Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Utah State University

Aligning General Education and the Major at Utah State University


What does it mean to have a college degree? For the degree to have any real meaning, it must represent more than a certain number of credit hours distributed across certain disciplines, with a minimum GPA; instead, the degree must indicate what a graduate knows and is able to do, says Daniel McInerney, professor of history at Utah State University (USU). Over the last seven years, USU has been refining what capacities it expects students to develop and determining how and where they learn them. The process has led to a reconceptualization of general education and how it connects with major programs.

“We’re trying to clarify for students, faculty, administrators,  policy makers, employers—all the stakeholders in higher education—what the degree means, what it translates into in terms of student knowledge, understanding, and proficiencies,” McInerney says. “This is a rededication to clarity in student learning and a renewed concern with helping students make informed choices about their education.”

Tuning and General Education

While the current distribution requirements for USU’s general education program have been in place since 1997, faculty have in recent years focused on defining what specific skills students develop in those general education courses, and how those skills are further developed in the major and lead, ultimately, to the proficiencies the university expects of all graduates. As part of AAC&U’s LEAP States Initiative, USU has embraced the Essential Learning Outcomes, as well as Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile. These documents inform USU’s goal to graduate “Citizen Scholars” capable of “reading, listening, and viewing for comprehension; communicating effectively for various purposes and audiences; understanding and applying mathematics and other quantitative reasoning techniques; using various technologies competently; and working effectively, both collaboratively and individually.”

The work on these pathways was informed by USU’s ongoing participation in a statewide tuning process, in which all of Utah’s universities are working together to develop learning outcomes and competencies for degrees in particular fields. “When you establish learning outcomes for a major, you begin reverse engineering,” says Norm Jones, director of general education and curricular integration at USU. “Where are you getting these outcomes? You go back into the curriculum, and that raises questions about where it begins.”

The physics, elementary education, and history departments at USU have all participated in the tuning process. In the history department, faculty initially complained about the project: why worry about tuning when there were other, more pressing issues in the department, such as the poor preparation many history majors brought to their senior capstone projects? But that complaint led right back to tuning, McInerney says. “It helped us understand the general proficiencies students had to develop, and the specific proficiencies they needed to master in order to succeed at this project. By identifying the problem and clarifying that students lacked a level of understanding, skills, and knowledge, we were able to outline some learning outcomes, and then ask, ‘where do they pick these up? Whose course does this?’”

“Consumers and Producers”

Through these discussions, the history faculty traced each of the necessary skills their majors were developing back through every level of departmental work and to the general education program. The process also led to a discussion about what skills history courses offered to students who didn’t ultimately pursue a major or career in history. McInerney and Jones use an economic metaphor for the relationship between the departments and general education: each department is both a producer and a consumer of general education. Each department relies on general education to help students gain certain skills that will prepare them to be successful majors, and also teaches, through general education courses, skills that help students across the university succeed in other disciplines.

When these issues were taken up by the university-wide general education committee a few years ago, the committee decided it was important to bring a greater focus on pedagogy and skills development to general education courses, Jones says. There was a perception that many general education courses focused on disciplinary content, which might be less beneficial for students who ultimately major in other fields. Subcommittees created rubrics to evaluate the syllabi of courses submitted to fulfill each general education distribution area—communications literacy, quantitative literacy, American institutions, creative arts, humanities, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences.

While the rubrics specify certain skills and methods that should be covered in general education courses, they are written broadly to allow for faculty autonomy. Faculty independence is crucial in this regard, Jones says—“the people who teach these course think about them all the time; they’re the experts … But no English faculty members are going to object to teaching textual analysis—as long as you don’t tell them what text they have to use.”

 This means that faculty are able to cover the required skills in the context of the content of their choice. While general education courses are now framed around skills and proficiencies, for those courses that also serve as introductory courses to a major, content coverage may still be very important. Furthermore, working with content is itself an important skill, says Brian McCuskey, a professor of English. “One of the skills a general education should provide is the ability to connect apparently unrelated content. Learning content is one skill; the higher-level skill is connecting that content to other content, to think critically and creatively about how you get from math to literature, or from economics to biology.”       

A Cultural Revolution

Having a more intentional general education program and pathways to the major also means getting students more engaged, and so USU has worked to make discussions about general education a key part of orientation and other first-year activities. “We began using Connections [a first-year course focused on the "whys" and "hows" of a university education] to address the question of what being an intentional learner means,” Jones says. “Our programs discuss the whole degree, not just majors, and we get a chance to explain how the two fit together, and why they’re both important.”

When McCuskey speaks at first-year orientation, he discusses Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an allegory for general education. “Here’s a summary of the novel from a gen ed perspective: Frankenstein shows up at the university with an interest in science and he immediately and exclusively focuses on one particular technical problem. He forsakes his other studies, ignores his professors, turns his back on his fellow students, and stops writing home to his family. He’s focused so closely on the problem of infusing a dead body with life … that he never learns to ask questions about the social or moral dimensions of the problem he’s working on,” McCuskey says. “He skips his gen ed and creates a monster—if he’d taken a little philosophy, psychology, political science, if he’d taken some other sciences, he might have thought about the consequences and implications of his work.”

First-year students also view a series of videos and presentations in which Jones discusses each of the general education requirements, what sort of skills students develop in these courses, and why these skills are important for their university studies and for their future employment prospects. The goal of all these discussions and presentations, Jones says, is that “students do more of the connective thinking on the front end—and, it takes away some the concern about declaring a major right away.”

“Now we’re at a point that we should stop and see if this is working,” Jones continued.  The new curricular goals are part of new faculty workshops, and the general education committee is working on a plan for orienting contingent faculty. The university has also developed an assessment plan for the university-wide learning outcomes, though it hasn’t been implemented yet.  “I think we’re in good shape for what I hope is a slow but steady cultural evolution,” Jones says.

That new culture is born in part from faculty members’ recognition of the importance of general education for their students, McInerney says. “There are substantial issues at stake—the nature of learning, and the state of our economy. We help students with both issues by giving them this guidance through general education, and it’s a great start for students to move, hopefully, with greater clarity and intentionality through their degree.”

To learn more about general education at Utah State University, visit the Citizen Scholar web page. You can also find more resources on general education from AAC&U. AAC&U has recently launched General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs), an initiative that will develop and pilot a framework for general education that engages students deeply in their own learning.

Utah State University