13 Ways of Looking at General Education Reform

Balancing varying perspectives and needs, to improve learning

Constance Relihan
The Faculty

--

A collage of four images: a blackbird walking on sand, an empty large lecture hall, a raven sitting on a tree branch, and a student taking notes in a classroom.
Images courtesy of Adobe Spark.

There are professional organizations devoted to advancing the goals of general education, like the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). that do exceptional work to provide recommendations and resources for creating intellectually challenging gen ed programs that simultaneously help students strengthen their transferable skills and develop intellectual breadth. Leaning heavily on the resources of the AAC&U can help any institution of higher education to develop a program that provides students with rich opportunities for deep, interdisciplinary, and civically engaged learning and that integrates student learning outcomes assessment into the program so that the benefits of the program may be documented and shared.

Especially on a large university campus, however, successfully implementing a new general education program takes much more than having good models and resources on which to rely. It means persuading large swathes of faculty and others on campus to participate in the process. Like any attempt at culture change, it is rarely easy. Here are some honest observations and suggestions that may help facilitate the process.

Thirteen Suggestions — With Apologies to Wallace Stevens

  1. Identify a clear leader for the gen ed revision and be sure that individual has the support of and access to the Provost. The program will need provostial leadership if it is to be fully implemented and sustained. Because the courses that comprise your general education program are scattered across campus — possibly residing in different Colleges and Schools in addition to different academic departments — maintaining program cohesion is difficult. Your gen ed program needs an administrative structure that will function like an academic department, monitoring course quality and student learning, and ensuring that course content doesn’t drift too far from the original goals. In some institutions, a faculty member is given released time to chair a faculty committee that serves in this role. In other settings, it is an associate provost or dean of undergraduate studies who chairs the faculty committee. Regardless, it is important that this individual has clear communication with the Provost and that the Provost signals that the general education program — including the assessment of student learning — is important to the academic mission of the institution.
  2. You will need a very persuasive reason for the initiative. Invoking a need to appease accreditors or boost student recruitment won’t get most faculty on board. If faculty are going to undertake the arduous and sometimes rancorous work of gen ed reform, they need to feel that their students will really benefit from it. If they think that the project is simply being undertaken to strengthen the accreditation reaffirmation report (by augmenting the use of assessment of student learning, for instance), you’ll dampen whatever authentic enthusiasm there was for the project. Keep the focus on the revision’s ability to increase your students’ learning and the preparation they need for their future.
  3. Lots of conversation will be necessary — with faculty leadership, deans, associate academic deans, advisors, student leaders. All constituents need to have their voices heard as the new curriculum is being developed. It will take more time to have these conversations than you expect. Ideally, a lot of these discussions will occur early in the program revision process, and the drafts of the developing new plan (which should be shared regularly) will show evidence that the ideas expressed in these conversations were heard and considered, if not accepted. If you wait too long to get input, there is a stronger chance that your committee will have to undo its work, frustration will increase, and the successful development of a new gen ed plan will be imperilled.
  4. Aside from a few faculty on the gen ed committee, most of your campus will be unaware of the national conversation on general education and learning outcomes assessment and they won’t be familiar with the AAC&U’s work. This is not a criticism of the faculty. Typically, faculty are juggling a lot of competing demands for their time, and they are going to prioritize their teaching, research, and their commitments to the students within their degree programs. If you want the faculty developing the new gen ed program to consider using the VALUE rubrics or to embed experiential learning into the gen ed program, you will need to make a strong, concerted effort to help them understand the usefulness of the AAC&U’s resources. You will probably benefit from investing some professional development funds in sending faculty to AAC&U meetings or institutes, or in bringing consultants from the organization to lead workshops with your faculty.
  5. Start with the learning outcomes. The first thing to agree upon is what you want students to get from the program and then build backwards to the structure and the individual course options. Reverse engineering is key. It seems obvious, but often we want to jump to the courses that we think ought to be included in the gen ed curriculum, or that we want to include because they will increase enrollment in our courses and thus increase our revenue (at least under a RCM budget). Beginning from those concerns is likely to prompt faculty disagreements and disciplinary tugs of war. On the other hand, if the first consideration when planning a significant gen ed revision is: “What do we want all of our graduates to know and be able to do after they have completed our general education program?” you may be able to achieve some consensus on learning outcomes that may forestall disciplinary turf battles down the line.
  6. Make peace with the fact that the most persuasive argument for the value of general education is to focus on career readiness skills (i.e., those transferable skills that some refer to as “soft skills”). This is particularly hard for those of us who are deeply committed to the value of the arts and humanities. Although we know that a deep understanding of history, literature, culture, and the fine arts deepens our ability to empathize, to visualize alternative solutions to problems, and to live a more expansive life, many of our faculty colleagues will not share our views. And those who resist this view of the value of general education are likely to come from a range of disciplines across campus. The skills that your students strengthen through the gen ed program, skills that they will use in their careers, matter perhaps more than its content, and helping the gen ed faculty understand that their courses are contributing to students’ career preparation will help you generate more support among faculty. If you can persuade faculty to discuss the career readiness skills embedded within general education with their students as well, support for your reform efforts will be even stronger.
