Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Designing General Education for the Future: Penn State Report on General Education

It s my great pleasure to circulate A Report based on an Invitation from the President, the Provost and the Chair of the University Faculty Senate to Examine General Education – August 2012.  It is the product of the work of a Committee, headed by Jeremy Cohen and including Cynthia Brewer, Cary Eckhardt, Tanya Furman, Cynthia Lightfoot, Tom Litzinger, Mark Munn and Mary Beth Williams.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)

 I hope that all members of the Penn State community will vigorously participate in the conversations that we hope to initiate on the future of general education at the university.The Report will be presented to the Penn State University Faculty Senate at its October 16, 2012 meeting to be held in the Kern Building at 1:30 P.M. The presentation will be led by Associate Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Jeremy Cohen.

A Report based on an Invitation from the President, the Provost and the Chair of the University Faculty Senate to Examine General Education – August 2012


General education in North America is today in a state of intellectual ferment. Newton’s first law predicts that an object at rest stays at rest.  The identification of thoughtful general education curricular ideals is robust, but faculty ideas have outpaced academic transformation at colleges and universities across the country.   General education curricular change at most institutions is stagnant.

The report that follows began with a December 12, 2011 invited colloquium at Penn State entitled, General Education’s Ideas and Ideals. It was initiated by the Office of Undergraduate Education, The University Faculty Senate and the Penn State University Press. Colleagues from Harvard, University of Southern California, University of Michigan, and Portland State University described their institution’s general education grogram and commented on the national general education landscape.  Four elements of agreement emerged:   
·      A singular, all-encompassing definition of general education does not exist. It never has. 
·      Few universities provide a cohesive general education curriculum capable of transcending vague calls to give students well rounded educations that produce critical thinking and good communication and numeracy skills.
·      College and university programs serve students best when they represent the academic strengths of the faculty and provide clear, explicitly defined  learning goals.  
·      Ethically-based decision making and citizenship are longstanding general education goals. They continue to be primary elements –- perhaps the primary elements -- of nearly every general education wish list. Yet today, their implementation is submerged beneath the menu-based sprawl of cafeteria-style breadth requirements  that most institutions have adopted.  Generally, there are few explicit connections in broad menu-based curricular aggregations to either the academic understanding or the practice of citizenship and ethically-based decision making.

Concurrent with the colloquium, the President, Provost and University Faculty Senate Chair issued an invitation to a small group of faculty members to meet as a seminar for one semester and then to share their observations. The faculty were asked to take into account the technological, social, and student changes that have emerged since Penn State’s last general education review in 1997 and to consider the acceleration of calls by government, accrediting agencies, the public, and especially our own scholarly community to clearly justify the relevance and fit of a general education program that accounts for as much as one fourth of every student’s undergraduate education. A separate analysis by the Office of Undergraduate Education is included in this report to: (1) place general education in the 21st century into historical, contemporary, national and local contexts; and (2)
provide a snapshot of general education at Penn State.

The seminar voiced consensus that many current Penn State general education goals are worthy, that they are not always fulfilled, and that interest in raising the general education bar at Penn State is timely and essential. The seminar also noted that meaningful change will require effort and a willingness to embrace organizational transformation and creative intellect.  

The challenges to Penn State’s understanding of itself and to its clarity of mission since November 2011 echo and underscore general education goals present in nearly all national and sister institution discussions, yet rarely implemented with specificity. General education should provide an intellectual foundation capable of helping students to develop moral and ethical principles that will them guide through complex, sometimes wrenching decisions long after graduation. Freeh Report Recommendation 1.1 (3) calls on the university to “establish values and ethics-based decision making as the standard for all university faculty, staff and students.” Higher education’s recognition of the importance of ethics-based decision making is not new. It remains at the core of national discussions of general education, though it is rarely at the center of what a general education curriculum actually does and the means of accomplishing such a goal was not an element of the seminar’s discussions.  Integration of ethics-based decision making into the Penn State general education curriculum could acknowledge challenges set by national discussions of what general education should do, as well as provide a meaningful academic response to the Freeh Report.   

