Curriculum Proliferation

As part of my administrative duties, I spend some time thinking about curriculum design. On that front, a striking elements of most law schools’ course offerings is the rapid and extensive accretion of new courses, a phenomenon I call “curriculum proliferation.”

Curriculum proliferation has positive aspects:

* new courses can freshen a curriculum and update it to reflect modern legal developments

* new courses can focus on more specialized topics, better serving students’ unique interests

* more courses generally should result in smaller enrollments in each course across the curriculum

* new courses can allow professors to match course content to their current research interests

However, curriculum proliferation isn’t all good news:

* new courses may substantively overlap with existing courses. This can confuse students selecting between courses, and if the redundancy isn’t pedagogically valuable, students in overlapping courses may feel like they are wasting their time. Even if the curricular additions don’t overlap, a larger curriculum still can be confusing for students to navigate

* if more instructors are needed to serve the same number of students, this creates new incremental costs

* it is administratively taxing to manage a larger curriculum (if you’ve never dealt with this, then trust me)

* most importantly, an expanded curriculum induces some students to skip existing courses and take the new offerings instead. In aggregate, curriculum proliferation may have the practical consequence of diverting students from existing “core” courses to more esoteric offerings. This reduces the amount of shared experiences or common skills of a school’s graduates. It could also affect bar passage rate to the extent student skip “bar courses” to take specialty electives. (I’m assuming, as many professors do–but without any empirical support–that taking bar courses improves performance on the bar exam. I wonder if this has ever been studied?).

From my perspective, these problems are serious enough that it is worth trying to minimize curriculum proliferation. But, this isn’t easy. Curriculum proliferation is driven by a variety of forces, including:

* expanding curricular requirements from accrediting bodies

* course schedulers’ reliance on market mechanisms for course selection (i.e., the willingness to throw a course out to the students to see if it gets any traction enrollment-wise)

* the difficulty saying no to existing faculty members who request a specialty course or to noteworthy lawyers who express an interest in becoming an adjunct professor to teach a course uniquely suited to their talents

These forces are challenging, so let me propose (for discussion purposes) a slightly radical solution to combat unwanted curriculum proliferation. In my opinion, the real culprit is the lack of explicit scarcity in the curricular decision-making process, which could be corrected simply by introducing scarcity. For example, a law school could fix the total number of courses it offers. Thus, to add a new course, curricular decision-makers would need to drop an existing course. This constraint would force a careful deliberation before new courses are added, and it could have the added bonus of churning out underperforming courses from the curriculum. In theory, then, self-imposed scarcity should progressively improve the overall curriculum.

Of course, at many schools, this system would be a disaster in practice. Some professors who teach courses targeted for deletion would advocate to keep their courses, creating uncomfortable political dynamics that most faculties would choose to avoid. So maybe there’s a better way to introduce scarcity into the curriculum process.

Do you think curriculum proliferation is a problem? If so, how do you think it can be addressed?

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4 Responses

  1. There is real scarcity already: there is a limited supply of classrooms and teaching times. Really. This is, for us, a significant constraint. We don’t feel improved by it, either.

  2. Jamison Colburn says:

    Boy, I couldn’t agree more that it’s a problem. But, depending on how your school’s curriculum committee handles matters, it’s a problem without a very good solution. In my experience, curriculum committees tend to be very deferential to the professor making the proposal. It’s really up to the Academic Affairs dean to serve as the important counterbalance and give voice to the concerns Eric notes. From what I can tell, though, that can be hard absent proof that dilution and confusion will be the result–proof that is almost never easy to get.

  3. Matt says:

    I doubt that some of your concerns are things that you should worry that much about. First, I don’t think that confusion via over-lap is something to worry that much about. Some over-lap is unavoidable and probably desirable- it gives more chances to learn important and hard topics. Some is less intrinsically desirable but gives students more chances to learn things they might be interested in. (At Penn, for example, there is a class on international trade regulation and one called “The Law of the WTO”. Obviously there is quite a lot of overlap and probably no one needs to take both. But, the first covers NAFTA and some other regulations while the WTO class doesn’t. And, one is taught in the fall and the other the spring so someone intereted in trade law has more chances to take a course on it.) I’d not worry that students might be confused and take a very similar class twice. Surely there are coure desecriptions they can look at? Or they could email the professor? If they can’t do this they probably ought not be lawyers. Similarly, if they are worried about the bar they can decide for themselves whether to stick w/ mostly “bar” courses while if they think they can learn what they need for that in Barbri while learning something else as well they will then have the chance. So again, assuming they are smart enough to be lawyers I don’t think you should worry about students here. The other concerns are real, of course, but as to the ones relating to students I don’t think there’s much there.

  4. Ty says:

    It seems that this issue is school specific. While higher tier schools traditionally have higher bar passage rates, adding classes will allow for more flexibility in scheduling since students will be able to self-study for the bar and take classes that will influence their practice. However, for some students who are not particularly great academics, they may shy away from the bar courses and enroll in more seminars in order to boost GPA/ranking. In this regard, a school administrator can serve as a check to make sure students who have below a 2.5 are not skipping core courses and caution them that they risk failing the bar and losing 8 months of a decent salary due to retaking the exam. In the end, I agree that if the student cannot tailor his own studies to his liking what use is law school other than a means to an end. If you have to “go to law school” when you are out in practice in order to find a field you enjoy b/c you missed out on opportunities to take other legal courses, then the law school you paid thousands of dollars to attend has cheated you. You know the old saying I never knew I went to law school to learn how to go to law school. It may aptly apply if schools do not offer a variety of courses.