  7. You need faculty on board. Gen ed is the foundation of the curriculum. As such, it is a central part of faculty responsibilities. If the faculty who will be teaching general education courses aren’t supportive of the new program, it will not succeed. Gathering this support is complicated by the widespread use of contingent faculty members to teach gen ed courses. In other words, on many campuses the faculty who make the decisions about the structure of the general education program (the tenure-line faculty) are not the faculty who actually have responsibility for teaching those courses. The more faculty you get on board early on, the smoother your implementation will go. Consistent information sharing to faculty and deans across campus while the program is being developed will help to dampen the criticism that will inevitably emerge when it is launched. Once you have your new program ready to launch, there are likely to be new voices raised, suggesting that the gen ed program should have addressed additional curricular reforms that were never raised during the program’s development. The more faculty who are ready to meet these criticisms, the better. There are limits to how much of the curriculum general education can affect. General education requirements are typically not more than 30% of a student’s academic course requirements, whether those courses are completed all in the first two years of the student’s academic program or whether they are arranged vertically to span their entire undergraduate career. There are limits to how much a campus can use general education reform to prompt reform that might more successfully be accomplished by the academic major program itself.
  8. Your work needs to include the teams that control the degree audit and advising software, the university catalogue, and perhaps other technological units on your campus. Faculty control the curriculum and the design of the gen ed program, but your advising team and registrar’s office are going to have to maintain students’ records. If they aren’t on board, if they think your institution’s degree audit software won’t be able to clearly track student completion of gen ed requirements, or if they don’t value the gen ed program itself, the institution’s progress toward creating a strong and well-received program will be undermined. Remember that students have most of their conversations about gen ed with their advisors. You don’t want advisors telling students to just “get it out of the way.” You want your advisors to help students understand the value of the academic content and skills contained in your gen ed program.
  9. The support you think you have is probably not as strong as you think it is. The faculty who are supporting the gen ed reform initiative are probably supporting the project because: a) they think their courses or academic department will teach more students or be better financed as a result of the revision; b) they think that their courses or academic department will be untouched by the new program; or, c) they believe that the new program will provide students with a stronger foundation in transferable skills and a broader, more integrative understanding of important bodies of knowledge necessary in the twenty-first century. Most support will come from faculty in categories a and b. Much of the academic community on campus will see revising gen ed as little more than an academic exercise. It will be perceived as a lot of work for very little gain. Don’t lose heart.
  10. Don’t let the needs of transfer students be an afterthought. The number of students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions continues to increase and the number of 18–25 year-old students available for colleges to recruit is going to shrink. Universities must be ready to serve transfer and adult students who come to us with some credits already in hand. Additionally, state legislatures are understandably concerned with students losing credits when they transfer between institutions. All of these circumstances should be factored into considerations of how your gen ed program should be designed, especially at a public university. If you don’t consider them in the initial framework, you risk needing to make so many accommodations to comply with state regulations and admissions concerns that you may be setting up two very different experiences for native and transfer students.
  11. Don’t mislead faculty into thinking that a revision of the general education program can occur without there being revisions to at least some undergraduate degree programs. Ideally, gen ed revision should be integrated into a reexamination of degree program requirements. The odds are good that your new gen ed program, which provides your students with a more enriching, integrated academic experience, will have some implications for some curricula. It is particularly likely for those curricula that do not allow students many elective courses because of accreditation or licensure requirements. If you are moving to a program that is more structured than your previous program, the concerns will be amplified because some of the newly excluded gen ed courses were also probably prerequisites for required upper-division courses. These concerns may require faculty in some academic programs to review the entire structure and content of their undergraduate curriculum. It is a mistake to either downplay the significance of these concerns or to pretend that they don’t exist.
  12. Be an open advocate for the value of general education. Accept that you will hear from a lot of your colleagues that gen ed is unimportant. You know that what you are proposing is important and that the reforms your campus is seeking to its general education program should help better prepare students for the challenges of twenty-first century life. You know that it is the broad critical thinking and analytical skills, and the exposure to diverse aspects of history and culture that help us to develop graduates who are informed and engaged public citizens. And you know that as twenty-first century society evolves, so too do the needs of the Gen Ed program. You may need to practice daily affirmations of that fact to counterbalance the lack of interest you will find in many of your colleagues. Persevere. Keep talking up the value of the new program. Eventually enough of the faculty will understand that the gen ed program needs to be structured to provide students a foundation for life-long learning in a rapidly changing world.
  13. Finally, It will take much longer than you think it will. No matter how generous a timeline you develop, you will overrun it. It is likely to take longer than you think to develop the program and then longer than you think to implement it. This is true not because of ill will on anyone’s part, but it will be true. It may be that most of the program is ready to go, but perhaps one particular key element will be delayed because of faculty schedules or unexpected hurdles. However long you think the process will take, it will probably take at least a year longer than that to get all parts of the program up and running fairly smoothly. That’s OK.

There are no Shortcuts, but the Rewards Can Be Powerful

Regardless of how much time the process takes, revising your general education program is worth the effort. When it happens, you will be able to take pride in helping to create a program that will strengthen your students’ ability to be agile critical thinkers and problem solvers, to be engaged and analytical citizens, to be twenty-first century individuals ready to be lifelong learners able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. It will have been worth it.

--

--

Constance Relihan
The Faculty

Academic Dean and English Professor. Proponent of a broad and deep general education for all undergraduate students and a lover of public universities.