The following is presented in three parts.

Part I provides a brief survey of the general education landscape in the United States and a bibliography of relevant readings prepared by the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Part II  is a snapshot of our current general education program at Penn State based on preliminary data collected in 2011-2012.

Part III  consists of a set of principles and challenges developed over the course of the Spring 2012 semester by the seminar cohort. Meeting as a study group the cohort focused on first principles and challenges. Their findings and recommendations represent a collegial accord, but not necessarily unanimous agreement on specific approaches or requirements.  


The study group was comprised of:

·      Cynthia Brewer, Professor of Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
·      Jeremy Cohen, Professor of Mass Communication and Associate Vice President and Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education
·      Caroline Eckhardt, Professor of Comparative Literature and English, College of the Liberal Arts   
·      Tanya Furman, Professor of Geosciences, Assistant Vice President and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education
·      Cynthia Lightfoot, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Penn State Brandywine.
·      Thomas Litzinger, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Leonard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education
·      Mark Munn, Professor of Ancient Greek History, Greek Archaeology, and Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, College of the Liberal Arts
·      Mary Beth Williams, Associate Professor of Chemistry, Associate Dean of the Eberly College of Science.

Part I   The General Education Landscape

General education is a term widely used to describe university requirements that lay outside of a student’s professional or disciplinary concentration. A well rounded education that nurtures critical thinking and habits of life long learning, along with a degree of competency in communication and numeracy, is frequently emphasized as the raison d’être for general education curricular requirements that consume a fourth or more of baccalaureate education. References to global understanding, citizenship, moral grounding and  diversity also are common.

There are, however, substantial flaws in the notion that contemporary general education curricula and practices are sufficient to create good habits such as critical thinking and moral grounding that colleges and universities explicitly promise. “Habits are just habits, and those that require any effort tend to succumb to inertia in the absence of principle,” writes philosopher Susan Neiman.  If students are to adopt meaningful principles and actions based upon enlightened understanding of the sciences and humanities, as well as excellence in communication and numeracy and full awareness of themselves and others, then it stands to reason that a purposeful curriculum relevant to the development of explicit intellectual outcomes is necessary to break the undisciplined decision making habits that all students bring with them to the university.

 For many years, general education was intended to provide students, not with a vague concept of menu-based breadth, but with an explicit grounding in the liberal arts.  John Stuart Mill (1859) suggested that we look at: "national education, as being, in truth, the peculiar training of a citizen, the practical part of the political education of a free people, taking them out of the narrow circle of personal and family selfishness, and accustoming them to the comprehension of joint concerns-habituating them to act from public or semi-public motives, and guide their conduct by aims which unite instead of isolating them from one another."   Mill’s work set a foundation for the general education and citizenship programs that emerged in the 20th century.

Louis Menand, a Harvard professor of English and American Literature and Language, is adamant.  “Knowledge is social memory, a connection to the past; and it is social hope, an investment in the future.  The ability to create knowledge and put it to use is the adaptive characteristic of humans.  It is how we reproduce ourselves as human beings and how we change – how we keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds.”  Menand doesn’t question the value of the disciplines and professions.  Rather, the outcomes he describes speak to the need to bring context and salience to students equal to the understanding they develop within their major concentrations.  

The recognition that undergraduate education should provide new knowledge and understanding is hardly limited to Menand’s optimistic tenets.

“The dominant pedagogical aim,”  democracy and law philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote in 2006, “must be to instill some sense of the complexity of these issues, some understanding of positions different from those the students are likely to find at home or among friends, and some idea of what a conscientious and respectful argument over these issues might be like.  The dominant pedagogical strategy should be an attempt to locate . . . [cultural, social, political and scientific] controversies in different interpretations of principles the students might be expected themselves to accept: for example, the . . .  principles of human dignity that I believe are common ground in America now.”  For Dworkin, such an education is an imperative. “We cheat our children inexcusably if we allow the nation to continue only to masquerade as democratic,”  he says.

