Area requirement inefficiencies

As part of the Virginia 2020 plan, each of the University's academic departments is conducting a comprehensive curriculum review, with general results to be announced this spring. The College will pay particular attention to its system of area requirements and with good cause. While the University's goal of producing well-rounded graduates is a good one, area requirements are neither an effective nor efficient means of accomplishing it. If the University is serious about giving its students the best possible education, it should consider some serious reforms of the area requirements system.

College students should know more than their major subjects and the University is right to expect a certain minimum level of knowledge from its graduates. Students increasingly view college less as an opportunity for liberal education than as a tightly focused preparation for employment and a college degree no longer symbolizes a broad knowledge of many subjects. Through its system of area requirements, the University aims to preserve the ideal of a well rounded, liberal education.

But admirable as this goal is, area requirements are a poor means of accomplishing it. One major problem with area requirements is the time it takes to complete them. Students in the College must fulfill 30 credits -- roughly two semesters -- of area requirements, in addition to 18 credits of competency requirements. These classes consume a substantial portion of a student's time at the University, which could be better spent on a major or other subjects of interest.

Area requirements also are unproductive because they are not challenging. Students are adept at finding "gut" classes to fulfill their requirements and their search is made particularly easy by science departments, which offer a variety of special courses "for non-majors." These courses are typically large, impersonal, not memorable and of little lasting value to a student's education. Students and professors expect little of each other and these classes are designed to help students fulfill their area requirements without too much time or effort on their part.

Especially motivated students could, of course, enroll in more challenging courses, but they are discouraged by the prospect of losing grade points relative to their peers in the introductory classes. With nearly 1,000 students in classes designated "for non-majors," competitive students cannot take challenging science courses unless they accept that so many others will receive the same science credit for a fraction of the work. With simple material and minimal work, "for non-majors" classes often force motivated students to choose between learning and grades.

Given these problems, the University would do well to reform the area requirements system. A good first step would be to cut area requirements from 30 credits to 18. Area requirements cover six different subjects, all of which are important enough to justify one class, but few of which are important enough to justify several. Students with little interest in a required subject should not be forced to study it more than once; if one semester is not enough to arouse a student's interest, a second semester likely will be a waste of time.

By reducing the number of required courses, the University also can improve the quality of those courses. This is particularly true of the sciences, where departments have little choice but to offer large, formulaic classes so 9,000 students can get their 12 credits. If, instead of four science classes, students were required to take only one, science departments could offer smaller, more challenging classes. One demanding class would provide students a far better introduction to science than four "for non-majors" classes and might even encourage students to take another course.

By limiting area requirements to one class per subject, the University also can allow students more time to pursue subjects of real interest to them. Most students know what they want and the University should take them seriously. Students know their goals, talents and interests better than any administrator and they should not be made to study required subjects beyond an introductory level. By cutting back on area requirements, the University can give students their liberal education and give them time to learn what they want to know.

The mission of any university should be to provide students a well-rounded education while allowing them to pursue subjects of interest in greater detail. The University's system of area requirements pays homage to these goals, but does not go far enough in meeting them. By reducing the number of required classes, the University can give students a broad, meaningful foundation of knowledge without hindering their pursuit of personal academic goals.

(Alec Solotorovsky is a Cavalier Daily viewpoint writer.)

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