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Using Cognitive Science to Build a Problem-Solving Core Curriculum at Ripon College


Cognitive science research suggests students encounter difficulty using skills developed within a discipline to address problems in a different context (“transfer”). Increases in subject-specific knowledge do not correlate with improved problem-solving abilities outside the disciplines. Thus cognitive science challenges a core assumption of liberal learning: that depth of exposure in multiple disciplines best prepares students for challenges encountered beyond graduation. Studies do show improved skill transfer when students explicitly link learning expectations across courses (metacognition) and intentionally apply skills to open-ended problems (meaningful learning).

Ripon College is implementing a new curriculum explicitly informed by these findings. Students develop problem-solving skills in connected liberal arts courses which explicitly encourage active reflection on skill transference. The Core culminates in a liberal arts problem seminar (LAPS) in which teams of students, mentored by faculty, apply these skills to open-ended problems. The FaCE grant will support the team as they become campus experts on strategies to improve transfer, metacognition, and meaningful learning. The team will then use their expertise to help the faculty both to develop linked seminars that encourage meaningful skill-transfer and to incorporate cross-disciplinary unstructured problems into the Core to provide authentic contexts for skill application.

Note: Content below is adapted from the project proposal. 

Liberal arts colleges assert that our approach prepares students for life-long learning, and that a curriculum emphasizing exposure to a breadth of disciplines generates the skills necessary for success in any endeavor. Overwhelming majorities of chief academic officers express confidence in the work-ready skills of their graduates. Yet surveys of employers consistently suggest that graduates cannot competently transfer liberal arts skills to professional tasks. Cognitive science research into skill transfer helps explain this gap in perception.

Studies show that students may demonstrate high levels of disciplinary competence, without being able to transfer those skills to a different context. In fact, increases in subject-specific knowledge do not correlate at all with improved problem-solving abilities in other contexts. This evidence challenges liberal arts colleges to develop strategies to integrate skill transfer and problem solving into the traditional curriculum, in order to demonstrate the efficacy of liberal learning. Ripon College is drawing upon the lessons of cognitive science to inform the design of the Core, ensuring all graduates participate in the sort of project-based learning that genuinely prepares them for post-graduate challenges.

An Innovative New Curriculum at Ripon College

At a retreat in August 2015, the faculty decided to eliminate the current distribution-based general education requirements and develop an entirely new curriculum. They agreed that the new general education should focus on developing transferable skills, links between disciplines, and applied learning, particularly problem-solving. They also committed to complete work on the new curricular framework by December. In order to meet this deadline, the entire faculty met every Tuesday throughout the semester, and voluntarily attended a full-day workshop on Saturday Nov. 14 to design a new general education. Every Thursday, the Educational Policy Committee met to translate the faculty discussion into concrete proposals, which were then distributed for review and further discussion at the next full faculty meeting.

This commitment to collective engagement allowed the faculty to meet their goal, and the new Core will be implemented in 2016. The most significant continuing challenge is to maintain the commitment to innovation and collaboration as we design the new Core seminars; providing expertise and faculty development support as faculty employ the new pedagogical approaches required of the Core is essential to sustaining enthusiasm. The project team thus cultivates continuing collaboration and innovation by fostering in colleagues confidence that they can employ teaching techniques supported by research in cognitive science, and by using their expertise to validate the comprehensive design of the Core.


Successfully implementing the new curriculum is the central academic goal of Ripon College, and will remain our priority for at least the next four years. There are three reasons that Ripon College emphasizes the Core in its strategic planning.

  1. In response to widespread concerns about the viability of the liberal arts, Ripon has chosen to emphasize its identity as a liberal arts institution. Fully half of our faculty members are in arts and humanities, and we have built a new curriculum that illustrates concretely the ways in which these disciplines build the life and career skills contemporary students value.
  2. We believe that liberal arts colleges should respond creatively to new evidence about student learning. We are convinced that a curriculum intentionally designed to develop and practice skills, highlight for students the way those skills apply across contexts, require them to use these skills to tackle meaningful unstructured challenges, and demand public accountability for this work, will produce dramatic increases in student learning.
  3. Like many of our peers, Ripon struggles to convey the value of a residential liberal arts college education. Adopting the Core, which explicitly identifies the valuable skills a liberal education develops and shows exactly how students use those skills in real world settings, will help us make this case. 


