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Reconstructing general ed for colleges and universities

Characteristics of newly reconstructed requirements for all students
University Business, December 2018
  • NOT ENGLISH 101—Professor Carrie Bramen leads the University at Buffalo freshman seminar Real Life: Telling Stories, which covers a general ed requirement.
  • IN-DEPTH INTEREST EXPLORATION—At CU Boulder, Light and Color for Nonscientists counts toward a general ed requirement. Students can pursue their passions while the requirements ensure they enter diverse areas of learning.
  • GLOBAL CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS—Mount Holyoke students can meet the general ed requirement of engaging with international cultures by attending an on-campus Global Challenges conference held once every two years.

While a college’s general education curriculum touches every student, officials may go many years without touching those requirements in any significant way.

In fact, some institutions are still using general ed programs developed between 20 and 30 years ago, before the digital revolution transformed the lives of students.

“There’s a sense of urgency in addressing some of the skepticism about whether higher education is teaching students 21st century skills and whether it’s headed in the right direction,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U).

Another force driving the reinvention of general education is pressure from accreditation agencies, which are requiring that colleges show outcomes and assessments of their academic programs.


SIDEBAR: Getting the job done


At the same time, employers want colleges to teach job-related skills, prompting schools to embed them in general education courses.

“What employers want is for students to be able to solve complex problems,” says José Bowen, president of Goucher College in Maryland. “They don’t want to know if you understand philosophy. They want to know if you can work with groups.”


SIDEBAR: ‘New general education’ snapshots


Responding to these concerns, college and university leaders are redesigning general ed courses by adding group project work in small seminars, teaching communication and quantitative reasoning skills, and requiring international experiences.

University at Buffalo is one example. Freshmen who once may have started fall semester with World Civilization 1 could this year meet their general education requirements by signing up for new seminars on Performance and Professional Wrestling, Native American Celebrity, or Art and Madness.

Over the next three years, students at The State University of New York campus will take a sequence of three globally themed courses in addition to classes in communication, math, science and diversity.

By senior year, they will build an e-portfolio to showcase their general ed coursework and write several capstone essays.

The new curriculum joins a nationwide wave of academic requirement reform. Here are some of the common elements of the new general education programs schools have adopted.

A high-touch approach

One goal for many larger institutions is replacing big introductory lecture classes with freshman seminars, in which students can make an easier transition and develop a close connection with a faculty member.

Having small freshman classes creates the best environment for teaching foundational skills and making students feel they are part of the campus, says James Muyskens, a philosophy professor and former president of The City University of New York Queens College.

“Faculty know the goal is to help students with critical thinking and critical writing,” he says.

But faculty must remember that their students are human beings, he adds. “They need to feel that they belong, and that the faculty members care about them.”

The University at Buffalo in 2016 replaced required first-year lecture courses with more than 350 new courses, and also added about 170 discussion-based first-year seminars, each of which is capped at 28 students.

To support the new curriculum and the university’s 6,000 freshmen and transfer students, officials have invested $3 million annually to develop seminars and hire additional full-time
faculty to teach them.

One of the goals of the new seminars is boosting retention, says Provost Charles Zukoski.

“To be successful at the undergraduate level, there is a lot of evidence that being exposed to a faculty member in your first semester in a small class, rather than always being taught by faculty in large lectures, has the best outcomes,” he says.

Infusing active learning strategies into core courses is another way colleges are creating high-touch experiences in general education.

At Virginia Tech, for example, the faculty divided a 500-student lecture course into groups, which created projects that were presented at a poster session outside class.

“It took this general education reform to get people to say, ‘I’ve always done it this way; let’s do it differently,’ ” says Stephen Biscotte, director of general education at Virginia Tech, which implemented a new curriculum this fall.

Technology embraced

Incorporating technology into general ed makes these classes more engaging for today’s digital-native student, who is more attuned to browsing social media than reading books.

Attempting to increase freshman-to-sophomore retention, Florida International University administrators transformed 33 general education courses, including one that many students were failing, precollege algebra.

With a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, faculty replaced some lecture time with required labs in which students solve math problems using a computer program and are guided by a group of peer learning assistants.

As a result, the percentage of students passing precollege algebra and three other math classes grew from 33 percent in 2010-11 to at least 66 percent four years later.

“There really is no replacement for giving students lots of time to practice material in class where they’re getting immediate feedback,” says Isis Artze-Vega, assistant vice president for teaching and learning.

Using e-portfolios to archive students’ work is another way to integrate technology into general education courses.

Starting next fall at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia, freshmen in the first-year seminar will start an e-portfolio to be completed by senior year.

Part of a new general ed curriculum, the e-portfolio can also showcase work completed in courses for students’ majors as well as serve as a platform to show résumés to potential employers.

“Currently, it’s easy for a student to create a piece of work or writing, and once that semester is over, they set it aside and don’t really revisit it,” says Allison Jablonski, associate provost and dean of general studies at the university.

“By using technology such as an e-portfolio, we hope that they will be able to carry knowledge from one semester to the next.”

International components

International experiences tie together general ed redesign efforts at many institutions.

Goucher and some other colleges now require all students to study abroad. For the Goucher experience, students pay tuition, room and board for a regular semester while they’re away.

“We need to focus on the fact that the challenges of the future are going to be global challenges,” says Pasquerella, of AAC&U, adding that today’s major concerns—from access to clean water to public health—transcend international borders.

At William & Mary in Virginia, students can fulfill an international experience requirement in one of three ways:

• study abroad for a semester

• travel abroad with a faculty member on a school break

• enroll in a course that incorporates international speakers

This fall, the theme of the international course was “Bodies That Matter,” and the college invited three guest speakers, including South African poet, educator and government minister Bernedette Muthien, to spend a week on campus.

“Our hope is that these visits provide the kind of productive destabilization that students experience when they study abroad—something that makes them think about the world in a different way,” says Chris Nemacheck, an associate professor of government and director of William & Mary’s Center for the Liberal Arts.

Developing skills beyond language and engaging with international cultures were among 10 learning goals established when Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts revamped its general education requirements in 2014.

Students can satisfy that international requirement by taking a language class or participating in the college’s biennial Global Challenges conference, which last year focused on global-local inequalities.

“It’s a process of accumulating experiences, questioning assumptions, studying abroad and having a roommate from Afghanistan with a very different understanding of the world than yours, [for example],” says Eva Paus, an economics professor who is the Carol Hoffmann Collins director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives at Mount Holyoke.

Integrative learning

New general education courses incorporate the trend of multidisciplinary studies.

At Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, for example, students taking Social and Cultural History Through Baseball examine the game through the perspective of U.S. demographic changes, labor strife and racial issues.

The course is part of a new core requirement called Connective Experience, in which students take three courses, exploring a topic from three angles.

Boston University is also offering a new course, the Cross-College Challenge, in which students work in teams to address a real-world problem that cuts across disciplinary boundaries as part of the institution’s new general education curriculum, the BU Hub.

And at Virginia Tech, students can enroll in one of 10 new interdisciplinary minors that fulfill 18 out of their 45 required core credits.

The minors, ranging from disabilities studies to innovation, combine the concepts of ethical reasoning and intercultural and global awareness.

Broadening the reach of general education courses is critical because this integrative approach will help demonstrate the value of a college degree, says Goucher President Bowen.

“If we’re going to stay in business, we are much better off as integrators than just content creators.”


Sherrie Negrea, based in Ithaca, New York, is a frequent contributor to UB.