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Critical Inquiry: A Comprehensive Strategy for Student Success


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Martha J. Bell, Brooklyn College/CUNY

Robert J. Kelly, Brooklyn College/CUNY

Sharona A. Levy, Brooklyn College/CUNY

Brooklyn College, a branch of the City University of New York, is a traditional, selective liberal arts college with a student body of more than 16,000 students. The college is renowned for its Core Curriculum, which has been in place for almost 30 years. Since its most recent revision in 2006, the Core consists of nine lower-division courses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and two upper-division courses selected from two of the three aforementioned areas. Course subjects include classics, art, music, philosophy, history, political science/sociology, math and computer sciences, and natural sciences; and course pedagogy focuses on diversity and integrative learning.

Within the college, the SEEK Department (The Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) provides a home for the New York State legislatively-mandated program for educationally and economically disadvantaged students at CUNY. SEEK’s mission is to provide comprehensive services for at-risk students at the college. Currently there are approximately 850 SEEK students enrolled, with nearly 250 freshmen entering each fall.

Beginning in 1995, with the first of three consecutive FIPSE grants over a 12-year period, the SEEK Department mounted a model program to address a national concern: how to prepare at-risk students for the highly demanding core curriculum or general education program required by selective colleges and universities. With these grants, DEP I, II, and III: Making the Core a Reality for Disadvantaged Students, the department, through a collaborative process of faculty development, set out to develop both a curriculum model for its students as well as a model of the curriculum/faculty development process which engaged the faculty.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) has always used as one of its criteria that a project be a unique solution to a problem in post-secondary education. This project was unique in that it combined many of the best practices in working with at-risk students with some new elements in such a way as to be adaptable to other colleges and universities. Ultimately, through two dissemination grants, 13 colleges and universities fully participated in adapting what is now called the Brooklyn College SEEK Model (BCSM) to their individual campus’s needs and concerns. Another 35-40 colleges participated in various other dissemination meetings and conferences, many adopting parts of the model.

The SEEK Department originally was alarmed by the proposal for a core curriculum at Brooklyn College in place of the existing distribution requirements. Instead of succumbing to its initial reaction that the Core was a “plot to prevent underprepared students from succeeding at the College,” SEEK quickly learned that the new Core provided the department with a very real target and the opportunity to prepare SEEK students for college success. The BCSM curriculum was developed with a coherent approach, integrating Core Curriculum materials, multicultural approaches, and excellent pedagogical strategies (especially critical inquiry) to address the persistent problems of underpreparation in general education.

To engage all of the SEEK Department’s faculty — full- and part-time, instructors to full professors, as well as representatives from the Core — in an on-going biweekly curriculum development process, the department followed the recursive curriculum model developed by Marilyn Sobelman (NYU) and Martha J. Bell (Brooklyn College) in 1977 (see chart). Faculty began by examining students’ interests, needs and concerns, the College’s and the University’s demands and requirements, and the faculty’s philosophy of the teaching-learning process. These criteria were combined to develop goals and objectives, which then led to the establishment of structures and frameworks, the selection of themes and materials, and the selection of methods and strategies. Assessment was built into the model as an ongoing integral part of the process.

What the BCSM yielded through its first year of curriculum development was a model curriculum with nine essential, transportable elements that could be adapted to programs on other campuses. It was eminently clear that no college could adopt a curriculum wholesale, rather that it must go through all of the stages represented in the curriculum model and adapt them to meet the individual needs of their student body and the requirements of their college or university.

The first of these transportable elements is Critical Inquiry. The SEEK department has always believed that reading is the key to students’ success in college. As a result the department developed a technique, Critical Inquiry, for assisting students in controlling their own learning. Essential to the process are a set of active reading strategies that demand that students preview texts, read the text multiple times, and formulate questions as annotations. Students are trained to think of the act of reading as an activity that requires multiple drafts in much the same way that they are trained to write multiple drafts of an essay. Students are taught to meaningfully annotate the texts rather than create a series of yellow highlighted lines across the page. The important effect is that students become independent readers and learners with an understanding of how to approach academic texts.