The literature suggests that the most common general education pedagogy in the United States in the 21st century falls short of Dworkin’s call for contextual grounding and intellectual critical thinking. Often, general education curriculum is both too broad and too narrow. It consists of a broad menu of lower division introductory courses that meander across wide swaths of classes.  It is too narrow in that general education courses often correspond to contracted faculty research interests or are taught as elementary disciplinary classes rather than as integrative challenges that inspire students to think across the disciplines and professions. Additionally, general education curricula usually have few and often no commonly required courses. A student may well have three science courses, yet the seemingly limitless choices available challenge any notion of a shared understanding of either scientific values or of science as a tool for informed decision-making by humanists as well as by scientists.

Students today select classes on their own from scores of electives in order to meet breadth obligations in the arts, social sciences, humanities, math, physical and natural sciences, and occasionally, in technology, global studies, and diversity.  Breadth advocates suggest that in addition to developing a well-rounded understanding and familiarity with multiple ways of knowing, optimizing choices enables students to discover  disciplines and fields that otherwise would never have entered their consciousness. There is scant evidence to support these claims.        

The exploratory function was addressed by a recent multi-year examination of undergraduate education at Harvard. General education courses, the Harvard faculty now tell students and others, “aim not to draw students into a discipline, but to bring the disciplines into students’ lives . . .  in ways that link the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face and the lives they will lead after college.” 

The recommendations of the University of California “Report on General Education in the 21st Century” take the menu system to task. Rather than “the sprawl of cafeteria style breadth requirements – we recommend the creation of structured interdisciplinary bundles on timely intellectual and applied issues, made available to students as discrete, named sets and identified as such on student transcripts,” the state-wide report concludes. Ohio University, a public research university, has instituted “learning communities ” as a related and pragmatic response.  In both the California and the Harvard statements there is recognition that general education is more than the sum of its parts; that general education should help students to place their disciplinary and professional scholarship into a meaningful context; and that it is important to help students learn to see general education as salient beyond vocational preparation.

The idea of an integrated general education as an antidote to broad, unlimited choice menus envisions curriculum built upon a purposeful scholarship that moves beyond introductory discovery. Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered (1990) neatly summarized the distinction between disciplinary discovery and scholarly integration by identifying the types of questions posed in each element. 
Those involved in discovery ask, “what is to be known? What is yet to be found?” Those engaged in integration ask, ‘”What do the findings mean? Is it possible to interpret what’s been discovered in ways that provide a larger, more comprehensive understanding?” Questions such as these call for the power of critical analysis and interpretation. They have a legitimacy of their own and if carefully pursued can lead the scholar from information to knowledge and even, perhaps, to wisdom.

A majority of institutions continue to implement general education as a nearly unlimited menu of course choices. The choices appear to be evermore inclusive of narrow faculty interests and/or departmental attention to filling seats to justify otherwise under-enrolled elective courses. There is scant evidence that such unrestricted breadth bares any relation to oft-stated goals such as critical thinking, a foundation sufficient to support sustained learning after college, or decision making in the face of the clashing  claims of science, politics, and cultural allegiances.

The financial burdens implicit in college education is another element in many discussions. Rising tuition costs have led to student loan debt that reportedly now outpaces credit card debt in the United States. What part does general education play? Do obese menus of general education requirements and curricular choices  strain the ability of universities to offer affordable education taught by permanent faculty?  To paraphrase Ronald Dworkin’s concern for the sustainability of democracy, We cheat our children inexcusably if we allow general education to continue only to masquerade as successful.   

Taken as a whole, national discussions of general education have found it useful to identify and distinguish among four curricular types with attention to purpose, and often, as to what makes for an appropriate pedagogy.

