Report on Other Institutions' General Education Reforms (November 11, 2003)

Reported by the Asheville Group – Lunch Meeting

The Asheville team reported on ideas being used elsewhere by colleges interested in reforming general education at their campuses. Most of the colleges discussed had a more extensive set of requirements than presented here. The team tried to highlight some interesting ideas.

Pam Baker introduced the topic by reviewing the “Trends in General Education Reform” (available elsewhere on this website). Some trends are based on the content of the program for all students, for example, stressing skills, ethics, citizenship, or cultural understanding. Some trends focused on kinds of requirements. Other trends focused on pedagogy: aligning the kinds of requirements with the kinds of pedagogy practiced at the institution, encouraging practical application of knowledge, or creating opportunities for collaborative learning. These ideas are often based on scholarship about how students learn.

The team then presented some ideas about all-student requirements.

One idea presented at Asheville was evaluating students’ achievement of goals through a portfolio system. Instead of having requirements met by students selecting courses from various categories, students and advisors plan together courses, extra-curricular activities and other actions, which taken together demonstrate the breadth and depth required by an institution. The portfolio tracks and makes possible assessment of a student’s achievements.

  • Example: Pepperdine College’s Junior Writing Portfolio. In the third year, each student assembles three examples of writing, meeting various criteria, which are evaluated by a committee of professors.

A second idea discussed at Asheville was that of learning communities, in which two or three courses are taken simultaneously by students. The goal is for students to understand the connections among courses on related topics, and to see that many problems require multiple perspectives to understand.

  • Example: Wagner College requires each student to participate in three learning communities, the first in the first year, the second in one of the middle two years, and the last in the major during the senior year. Some examples offered at Wagner for the middle years are Nutritional Strategies: Bacteria to Humans (a Nutrition and Health course, plus a Microbiology course); The Mind in Crisis (Wm James and Psychology paired with a Psychopathology course), and From Text to Performance (an English course on Beckett and Genet, plus an Acting course).

Another idea the group heard about at Asheville was that of an interdisciplinary core for all students. Often, the core consists of four courses. Core courses are taught in multiple sections, and in some cases, students can choose from several courses on different topics which satisfy the core requirement.

  • Example: Colgate College has four interdisciplinary core courses: 1) “Western Traditions” is not designed as a great books course, but does appear to teach at least some texts which have been standard examples of the best of western civilization; 2) “The Challenge of Modernity” asks how modern societies are connected to the past; 3) “Scientific Perspectives” can be satisfied by courses such as “Critical Analysis of Health Issues” or “Food for Thought: the Science of What We Eat;” 4) “The Cultures of Africa and Asia” can also be satisfied by different courses, such as “Multi-ethnic Israel,” or “Women in China.”

Many institutions are seeking to organize their all-student requirements in a way which emphasizes different forms of inquiry, rather than exclusively the content of courses.

  • Example: Duke University asks students to take courses in four areas of knowledge, two modes of inquiry, three focused inquiries, and three competencies. The modes of inquiry are 1) quantitative, inductive and deductive reasoning, and 2) interpretive and aesthetic approaches. The focused inquires are 1) cross-cultural, 2) science, technology and society, and 3) ethical. Courses can satisfy both students’ studying an particular area of knowledge and up to two kinds of inquiry.

One direction for general education at some institutions has been a focus on competencies, as part of a larger set of goals for students. Competencies often include writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and a second language.

  • Example: Augsburg College has several aspects to its all-college requirements (one course each from eight categories, a FYS and an educational experience outside of a classroom). It also requires what it calls “graduation requirements:” a foreign language, writing skills, critical thinking, speaking, quantitative reasoning.
  • Example: Elon College requires each major department or program to develop competencies which students are expected to achieve. For example, each major must indicate what competencies in liberal learning students must demonstrate. Some majors indicate how the major will help students achieve competencies related to technology.