Start Something Real in the General Education Curriculum
In recent years, many institutions of higher education have begun revising, revamping, or reimagining their general education programs. This is in part because the distribution models of the past century have lost their sheen and young people who once endured the arranged marriage between general education requirements and their majors are now on the prowl for exciting, meaningful, and connected learning to launch their careers and lives.
While this is not necessarily the most welcome news for institutions that have become comfortable posting 10- or 20-year-old course offerings year after year, the good news is that the internet has brought us the Match.com of choices, highlighting and showcasing the college courses with the greatest enrollments, the highest demand, and longest waitlists to help us imagine the possibilities, however small at first, for our own colleges. Some institutions, like UCLA, are studying the impact of their new general education programs and sharing the results so the rest of us have some footing to stand on when we start our revisions. As college curriculum developers and departments move eagerly through the 21st century, one thing is certain: if institutions of higher education are to stay relevant, they should follow Match.com’s lead and “Start Something Real” with their general education requirements.
Five steps to start something real in the general education curriculum
Some institutions have the human resources and funding to do multiyear program evaluation and revision, while others must take a more intentional approach to reviewing and updating general education programs already in place. Regardless of where you are in the brainstorming, planning, or dreaming phase, consider the steps below on your journey to something real.
1. Host focus groups with current faculty, current students, and recent graduates
One of the best ways to find out what’s happening in your institution’s general education courses is to invite students who have taken the courses and faculty who have taught the courses to a sit down. Come up with a list of questions to guide the informal focus group and develop a follow-up survey from the focus group interview data to clarify any shared information you want to know more about. General education courses can take up a significant portion of the degree program and should have a particular impact on student learning, attainment, and progress.
Many institutions describe the role of general education as providing students with the broad scope of knowledge needed to be successful in their majors, careers, and lives; many students describe general education courses as a repeat of high school or as something unpleasant to be endured before getting to the good stuff in the major. How does your general education program measure up? Do students enjoy taking the courses and know why they’re taking them? Do faculty enjoy teaching the courses and know why they are teaching them? Do your general education assessments measure what the program outcomes say you’re measuring?
2. Check out the competition: general education programs
Some colleges and universities overhauling their general education programs are telling everyone about it and with good reason. Ohio State, UCLA, Brooklyn College, William & Mary, and Goucher, to name a few, have websites dedicated to their new general education programs, some of which include the data and processes followed to arrive at the new curriculum. Almost all the general education revisions from these institutions include interdisciplinarity, critical thinking, speaking, and intercultural competencies as central goals. These models for general education revisions or updates offer parameters as well as guidance that can be scaled to meet the needs of any college or university.
When reviewing what other programs are doing, also consider who their accrediting bodies are. One oft-bemoaned barrier to revising general education can be accreditation standards, though that doesn’t have to be the case. Most standards are flexible enough to accommodate revisions, even in professional licensing programs like education and nursing. The courses that students consider “the good stuff” do not have to be delayed until the major and pushed aside as electives. Those courses, in fact, may be the key to starting something real in the general education curriculum.
3. Check out the competition: individual courses
In 2018, Bob Morris published an article in Town & Country titled “How College Courses on Happiness and Humiliation Became the Hottest Trend on Campus.” In it, he runs down some of the most anticipated college courses from around the country. From Death in America: How Will You Die? (NYU) and Emptiness (Hampshire College) to How to Win a Beauty Pageant (Oberlin) and Politicizing Beyoncé (Rutgers), it’s clear that students may be looking for more nuanced ways to engage with the concepts and contentions of our times. Faculty are also inspired by the autonomy that comes with designing courses that resonate with 21st-century learners and that build the same skills they may get from a traditional psychology or philosophy 101 course—if not more. In fact, Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos created a wildly popular course on happiness that catapulted to fame during the height of the pandemic. The course, The Science of Well-Being, is also offered free through Coursera; to date, over 4.5 million people have enrolled, and 36,000 have reviewed it for an average 4.9 rating.
Lengthy overviews or surveys in lecture-based courses are being supplanted by student-centered courses that turn students and faculty on to critical thinking, engaging discussion, hands-on demonstrations and experimentation, and the desire for greater connections to humans and interdisciplinary learning. By studying these courses, how and when they are offered, how long they run for, what kind of content they provide, how they measure learning, and what role faculty play in delivering content, what can we learn about what learners and educators want and respond to?
4. Don’t get bogged down
Some faculty, administrators, donors, and board members may be reluctant to support revising the general education curriculum as change can be scary and uncomfortable. Some ways to assuage fears are to conduct a general education pilot study and report on the findings; create a phasing in of the new and a phasing out of the old general education model; maintain systems—catalogs, registration portals, and other useful tools—to easily revert if the revision is unsuccessful and a return to the drawing board is needed; and maintain a traditional distribution model general education curriculum, particularly at institutions where many students transfer in or out.
5. Make gen ed your brand
People are looking for experiences, and the general education curriculum, which takes up a significant portion of students’ degree paths, should be one of the most memorable experiences colleges offer. As we’ve seen college enrollment drop across the country, institutions are competing for students more than ever. Forget spending outrageous amounts on rebranding tools and endless social media campaigns. There’s no better way to get students enrolled and energized than to make them fall in love, again and again, with the general education program. Lead your recruiting events with your general education program. Though top-tier advertising is helpful, it’s the cutting-edge curriculum design driven by student interest and faculty inventiveness that will make students run not walk to enroll in your degree programs because it sounds so good they just can’t wait to get started.
Higher education is at a pivotal moment of transition. We know that many young people are disillusioned, disengaged, uninterested, and marginalized. We know that some elite institutions are plagued with cheating scandals, nepotism, homogenous learner profiles, and high-pressure learning environments and that some smaller, regional tuition-dependent schools are overwhelmed with high DFW and dropout rates. Yet colleges and universities everywhere have a unique opportunity to step up and reimagine curriculum that will prepare learners for the types of jobs our society is generating, for the types of global problems and inequities that must be solved and eradicated, and for the types of successful lives every student deserves and dreams of once they graduate. And to do this, we’ve got to be the most real we’ve ever been.
Lillian Reeves, PhD, is the director of transformative and inclusive pedagogy at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Previously, she was an associate professor and chair of the elementary education program at Piedmont University, where she spent 18 months on a general education task force. During that time, she fell in love with all the possibilities and promises of gen ed. She’s a tireless student advocate, and Piedmont recently recognized her as Undergraduate Advisor of the Year (2023).