American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
November/December 2017

Teaching What and Why: New Guidelines for the Undergraduate Sociology Curriculum

One way to judge a discipline is by the strength of its curriculum. The ASA and its members have attended to this challenge for over two decades by providing guidelines for a robust undergraduate sociology major. The association’s newest recommendations can be found in The Sociology Major in the Changing Landscape of Higher Education: Curriculum, Careers and Online Learning (Pike, et al. 2017), which is available as a free PDF at ASA hopes that faculty and departments will take four crucial steps: download the new report, examine the recommendations, assess their own current offerings, and consider responses to sustain and improve their programs.

The Sociology Major in the Changing Landscape of Higher Education is the product of the ASA Task Force on Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major. Co-chaired by Susan Ferguson (Grinnell College) and Jeff Chin (Le Moyne College), in collaboration with Margaret Weigers Vitullo (ASA Director of Academic and Professional Affairs), this effort brought together 21 sociologists from all institution types who contributed their time and expertise over a three-year period to produce a report that can strengthen the curricular and pedagogical work of departments and programs.


Disciplinary curricula—within and across fields—can range from hierarchical, rigid, and tightly sequenced to flat, broad, and close to an intellectual free for all. Part of the ASA’s goals in providing guidance to departments in this newest publication, as well as the two previous sets of recommendations (released in 2005 and 1990), was to create a set of recommendations that balances a scaffolded structure with significant flexibility in the topics chosen and pedagogical approaches used to meet shared sociology learning outcomes. Sociology is strengthened when faculty and departments demonstrate a shared sense of what is valuable about a sociology undergraduate major—knowledge and skills that prepare students for citizenship and careers as well as graduate school.

Three Key Themes

Sociology, like all disciplines, ought to offer an education that is sound, organized, and meaningful for life and career. Curricular goals need to be responsive to the fiscal, cultural, and political challenges of the departments and the educational institutions where they are enacted. The three themes of The Sociology Major in the Changing Landscape of Higher Education respond to clear and pressing concerns within today’s higher education context.

Part One of the report offers 12 recommendations for the content and structure of an undergraduate sociology major that are research-based and collaboratively analyzed. The task force drew from the Measuring College Learning project (Social Science Research Council, 2016), new analysis, and extensive discussions to ensure that all types of institutions—from two-year to four-year to programs with PhDs—are reflected in the recommendations. Together they provide a solid basis for program and faculty deliberation: What do we offer and why? The recommendations will affirm and support many current practices and offerings, but they are also designed to help programs move beyond individual preferences or unquestioned and long-standing routines to consider how even modest curricular and programmatic adjustments might increase majors, improve student learning outcomes, and lead to more effective departments.

Part Two of the report directly addresses the value of education for careers. While sociologists have long understood the discipline’s value for a range of employment opportunities, the well-researched ideas in this section offer ways to more explicitly address this issue for the benefit of students and their families, as well as for recruiting and retaining majors. To be a strong discipline, sociology needs well-trained doctoral candidates who were themselves well-prepared undergraduates. Because most undergraduate students in sociology do not go on to graduate school, it is equally critical to produce well-prepared graduates who can communicate the value of their sociological training and who have been supported in the process of recognizing and securing jobs that use their knowledge and skills in diverse settings.

Part Three of the report considers how departments and programs can manage the increasing demand for online sociology courses while maintaining a high-quality learning experience for students. Whether online education takes the form of full online majors, hybrid courses, or occasional offerings, understanding the impact of this movement and the demands made on sociology programs is essential. Task Force members reviewed recent empirical findings and collected additional data about the strengths and challenges of teaching and learning online. Drawing from a distinctly sociological perspective, the report describes two critical findings about online instruction and offers six practices that are especially relevant for teaching sociology online.

Take time to examine this report, consider how the report might be used in your department, and let us know your thoughts. Send comments to