January/February 2007
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San Jose State
San José State, a public university located in California’s Silicon Valley, offers a distinctive general education program. Photo by Sharon Hall.

General Education Reform Sets High Expectations at San José State

Over the past decade, San José State University (SJSU) has introduced a series of general education reforms that have placed the campus at the forefront of efforts to design more effective curricula. In the 1990s—a time when general education outcomes assessment was still uncommon—the campus set out to define student learning objectives and mandated course-embedded assessment. More recently, the campus community’s ongoing discussion of “what it means to be an educated person” has spurred further curricular innovation.

San José State’s current general education plan has many of the hallmarks of the kind of intentional approach to undergraduate education that AAC&U has called for through the Greater Expectations initiative and the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) campaign. Incoming students at SJSU take core courses designed to develop foundational skills and knowledge, more advanced students take a sequence of courses that engage them with pressing problems in U.S. society and the world, and students at all levels benefit from the curriculum’s emphasis on integrative learning. These elements come together in a program that both satisfies the statewide requirements of the California State University System and provides students with a distinctive general education.

A Signature Approach

San José State University’s recent general education reforms began in 1998, when the academic senate approved the plan to introduce assessment into general education. The goal was ambitious: at the outset, coordinators for roughly 280 existing general education courses had to document how their courses would ensure the curriculum’s newly defined learning objectives. The results of assessment in individual courses would then be reported back, usually on a four-year cycle, in a process of “continuing certification.”

Such course certification remains central to the general education program, says Gail Evans, associate dean and director of general education at SJSU. Evans, who became director of general education in the midst of the 1998 curricular changes, notes that as a result of the certification requirement, every general education course at SJSU has now been reviewed for continuing certification at least twice since 1998.

The learning objectives for the courses themselves broadly mirror the structure of SJSU’s general education program. Four “Basic Skills” requirements—oral communication, written communication (IA), critical thinking, and mathematical concepts—build the foundational abilities students will use throughout their undergraduate years. Courses in “Basic Knowledge” requirements round out the core general education with a focus on nine key liberal arts and sciences content areas: physical science; life science; arts; letters; written communication (IB); human behavior; comparative systems, cultures, and environments; social issues; and human understanding and development.

San Jose State Graduates
SJSU seeks to graduate “educated people” who are prepared to participate fully in society. Photo by Steve Castillo.

In the junior or senior year, students then complete four requirements in “SJSU Studies”: earth and environment; self, society, and equality in the U.S.; culture, civilization, and global understanding; and written communication (II). These advanced courses, taken even by transfer students who have completed the rest of their general education at another institution, “really are ‘the mark’ of all San José State graduates,” says Evans. They also provide students an opportunity to apply their basic skills and knowledge to broader analysis of “what goes on in our country and how that [is] related to the rest of the world.”

Each of SJSU’s general education requirements can be fulfilled by any of a range of certified courses. Seven departments, for example, offer courses that fulfill the “critical thinking” requirement. But while these individual courses may take different approaches, all work toward the objectives identified in the general education plan—objectives that, in the case of critical thinking, include such abilities as distinguishing different types of discourse, identifying different types of reasoning, finding unstated assumptions, and a range of other critical thinking outcomes. 

What Constitutes an Educated Person?

In addition to assessing student learning outcomes and certifying courses, for the past three years SJSU has hosted a dialogue about “what it means to be an educated person.” This dialogue, conducted online and in twice-monthly meetings involving faculty, staff, students, and administrators, has provided opportunities for the campus community to debate and articulate the rationale for general education requirements.

The dialogue also prompted concrete changes in SJSU’s most recent revision of the general education plan. In 2005, the campus incorporated recommendations for more emphasis on service learning, information literacy, and ethics into existing requirements as a result of discussions about the qualities of an “educated person,” Associate Dean Evans says. Other changes brought greater transparency to general education requirements: “We now mandate that all course syllabi must list the student learning objectives,” says Evans, “so that the students understand the relationship between what they’re doing in the course and the objectives that they’re supposed to attain by the time they finish the course.”

But the most significant result of the 2005 revision was the identification of nine overarching “program objectives” for student learning in general education: understanding of the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the arts; oral and written communication; critical and creative thinking; ethical decision making; information literacy; analytic and creative problem solving; multicultural and global perspectives; intentional learning; and social responsibility. These essential outcomes—which were influenced by the “educated person” dialogue as well as SJSU’s mission statement and AAC&U’s LEAP campaign—will provide the same kind of guidance for the general education program as a whole that the area objectives did for individual courses in 1998.

Building Consensus

The “educated person” dialogue also responded to one of the problems that arose during the 1998 general education reforms. “When we did the 1998 revisions,” Evans says, “we did not have enough campus support for them to be implemented without a lot of grief on all sides.” The objections that arose from the faculty in response to mandated assessment and course certification in 1998 have informed subsequent work on general education. The lessons? “Get campus buy-in,” Evans says, and “don’t do it behind closed doors.”

Framing an open discussion about general education in terms of what it means to be an “educated person” offered one way of building broad faculty consensus about the goals of a liberal education. Administrators have also sought to build faculty involvement in the course certification process: today, before core general education courses reach the board of general studies for final certification, they are first reviewed by discipline-based faculty advisory panels. About one hundred faculty members serve on these panels in any given year, says Evans. As a result of these and other efforts, when the 2005 general education revisions were submitted to the academic senate, they received unanimous approval—something that, Evans notes, “is pretty much unheard of for anything on our campus, but particularly anything related to general education.”

Despite such successes, general education planners still face challenges as they move forward with the most recent revisions. Because tools to directly assess the larger program objectives that were defined in 2005 do not yet exist, administrators like Evans must document for accreditors how those objectives can be mapped onto existing course-based student learning objectives. And within the program, faculty and administrators are now working to incorporate two new objectives across the curriculum: quantitative literacy and community-based service. These changes—and those that may yet emerge from the “educated person” dialogues—will require continued innovation in the years ahead.

San José State University is a member of the LEAP Campus Action Network, which supports campus efforts to communicate effectively about the value of a liberal education and to assess efforts to ensure that students are achieving key learning outcomes. More information about the LEAP campaign—including links to the new LEAP report, College Learning for the New Global Century—is available on AAC&U’s Web site. SJSU also participated in AAC&U’s Greater Expectations Institute in 2005 and 2006, where administrators, students, and faculty worked on First-Year Experience and Students Actively Integrating Learning (SAIL) projects.

More information about San José State’s general education program and about its “educated person” dialogues is available online.