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Call for Course Proposals

What is Complex Problems?

Complex Problems is a 100-level 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.

Complex Problems is also part of a living-learning community, which means students will live on the same floor of the residence hall as their classmates. Students will choose their section of Complex Problems by ranking their top choices, and then be placed in sections by the Complex Problems Faculty Director and staff and in consultation with 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. Faculty who will require students to conduct work off-campus will want to offer their course as a block class.

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 2016 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, demonstrating an understanding of the stakes, risks, and advantages of different positions.

b.   Identify broad contexts surrounding a complex problem.

c.   Demonstrate self-awareness of one’s own cultural biases (e.g., perspectives, beliefs, and opinions).

d.   Demonstrate an appreciation of multiple perspectives and approaches beyond one’s own, which may include, for example, political diversity, cultural diversity, or methods of knowledge production.

e.   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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Open the attached PDF for information such as "What are the faculty expectations for teaching in the Complex Problems pilot?", "What role, if any, does interdisciplinarity play in this course?", and "Who can I contact if I have more questions?"

Open the FAQ

Proposal Form

Follow the link to download the Complex Problems proposal form for academic year 2017-18. Completed proposals are due to by Monday, October 17.

Download the Form