In addition, eight other transportable elements were identified as essential and complimentary to both the curriculum model and Critical Inquiry:

  1. Critical Inquiry – Critical Inquiry is a method of reading texts by focusing on questioning, annotation, and close reading and writing. Students are taught to acquire control over their own learning.
  2. Multicultural perspective – Readings for all courses must be inclusive of the diverse racial, ethnic, and subcultural composition of the learning communities that constitute the student body.
  3. Core materials – Readings and other learning materials should reflect all the disciplines in the core curriculum or general education requirements of the institution.
  4. Block programs, learning communities – Students must be scheduled for courses with coordinated schedules planned by faculty working jointly to develop related syllabi, materials, and activities.
  5. Collaborative learning – Instructors help students learn how to work together in small groups and pairs in order to improve the learning process by shaping a student-centered environment.
  6. Theme-centered instruction – All courses focus on themes related to topics relevant to the core curriculum or general education requirements of the college and give shape and focus to the learning community process.
  7. Tutoring/supplemental instruction – Classes have all-important role model tutors and supplemental instructors to extend the learning process and work with students both in and out of the classroom.
  8. Benchmarks for Success/Outcomes – Each student must submit a portfolio assessing his or her growth in academic, personal and social development. Students become responsible for their own learning.
  9. Summer Bridge Program – Summer programs that promote both academic and personal development are an essential element through which the other transportable elements may be combined.

Beginning with the Pre-Freshman Summer Program, which all incoming SEEK students must attend, and extending through the first year of college, students engage in an intensive program that has been designed for them. Based on their reading and writing proficiency, students are enrolled in block programmed learning communities according to their readiness to engage in Core coursework. Approximately half the students are enrolled in pre-Core learning communities, which emphasize Critical Inquiry and prepare them with the background experience necessary for the BC Core. The remainder of the students take Core learning communities which include the first of their Core courses and are designed to reinforce Critical Inquiry skills.

Within the courses, faculty emphasize theme-centered instruction; a frequent summer program theme is “Freedom and Responsibility.” All of the texts reflect the types of materials and readings that are part of the first tier of the Core. In addition, the readings reflect the multicultural perspectives of the student body at Brooklyn College, which is made up of students from over 85 countries who speak 45 languages. Classroom instruction emphasizes collaborative, student-centered learning as well as new media technologies. All students engage in tutoring, both small- and large-group, in and out of class, as well as participating in SEEK’s Supplemental Instruction program as needed.

The SEEK Department emphasizes assessment, especially self-assessment, in light of the program’s philosophy of creating independent learners. Key to this effort is a series of portfolios that students complete at pivotal stages in their college careers. These are called Benchmarks for Success and begin with Freshman Benchmarks introduced on the first day of the Pre-Freshman Summer Program. These online e-portfolios provide for students’ exploration of goals in three categories: Academic Life, College Life, and Personal Life. In addition to assisting students in evaluating their own progress, Benchmarks allow faculty to assess growth in individual students, groups of students, and across an entire cohort. Each year different benchmarks are identified as discriminator factors and are very carefully examined and assessed. Sophomore Benchmarks and Probation and Transfer student Benchmarks are also currently utilized and Upper-class Benchmarks are in development.

Subsequent to the freshman year, SEEK students may enroll in Post-Freshman Summer Program. Students remain in the department and stay with the same SEEK counselor through graduation. SEEK Tutoring and Supplemental Instruction are also available to students throughout their Brooklyn College career. Leadership activities and the SEEK Scholars Program help encourage student success.

