In his book Higher Expectations, two-time Harvard president Derek Bok explores what it should mean to be liberally educated in the twenty-first century. Given the size and scope of the unprecedented challenges colleges and universities are confronting today, Bok calls for a radical reimagining of higher education grounded in the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. This twenty-first-century vision for liberal education requires rethinking educational purposes and practices to better prepare students for global interdependence, innovation in the workplace, civic engagement, complexity, and rapid change. The key elements in a framework for high-quality learning include widely expected learning outcomes, high-impact practices that foster achievement and completion, evidence on what works for underserved students, and authentic assessments that raise and reveal the levels of learning.

For over a year, we—two undergraduate English majors (Emily and Samantha) and a tenured English department faculty member (Michael)—developed an assessment model for a newly redesigned general education writing class at the University of North Georgia (UNG). With the assessment project now at a close, we believe strongly in what we accomplished: hearing about students’ lived experiences, tapping into the high-impact practice of undergraduate research through a student-faculty partnership, and designing a project that is responsive to local contexts, answerable to local constituents, and mutually beneficial for faculty and students.

Before COVID-19, faculty teaching traditional, face-to-face courses were already grappling with how to connect with students who prefer to communicate and retrieve information through mobile phones and social media. These challenges were magnified when the pandemic compelled colleges and universities to shift their educational delivery to online learning. Now, as many institutions continue remote learning this fall, two questions are particularly urgent: How can we digitally create an engaging community for students, and how can we effectively assess their learning?

Participants in a virtual meeting with over three hundred faculty, staff, and students shared their thoughts and feelings about the most recent public killings of Black people and the resulting protests and violence. One Black professor asked white people to think about their current experiences of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a mask feels uncomfortable and hot and makes it not so easy to breathe. Wearing a mask takes effort. Remembering which mask to wear, in which context, and then constantly adjusting the mask based on the particulars of the situation uses significant cognitive capacity, what I call bandwidth. His point: Black people wear a mask every day in the United States. And these masks are literally “breath-taking.”

This historic period of global contagion and socioeconomic disruption has forced colleges and universities to confront challenges that have been festering since the Great Recession began in 2008. The question today is how higher education can accomplish its enduring purposes of protecting democracy and creating engaged citizens as campuses have been shut down in varying degrees and as pedagogical uncertainty is paired with an economic crisis. I propose one answer: affordable, high-impact civic engagement.

Since my discovery of AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, I have adapted their framing language and rubric dimensions into assignments and assessments to complement my curricular goals in the high school classes I teach. By thinking about the larger categories of skills that underlie student performance in individual tasks, I’ve also been able to tell students, much more explicitly, what they do well. As students leave the twelfth grade and matriculate to college and university study, these are the skills—and the self-awareness—that will support their academic success and, I hope, their joy of learning.