Curriculum Proliferation [Repost from Concurring Opinions’ Archive]

[In 2007, I guest-blogged at the group law professor blog Concurring Opinions. With the demise of that blog, I am now archiving my guest posts on my own blog. This post first appeared on January 16, 2007.]

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?