The initial phase will build the team’s capacity to serve as resources for the entire faculty. During spring 2016 an expert in cognitive science and educational psychology will visit campus to work intensively with the project team to increase their understanding of cognitive science research on skill-transfer, metacognition, and problem-solving, and help them develop a framework for their summer work. The visit will include at least one workshop for faculty already engaged in syllabus design for the first set of 24 new or substantially adapted courses set to be offered to launch the Core curriculum in the 2016-17 academic year.

In the summer of 2016, the team will spend two weeks working together to become genuine experts on the relationship between cognitive science research and curriculum design. During these two weeks they will also develop a series of faculty development workshops to provide ongoing support for the coherent implementation of the Core, and to ensure all of the new syllabi are intentionally designed to support metacognitive skill transfer.

During 2016-17, dissemination and training begins with the team and Associate Dean for Faculty Development building a website collecting relevant cognitive science research, sharing model syllabi from across disciplines, identifying exemplary assignments, and providing sample assessments for skill-transfer and problem solving. They will also manage a series of faculty development workshops (continuing at least through 2020), which may be made available in online versions. Finally, representatives from the team will plan to present their work at the 2017 AAC&U meeting, to share their findings broadly.

The intended outcomes for the project are:

  1. The development of faculty expertise in understanding skill-transfer and problem solving in course design. This outcome has two components. First, the project team will cultivate deep expertise. Second, through workshops, mentoring, and resource sharing, this expertise will inform the work of faculty involved in designing and teaching courses in the Core. All faculty members are expected to contribute to the Core, so all faculty will benefit.
  2. During the two week summer workshop, the team will develop the structure and basic curriculum for faculty workshops on skill-transfer and problem solving in syllabus and assignment design. These curricular workshops will support faculty in (1) using disciplinary expertise to develop skill-focused syllabi (2) designing disciplinary assignments that demonstrate skill competence, and (3) improving the application of educational psychology to liberal arts pedagogy. These workshops will be offered for, at least, the next four years.
  3. The team will curate and post online a collection of resources, including research studies, sample syllabi, model assignments, assessments, and projects from courses. This site will be available to internal audiences.
  4. A possible outcome, though not funded by the FaCE grant, will be a presentation or workshop at the 2017 AAC&U meeting sharing how Ripon College has drawn upon cognitive science research to structure an integrated liberal arts core curriculum, intentionally designed to develop transferable skills essential to life and career success.
  5. Another possible unfunded outcome, would be visits by members of the project team to other colleges trying to engage in similar curricular reforms.

In a sense, this project began with the FaCE Conference in fall 2015, which was attended by three members of the project team. The faculty members were sent to the conference with an explicit charge to learn more about skill-transfer and problem solving, which was emerging as the focus of Ripon’s new general education program then under construction. The second milestone in the project is the two week summer seminar for the project team, during which they will design the faculty development workshops. The third milestone will be the first faculty development workshop, which will occur in fall 2016. Fourth, the website will be operational before the end of the fall 2016 semester.  At that point, the funded portion of the team project will be complete. However, the team will plan to present  its work at the 2017 AAC&U meeting. The products of the funding will continue at least through 2020, as the faculty team will continue to offer regular workshops on curriculum design throughout the implementation and refining of the Core. These continuing workshops will be funded by the Dean of Faculty.

Dissemination Strategies

The project team will be offering regular workshops during the ongoing implementation of the Core. At least once each semester the Associate Dean for Faculty Development will work with the project team to schedule a workshop for faculty members who are designing new syllabi for upcoming Core seminars and for faculty teaching new seminars. Participation in these workshops will be an expected part of the Core seminar development process; the Dean is compensating faculty for developing new courses, and attendance at the workshops will be built into the expectations for the stipend. The resource website will be placed prominently on the faculty page and regular emails sent reminding faculty of its presence. Finally, the team includes representatives from every major disciplinary division; they will be identified as resources available for consultation during Core seminar development, and faculty members who want advice will be encouraged to meet with the project team member in their disciplinary area.

Two elements of the project will contribute to dissemination to other ACM campuses and other liberal arts colleges. First, the online resource site that the team will develop as part of the project will be available to external audiences. We will publicize this site and invite other ACM institutions to link to it. Second, the project will be presented at the Association of American Colleges and Universities meeting in 2017, which will expose the work to a wide range of institutions.

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