·      Fundamentals are tools necessary to scholarship and to successful university engagement. Fundamentals include the ability to communicate orally and in writing, to search out accurate information in a context that gives it meaning, and the capacity to apply basic numeracy principles.  Fundamentals are not, per se, necessarily elements of general education.     The question is nowhere whether or not students need to develop fundamental competencies. It is whether those competencies should be required of all students, but distinguished from the outcomes goals of a general education curriculum.
·      Majors are concentrations of courses and sometimes additional requirements that enable in-depth saturation and focused entry into disciplines, fields and professions. 
·      Electives are opportunities to explore wherever the intellectual and creative spirits beckon. Electives are not limited by discipline and can be found throughout the arts and sciences and in many professional schools. Electives are often available as specialized disciplinary or field courses.  Increasingly, electives are being seen in thematic contexts such as health policy, global studies, civic engagement, sustainability, and entrepreneurship, to name just a few.
·      General education can be viewed as an explicit curriculum that integrates the whole – that is, a purposeful collection of courses and experiences that help to generate an understanding of the arts and sciences and the relations they engender among a variety of human arenas, including: individual character, democratic and civic engagement, global understanding, informed analysis, ethical decision-making, and a meaningful ability to adapt to the 21st century’s rapid pace of social, political, cultural, economic, technological, workplace, and environmental change.  “By integration,” Boyer wrote, “we mean making connections across disciplines, placing the specialties in larger context, illuminating data in a revealing way, often educating nonspecialists, too.  In calling for a scholarship of integration, we do not suggest returning to the ‘gentleman scholar’ of an earlier time, nor do we have in mind the dilettante.  Rather, what we mean is serious, disciplined work that seeks to interpret, draw together, and bring new insight to bear on original research.”

A review of the literature identifies four general education models:
·      The Cafeteria Style Breadth model practiced by Penn State and most other institutions;
·      The Open Curriculum model in play at a few schools, such as Amherst College and Evergreen College, in which students have nearly unlimited authority to select courses outside of their major concentrations.  In effect, students create their own general education.
·      The nearly extinct Fully Prescribed Curriculum model for which the St. Johns (Annapolis and Santa Fe) classical curriculum is known; and
·      The Core Curriculum  approach at Columbia (and a modified hybrid at Stanford)  in which students must enroll in common themes (Stanford) or courses (Columbia) during their first year and then engage in a distributed menu system thereafter.

Detailed descriptions of  the general education landscape could run on for many pages.  The paragraphs and bullets above do not do the topic justice. They are intended, perhaps ironically, to offer an introduction to the breadth of the general education discussion currently taking place and to encourage thinking about alternative paths and expectations.  Toward this end it is useful to include within an appendix two relatively short chapters.  The first, authored by Michael Schudson, the co-chair of the “General Education in the 21st Century” report noted above, is titled, “The Problem of General Education in the Research University” (2011).   Next, is a chapter titled, “New Dimensions for General Education” written by the  late Virginia Smith, former of president Vassar College. Together, they provide a  valuable examination of general education’s potential and the  barriers that prevent general education from greater success.  Also included is a bibliography of relevant readings.  While not exhaustive of general education scholarship, the bibliography provides a useful body of literature that should be of use to scholars interested in the development and implementation of general education ideals.

Part II   A Snapshot of General Education at Penn State

Lack of Familiarity with Learning Goals A recent survey conducted in both large- and small-enrollment general education courses found that often, neither the students nor the instructional faculty were familiar with the learning goals for individual knowledge or skills domains. Students generally had favorable views of their courses overall, yet they often felt less favorable about their courses at the end of the semester. First-year students had more favorable views than students further along in their academic work. Very few faculty members surveyed were able to recall the domain-specific learning goals for their courses. Some were unaware that their courses were part of the General Education curriculum. 

