Five things to know about UNC-Chapel Hill’s curriculum overhaul that launches this fall

·5 min read
Robert Willett/

First-year and transfer students at UNC-Chapel Hill have moved into their dorms and are learning how to navigate campus just as classes before them have. But when classes start Monday they will be following a new undergraduate curriculum that launches this fall.

The goal of UNC’s IDEAs in Action curriculum is to develop “graduates who have the capacities, tendencies, and habits of mind to approach the world with inquiry, investigation, evidence, judgment, and creativity,” the campus says.

IDEA stands for Identify, Discover, Evaluate and Act.

“It’s very student-focused,” said Kelly Hogan, a STEM teaching professor and associate dean of instructional innovation in the College of Arts & Sciences.

The previous curriculum was very much about students checking off boxes, and there were inequities with how students were navigating it, Hogan said. The focus this time was driven by what faculty wanted students to be able to do in 5, 10 and 20 years.

Students will still work within their majors but will choose from hundreds of general education courses to fulfill nine focus capacities, including Ethical & Civic Values; Global Understanding & Engagement; Natural Scientific Investigation; Power, Difference, & Inequality,and Quantitative Reasoning.

“It’s not so much about the small details and content that they’ll remember in their courses,” Hogan said. “But really how to think ... how to evaluate, how to critique, how to design.”

Here are 5 things to know about UNC-CH’s new curriculum.

1. Focus on the first-year experience

The transition from high school to college is complex for all students, but especially for some who may sit in a large lecture hall that is bigger than their high school graduating class.

Now, there will be a set of courses specifically focused on the first-year experience, with small classes designed to be interactive with other students and professors.

One course in particular, called “college thriving,” is a 1 credit hour, pass/fail class about navigating the college experience, learning study skills and taking advantage of the opportunities that UNC offers. A large portion of the content is on mental wellness and giving students resources and tools.

“That is the kind of course that we want students to interact in-person and build community,” Hogan said. “The remoteness and the sense of isolation that students have had, we see the value of why a small first-year class can be so important.”

2. All students will do research

“That is incredibly innovative for a large, elite research institution to say ‘This is what we do best, let’s have all students do this,’” Hogan said.

Professors will teach research, not just tack a research project or paper onto the end of the semester.

“They’re going to scaffold the experience,” Hogan said. “How to do research, how to ask questions, how to evaluate information and so on ... the whole research process.”

The research is inclusive, so every student has access to it, Hogan said.

3. A more equitable roadmap

With the old curriculum, students were taking some courses that met three requirements and therefore checked three boxes with one class. That made some students able to finish their general education courses very quickly, while others were taking classes that interested them but only checked one box.

Though that’s not a problem, it wasn’t transparent. So students sometimes would not know about the more efficient option, said Viji Sathy, a professor of the practice in the psychology and neuroscience department. She is also the Associate Dean for Evaluation and Assessment and Director of the Townsend Program for Education Research in the Office of Undergraduate Education.

That difference could cause delays in graduation, require summer school classes and cost the student more money. It also raised the question of whether students were genuinely interested in a topic or class or just trying to get through the system.

“We wanted to think about how do we get people through it equitably,” Sathy said.

Officials also wanted to fix inequities related to first-year seminar courses. Seminars are small classes where the professor goes in-depth into a particular area. Some students were taking multiple first-year seminars, and many were not taking any.

Now, it will be a requirement to take either a first-year seminar or a first-year launch.

4. Was a new curriculum necessary?

In May 2016, then-College Dean Kevin Guskiewicz formed the General Education Coordinating Committee and asked members to evaluate the curriculum.

The committee looked at what was happening at other campuses, skills and data from employers and how students completed courses and fulfilled credit hours. They thought about what they wanted UNC-CH students’ futures to look like and the types of citizens they would be. They then worked backward from there to create a curriculum that would foster that.

After the analysis, Guskiewicz charged the group with building out a new curriculum that was “contemporary, innovative, inclusive, and global.”

Hundreds of faculty, students, staff and others on campus helped develop and design the new curriculum over the next three years. It was endorsed by the Faculty Council in April 2019 to officially replace the previous Making Connections curriculum that was adopted in 2006.

5. Faculty got approval of all courses

When the new curriculum was approved, professors in every department met to talk about their goals.

Departments had to resubmit existing courses for review and approval in the new curriculum over a two-year period. That included making small modifications to syllabuses, incorporating more writing and presenting or adding a research experience to meet the new criteria. Instructors also submitted proposals for new courses.

Each syllabus was submitted for a faculty committee to review. Some were not approved, so professors had to go back to the drawing board.

“We are really holding a high standard,” said Nick Siedentop, the curriculum director who is managing its implementation.

A sampling of courses will continue to be evaluated over time. That will involve looking at student work, talking with faculty, collecting data, measuring the outcomes and reporting what adjustments need to be made.