [of current issues] in a lot of other courses,” Lewis said. He added that if the school were to reduce the size of the Common Curriculum in order to make space for study-abroad plans, “Current Issues” will be the area that is “okay to reduce.”
Students interviewed praised the removal of “Current Issues” because of its overlap with courses outside the Common Curriculum.
Chua, an environmental studies major who is currently studying abroad at Yale, said there was a class on food security, which definitely counted as a “Current Issues” credit, but the course was also one that she could have taken through her major. The distinction between the Common Curriculum and other courses was often blurry, she said. The removal of “Current Issues” will therefore help differentiate the Common Curriculum from the rest of classes, Chua added.
According to The Octant, a Yale-NUS student publication, the next Common Curriculum review will take place in 2020.