Confusion Distinguishing Course Types A recurring problem in the existing general education curriculum is the structural confusion between lower-division survey courses that provide a foundational introduction to a major course of study and introductory courses that provide an overview of disciplinary thinking and knowing. This difficulty is endemic within the STEM fields, where GN and GQ courses are completed as part of a student’s major, enroll a fairly homogeneous disciplinary audience, and are reputed to serve as barriers to student success rather than vehicles for student learning. Students who take lower division courses to fulfill requirements within their major are more likely to have favorable views than students who take the same course to fulfill General Education requirements. This problem is less pronounced in the humanities and social sciences, where hierarchical curricula are less common, but across the curriculum students who take courses only to fulfill General Education requirements anticipate a lower degree of goal fulfillment than those for whom the course is a curricular requirement.

Heavy Reliance on Non-Standing Faculty Another significant concern is that general education courses are not consistently taught by the permanent faculty.  Outside of University Park, roughly one-third of the large-enrollment courses are taught by FT2 employees. At University Park FT2 instructors teach about 15% of those same courses. Policy makers should be wary of giving kudos to University Park based on these findings. Only about 10% of University Park large-enrollment courses are taught by standing faculty members. Roughly one-quarter of such courses are taught by standing faculty at non-University Park locations. These figures are not intended to cast aspersion on any group of instructors or students, but only to highlight the inconsistencies in general education instruction and to make clear that the “Penn State experience” differs widely across the institution.  

Questions About General Education Course Rigor We have looked beyond the abundant anecdotal evidence that students and advisers approach general education course selections as opportunities for low-challenge options that simply fulfill university requirements. Grade distributions in large-enrollment general education courses are heavily skewed toward high values, with over 70% of all enrolled students receiving grades of A or B (e.g., AM ST 105, CAS 100, ENGL 015, GEOSC 010, HDFS 129, PHOTO 100, WMNST 103). This trend is not observed in GN and GQ courses that fulfill major requirements (e.g., MATH 140), where pass rates around 60% are more common, and less than 40% of students receive A or B grades. 

Preliminary Conclusions The current general education requirements are vested principally in a small suite of courses that enroll a substantial fraction of undergraduate students across multiple Penn State campuses. These lower-division courses vary in scope and approach, but consistently involve no integration across disciplinary boundaries and scaffold no longitudinal increase in rigor or content depth. These difficulties result, in part, from a lack of clarity in the vision and mission of general education for faculty, students and advisers.  In sum, Penn State’s current General Education curriculum fails to deliver on the promise of a coherent intellectual, civic and scholarly curriculum for all students. While the size and geographic complexity of the institution present their own suite of difficulties in implementing any program, the current state of general education appears to suffer  less from institutional size than from challenges related to structure, delivery and conceptual clarity.

The current General Education course offerings do not define a curriculum and thus the question must be raised as to how well this large component of the undergraduate curriculum serves students, advisers or faculty members.

III.  Principles and Challenges by the Invited Faculty Group

   A. Curricular

·      Require a greater level of academic rigor  Students have described some general education courses as requirements to get out of the way, as read-and-test, and as grade boosting. Some students report college meetings in which advisers outlined the easiest paths through general education and warned against taking difficult classes that will not directly contribute to the major. Responding to the issues of salience and rigor, a student said,  My gen ed classes could not compare to the 400 level courses in my major that challenged me and that were built on earlier courses.  
·      Generate a realignment of student expectations by providing an explicit transmission of clearly defined general education purpose that faculty view, and that students learn to view, as a central and salient component of an undergraduate education  Despite phrases such as “the development of critical thinking and lifelong learning skills,” there is little to suggest that either students or faculty in general have a clear sense of general education’s purpose or what purpose a broadly distributed cafeteria menu curriculum serves. Why am I being forced to take a courses in science and math if I’m majoring in . . .?”  is not an uncommon student sentiment.  Many students appear to have little understanding of the salience of university general education study. They worry that general education is a detour, rather than an employment on-ramp. Students find little meaning in the vague reassurance that they will become “well rounded.” 
·      Provide a developmentally appropriate curriculum that spans the first through senior years General education should engender increasingly integrative and intellectually demanding challenges that build upon and nurture habits of discovery, analysis, integration and thoughtful decision-making.  At present, an exclusively lower division course model severely limits the potential for  intellectual growth and rigor, particularly as students take 100 and 200 level courses in their senior year. 
·      General education in its current form often strips the sciences, humanities, social sciences and professions of meaningful context  Whether the discipline involved is biology, psychology, math or art history, a general education course should be more than an introductory survey of a discipline. The rudiments of a disciplinary body of knowledge and methodology are, when standing alone, often insufficient to generate an understanding of the interactions among the humanities, sciences and social sciences, particularly as they involve the complex 21st century problems we face as individuals, citizens, and family members.

