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What is Complex Problems?

Complex Problems is a special-topics course capped at 19 students designed specifically for first-year students and incoming transfer students. As an introduction to the academy, the primary goal of the course is to acquaint students with the process of university-level inquiry through the analysis of one or more complex problems. Over the course of the semester, Complex Problems courses should demonstrate the value of approaching problems or enduring questions from diverse (but often complementary) perspectives. Courses should incorporate multiple points of view, voices and ways of thinking from across personal and political spectrums.

This course is an opportunity for faculty to model how they approach complex subjects. The expertise faculty bring to this course is two-fold: their command of a subject matter and, just as importantly, their ability to demonstrate how they set about understanding a new problem or an enduring question. In short, these courses focus on how knowledge is made, utilizing diverse perspectives and voices. Additionally, faculty should create opportunities for frequent class discussion and active learning, as well as opportunities to meet with individual students and groups throughout the semester.

Fall semester sections of Complex Problems are also part the University College, a Living-Learning Community, which means students will live on the same floor of the residence hall as their classmates. Students who choose spring sections of Complex Problems will be in learning communities, but not living-learning communities. Students will choose their section of Complex Problems by ranking their top six choices, and then be placed in sections by the University College Office, Housing and Dining Programs, and in consultation with academic advisors. Faculty should include at least three living-learning activities into the semester, which will be voluntary for students. Staff will assist faculty and help them develop living-learning opportunities, such as offering programming in the residence halls and in the DC community or creating cross-programming and learning opportunities with other sections of Complex Problems.

A Complex Problems course may be offered for up to three years, after which it may either sunset or be re-proposed. Course proposals will be reviewed by a small committee of faculty with representation from each undergraduate school.

What Complex Problems isn't.

This is not an introduction to an academic discipline, nor is this solely a content-oriented course. On the contrary, this course is meant to de-silo instruction by not focusing exclusively on one's discipline. This is also not a research methods course or the kind of course in which 20-page papers or high-stakes tests are appropriate. In fact, we encourage faculty to work closely with assigned readings, placing more emphasis on analysis and synthesis than conducting research. This course should challenge students; however, the instruction should be appropriate for students who are new to the academy.

What Makes a Good Complex Problems Course?

Faculty who would like to teach a section of Complex Problems are encouraged to propose courses that illustrate for students the ways in which a specific subject can be "unpacked": Courses that highlight how multiple points of view, voices, ways of thinking, or disciplines can be applied to a subject will be most successful. Strong courses will also create many opportunities for students to complete assignments, receive feedback, and revise their work. This fall the following courses are being offered. You can access a brief description of them here: Fall 2017 Complex Problems Courses.

Student Learning Outcomes

While each course will be unique, they must all center around these same learning goals.

Diverse Perspectives:

a. Identify and engage with complexity (or gray areas) within issues or contexts by explaining the factors influencing different positions.

b. Demonstrate self-awareness by articulating your groups' norms and biases.

c. Use multiple perspectives (cultural, political, disciplinary, ideological) to refine one's understanding of an issue or context.

d. Demonstrate civility through argumentation or intellectual exchange.


a. Complete assignments (written, oral, visual, etc.) that demonstrate audience awareness, including context and purpose.

b. Formulate a thesis or project plan specific to the intended purpose and of a manageable scope.

c. Use sources and evidence appropriate for the student's subject and purpose to support a compelling essay or assignment.

d. Demonstrate facility with skills appropriate for the assignment (e.g., Writing: logical, clear, grammatically and mechanically correct; Oral Presentation: organization, tone, poise, language; Visual Presentation: image quality, production quality, concision).

Critical Reading:

a. Articulate the concept that "texts" can include written, visual, spatial, or creative works, etc.

b. Accurately summarize, analyze and synthesize a given text or texts, making connections among different texts and with one's prior knowledge.

c. Assess the context and quality of the text, which might include the following: author's purpose or approach, design, what has been left unsaid, quality of supporting evidence, etc.

Incorporating Feedback:

a. Incorporates feedback from faculty, peers and others by appropriately integrating that feedback into assignments and activities.

b. Offers constructive, appropriate feedback to classmates.

Questions to consider when proposing a course:

  1. Course Description: How is this course a complex problem or enduring question? What is unique about this course? This course description will be used for students and published in the schedule of classes.
  2. Readings and other materials: What types of readings and other materials will you use for this course? Please include titles and authors as examples of possible readings.
  3. Diverse Perspectives: Along with readings and other assignments, how will this course help introduce students to the following learning outcome associated with Diverse Perspectives?
  4. Communication: How will this course help introduce students to the following learning outcome associated with Communication?
  5. Learning Community: Complex Problems is the course students take in the University College Living-Learning Community, which means students will live in the same residence halls as their classmates. Faculty should incorporate at least three living-learning activities into the semester, which will be voluntary for students. There is limited funding for co-curricular tickets and admission to exhibits.


If you have questions about your proposal, please email Cindy Bair Van Dam ( If you have questions about the University College Program, please contact Laiko Quintero (

Proposal Form

Follow the link to find the Complex Problems proposal form for academic year 2018-19. Completed proposals are due by midnight on Friday, May 5.

Propose A Course