It is important to note that the results of the BCSM can be seen in many aspects of the program, not simply in the results of the freshman year and its preparation for the Core. Some of the significant data include the following:

    1. Pass rates on the University required basic skills assessment tests for AY 2006-07: Math (COMPASS) – 98.9%, Reading (COMPASS) – 99% , Writing (CUNY/ACT) – 96%. The results are comparable in AY 2007-08.
    2. SEEK students’ grade point averages have risen dramatically. Fewer than 5% of SEEK students are on academic probation (GPA < 2.0)
    3. The number of students with a GPA > 2.5 has increased dramatically


  1. Pass rates for the CUNY Proficiency Examination (the University’s rising Junior exam) are 100% within the prescribed three tries.

The SEEK Department has been engaged in this ongoing curriculum development process for the past 14 years and continues in the process, constantly changing the program based on its assessments of student needs, the College’s and University’s demands and requirements, and faculty discoveries about the teaching and learning process.

As a result of working with other colleges to disseminate all or part of the BCSM, there are certain recommendations that can be made as to how to best implement and disseminate a model curriculum. These are based on the formative evaluation that has been an integral part of Brooklyn College’s and BCSM’s success:

  1. All colleges do not move at the same pace. Successful implementation of the BCSM varied with the amount of control and stability of other institutions’ home campuses; campuses in flux or turmoil experienced the most difficulty in getting projects started.
  2. Projects work best in environments where project directors have established relationships with key faculty across the campus. Much of the dissemination project involves the project coordinator and faculty understanding general education requirements and relating to the liberal arts faculty in a broad range of disciplines. Directors who have good relations in key general education departments have had an easier time implementing new curricula.
  3. Community colleges have had the most difficulty in initiating the BCSM. This may stem largely from the fact that community college opportunity programs or student affairs programs are more isolated from the academic mainstream and have smaller staffs with which to work.
  4. Having a core curriculum like Brooklyn College’s is not a necessity for a DEP III dissemination college. What is necessary is a clear set of specific target courses. Large course distribution menus must be limited to a reasonable number of appropriate courses in order for the planning to work. Faculty need to know exactly what courses students will be programmed for in subsequent semesters in order to plan their pre-general education or pre-core critical inquiry experiences.
  5. Faculty training and participation in the development of curriculum are essential. Faculty must experience the critical inquiry methodology and then work with it over a period of time in order to be invested in the curriculum development process.
  6. The faculty development aspect of the model is exceptionally important and must be ongoing.
  7. Other campuses cannot and should not attempt to simply import the Brooklyn College curriculum in toto; they must develop their own curriculum and shape it to the particular requirements of their institutions and the needs of their students.
  8. The Critical Inquiry methodology that is at the head of this project is often confused with “critical thinking.” Critical inquiry is not the same as verbal logic. It is instead a series of strategies that enable students to ask questions and control their own text-based learning.
  9. The methodology of using hubs or regional centers is one that works. It facilitates training in which several schools work together. In cases where the faculty of collaborating schools were not already familiar with one another it was necessary to take time to build a community of scholars in order to create a functioning hub. Schools and colleges in each region need to be compatible.

Over 40 years ago, SEEK began at Brooklyn College as an access program. It is now clear that the SEEK Department has repositioned its mission well beyond access and has become an engine for student success.


Brooklyn College SEEK Department Website

Karen W. Arenson, “Remedial Program Refuses to Die; Revamped SEEK Remains Path for Poor Into CUNY,” The New York Times. September 19, 2000.

Martha J. Bell and Robert J. Kelly, “Critical Inquiry in a Multicultural Setting,” Language in Multicultural Education, 2005. pp. 291-307.

Joseph Berger, “Success Strategies for Minorities,” The New York Times. August 7, 1988.

“Brooklyn College: CUNY Developmental Education Program (DEP): Making the Core a Reality for Disadvantaged Students.” The League for Innovation in the Community Colleges.http://www.league.org/leaguetlc/express/inn0111.htm

SEEK’s 40th Anniversary. CUNYMedia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOgSZ7lbkg0