Elective Courses Research Paper Starter

Elective Courses

(Research Starters)

Elective courses (or electives) are optional, alternative classes in which students choose to enroll, and which are outside the core curriculum. Among the many advantages of elective courses are that they increase flexibility in the curriculum and provide students with greater variety and more choice. The disadvantages of electives include that they are little understood or appreciated by politicians, parents and the general public. As such, electives face virtually constant political, administrative and budgetary pressures which threaten their continuance. Research has discovered substantial gender differences and gender gaps with respect to enrollments in elective courses by boys and girls. Middle and high school girls tend to take fewer elective science, mathematics, engineering, computer and technology classes than do boys.

Curriculum Organization


Elective courses are classes in the curriculum that students choose to take. They are sometimes called "selectives" because students can select the courses that interest them. Elective courses are made available to students on an elective basis in a "free-choice" curriculum. A student's elective program consists of optional courses outside the core curriculum--classes beyond those that are minimally required for graduation or advancement (Anderson, 2006; Caffyn, 1972; Kirschenbaum, 1969). The elective portions of the educational program are designed to meet the specialized needs and interests shared by some but not all learners. Some student electives are part of exploratory programs and are experiential in nature. An example of these would be a particular internship course of special interest to a student (Beane, Toepfer, & Alessi, 1986; Black, 1995).

The elective curricular offerings of school districts vary at different grade levels. Elementary school is traditionally a general education curriculum experience and few, if any, elective programs or courses are offered. The elective curriculum at the secondary school level is typically more extensive. There is an increasing emphasis on specialization and the relative proportion of elective courses increases. Students progress from grade to grade by completing certain required and elective courses (Baker, 1961; Beane et al., 1986; Gerwin & Visone, 2006).

The distribution of courses between core studies and electives is an important characteristic and a key feature of the curriculum (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000). All students participate in the core components of the curriculum. However, the core curriculum is not necessarily the venue in which students achieve all common learning goals. Students may achieve some of the same learning goals of a core curriculum in different contexts--namely, those of well-designed sets of electives. Thus, the term "elective" does not refer only to studies that go beyond basic literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000). It refers to advanced elective academic courses as well. Student enrollment in elective courses is competitive. Elective programs compete for student enrollments and students' motivations are important to enrollments, particularly in high school elective courses (Stewart-Strobelt & Chen, 2003).


The secondary school elective curriculum has its deep roots in the educational history of the 1880s and 1890s (Boston University School of Education, 1884: Christenbury, 1980). It was a logical development that sprang from such movements as "life-adjustment education" and the Progressive era (Christenbury, 1980). The elective curriculum provided a springboard for the examination of many basic issues in secondary school learning and teaching: change, variety, relevance, viability of the core curriculum concept, and student and teacher interests. The elective curriculum gave students and teachers a powerful impetus for controlling instruction and learning, and it was truly innovative in restructuring the traditional curriculum and paying serious attention to new subjects (Christenbury, 1980).

In the early 1960s, U.S. schools taught students the basics: English, math, some history, introductory science, and perhaps a foreign language. By the late 1960s, electives began to sprout and flower into fruition in some curricular areas such as English. In the 1970s and 1980s, public secondary schools began to offer more politically motivated courses. Districts offered a veritable plethora of instructional elective courses dealing with such topics as drug abuse and prevention, sex education and teen pregnancy prevention, parenting, moral education, and courses to combat other societal ills. Other electives included ethnic studies, career education, energy, environment, etc. Non-core extras such as physical education, shop, home economics, and even driver education could be accommodated in the curriculum without straining a school system's resources (Cetron & Gayle, 1991; Christenbury, 1979; Kirst, 1982).

However, in the late 1980s, the burgeoning curriculum began to burst at the seams. Many school districts offered substantial lists of electives. Cetron and Gayle (1991) lambasted school systems for having "an endless list of electives that have little or nothing to do with education as we once knew it" (p. 94). They point out that in at least 13 states, high school students could earn at least half of the credits required for graduation from electives.

Reversing the Tide of Electives: Adler

The all-consuming question of the common needs of all learners has historically generated more debate in the curriculum field than any other (Beane et al., 1986). It came to a head in the 1980s when numerous groups and commissions issued reports that called for one or another set of requirements in the school program. Three of these reports were developed by Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) and the Paideia Group. In considering the essentials of basic schooling, Adler argued in his Paideia Proposal that there should be a single, required 12-year course of study for all without any electives except for a choice on a modern second language: Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian, or Spanish (Adler, 1982a).

Adler's philosophy allowed little or no room for individual choice and for student involvement in curricular decisions affecting them. It was a curriculum policy by fiat in which curriculum mandates were passed down by expert authority. A special category of individuals made authoritative educational decisions for the rest (Schubert, 1987). With the elimination of all electives, as proposed by Adler's philosophy, all forms of specialization, including particularized job training, and all else that should be excluded from basic schooling was excluded (Adler, 1982b). Like Mortimer Adler, Theodore Sizer (1984) also recommended doing away with electives and vocational programs and concentrating the curriculum on thinking skills and core concepts (Cetron & Gayle, 1991; Schubert, 1987).

In the Paideia Proposal, Adler boldly proclaims that "The best education for the best is the best education for all" (Adler, 1982, p. 7). Two sequels to Adler's work are Paideia Problems and Possibilities and The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus, which were published in 1983 and 1984 respectively (Schubert, 1987). This three-volume major commission report--Adler's Paideia trilogy--greatly influenced curriculum policy in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as state- and national-mandated curricula and standardized testing programs took over the public educational arena, elective courses began to be reduced and eliminated in many schools as more and more teacher and student time was devoted to the preparation for these annual examinations.


Elective Offerings

Electives include a wide variety of curricular offerings and activities that differ from district to district. Courses that are required in one school district may be electives in another and completely unavailable in a third. Courses with the same title vary widely in content from one district to another, from one school to another within the same district, and often from one classroom to the next within the same school (Beane et al., 1986; Cetron & Gayle, 1991).

Beane et al. (1986) classify electives by dividing them into four types of learning experiences:

* General education extensions

* Advanced exploratory courses

* Career-related courses

* Activities

Electives can be extensions of the general education, or core, curriculum. General education extensions include advanced academic or subject-centered courses. Advanced exploratory courses are offered to learners with special interests or talents, for example, advanced work in art or music. Career-related courses center on various vocations or occupations. Activities include subject-related organized activities (e.g., foreign language clubs, yearbook, debate, band, orchestra, chorus, intramural or interscholastic sports) and various service-oriented social clubs. Activities are often considered extra-curricular or co-curricular, but these types of experiences involve important learning and play an integral role in the all-school program (Beane et al., 1986; Kirst, 1982).

Integrating Electives with Core Curricula

There are various ways the different aspects of the all-school program can be integrated. Beane et al. (1986) illustrates these as shown in Figure 1, which is a modification of their representation (p. 186). They subdivide required experiences into academic and exploratory types and include electives as the third major category of school experiences. Although these three aspects can be identified and described separately, effective programs offer opportunities to integrate them into comprehensive and balanced educational experiences for learners. By doing so, the four respective areas of intersection in Figure 1...

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