·      Utilize timely interdisciplinary thematic clusters as one of what can be multiple ways of meeting requirements Thematic approaches can help students to discover the relevance of a multiplicity of scholarly approaches. Clusters can enable students to select themes with compelling personal salience such as the environment, civil rights, health, poverty, or other topic or area studies that are of personal interest as well as  timely.  
·      Help students to discover who they are as individuals and as members of communities, which are global as well as local, and heterogeneous as well as homogeneous, through informed consideration of what it means to live in a world in which there are others  Such an approach stresses the value and the pedagogy of considering Big Questions of purpose and policy rather than focusing alone on introductory course matter better suited for those who need the elementary knowledge and skills necessary for engagement in a particular major.
·      Discontinue as appropriate the use of traditional general education program terms such as critical thinking and lifelong learning and replace such otherwise positive visions with more clearly defined and attainable outcomes priorities As outcomes-goals, global citizenship, critical thinking and lifelong learning are difficult to describe, appear to defy assessment, and lack meaning or salience to those who most need to embrace them -- students.

B. Faculty and Program Administration

·      Distinguish Penn State through its general education program as a first tier public university with academically superior learning pathways  Many, perhaps most institutions offer general education menus cut from a single cookie cutter mold. Penn State’s undergraduate experience should distinguish it from other schools and should provide a compelling reason for students, parents, faculty and others to make this university their university of choice.
·      Align general education curriculum development authority and responsibility with the Senate and Administrative curricular policies that apply to all other academic programs  The general education curricular process should mirror the programmatic expertise utilized in physics, history, business, and all other academic units.  A general education program faculty, rather than broadly representative ad hoc committees,  should develop the next general education curriculum and submit it for program approval to the University Faculty Senate and the Vice President and Dean for Undergraduate Education for approval in line with existing Senate Curricular Policies and Academic and Administrative Policy and Procedure implementations.  Only with a dedicated faculty can a program be developed under first principles of general education scholarship and without being fettered to traditional department and college desires for a share of  FTE budgeting that enables the offering of otherwise undersubscribed electives.
·      Identify and nurture a university-wide general education faculty  with the authority to act as a recognized academic program community   Faculty selected should have particular expertise in the theory and practice of general education programs and goals. They should hold academic homes in tenure and disciplinary colleges as well as membership in a recognized General Education faculty cohort.  Lacking the nurturing, voice, and on-going opportunities for professional deliberation that exist within such a community, a cohesive or integrated curriculum is unlikely to thrive. 
·      Create academic administrative leadership Every other academic program has an academic administrative officer with authority and responsibility. A program that provides 25 percent of each student’s undergraduate academic experience should have a dedicated academic officer, such as a university associate dean for general education.  This individual should have membership on ACUE, the Administrative Council for Undergraduate Education and other relevant bodies. As with all other academic programs, general education requires expert academic administrative leadership  and a place at the table with the disciplinary and professional deans and other senior level administrators.  It is not practical to produce and maintain strategic academic program planning based on the formulation of ad hoc committees once every 15 years, or with the ad hoc approval of a transient senate subcommittee.    
·      Operate under a budgetary model that does not confound the separate roles and pedagogical necessities of service, required disciplinary, and general education courses  The lure of FTE should not influence general education decision making.

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