Tool Kit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

High-Impact, Integrative General Education at Northern Illinois University


Faculty and administrators at Northern Illinois University (NIU) don’t mince words when they talk about the university’s previous general education program. It was “a menu-driven sprawl,” perceived by students to be “disconnected and pointless,” according to a report drafted by the task force charged with reviewing and revising the program. The Progressive Learning in Undergraduate Studies (PLUS) initiative attempts to answer those charges. PLUS outlines a series of revisions to the general education program that focus in part on making it more integrated with the rest of the baccalaureate experience at NIU, including the major and cocurricular experiences.

The intellectual foundation of PLUS was laid 2007, after a team of NIU faculty returned from AAC&U’s Institute on General Education and Assessment with the conclusion that “we couldn’t revise general education unless we understood our baccalaureate mission and had some learning outcomes for that,” says NIU Vice Provost Anne Birberick. “That started a university-wide conversation about the baccalaureate experience,” one that ultimately led the institution to move away from a curriculum based on disciplinary distribution and toward one based on students’ engagement with big ideas and participation in high-impact practices. “We believe the purpose of general education is not to attract students into a discipline,” Birberick says, “but rather to infuse disciplines into the lives of students.”

Breaking Down Disciplinary Divides

Ultimately, the university opted to make the learning outcomes for the general education program the same as the revised baccalaureate learning outcomes. Rather than representing a distinct, pre-major unit of learning, the general education program is intended to build foundational skills that students will further develop in any major they choose. The PLUS Task Force 2014 report to the provost describes the eight baccalaureate and general education learning outcomes: upon graduation, students will (1) communicate clearly and effectively; (2) demonstrate critical, creative, and independent thought; (3) use and combine appropriate qualitative and quantitative reasoning skills; (4) collaborate with others to achieve goals; (5) analyze issues connecting human life and the nonhuman world; (6) exhibit intercultural competency; (7) integrate knowledge of global connections and interdependencies; and (8) synthesize knowledge and skills and apply them to develop interdisciplinary solutions to problems.

In light of the new learning outcomes, the general education course requirements underwent a significant reorganization. The new general education program requires four foundational courses—a quantitative literacy course, an oral communication course, an entry-level composition course, and an intermediate “writing in the domains” course (see below). The program is rounded out with two courses from each of the three “knowledge domains,” and one more elective course from any of these domains.  

The three knowledge domains are Creativity and Critical Analysis, Nature and Technology, and Society and Culture. The domains represent a big change from NIU’s previous general education requirements based on a distribution of disciplines—the “menu-driven sprawl” of which the PLUS committee was so critical. Instead, the domains are based on the kinds of questions with which students are asked to grapple. Accordingly, three different courses from the same discipline or department might appear in three different knowledge domains. For example, in the anthropology department, Exploring Archeology appears in the Creativity and Critical Analysis domain, the Great Apes is part of the Nature and Technology domain, and Linguistic Anthropology falls in the Society and Culture domain.

These domains are designed to “cut across traditional knowledge disciplines and address questions of interest to students and engage them in ways more indicative of societal problems and issues,” says Chris Parker, associate professor of psychology and associate vice provost for assessment. They also offer a way to get more faculty and more departments to participate in the general education program. In the past, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences had “owned” general education, says Julia Spears, associate vice provost for engaged learning. The new emphasis on organizing questions and themes allows the university to bring more faculty into general education while also demonstrate to students how a broader range of disciplines can contribute to their fundamental learning for life after college.

The PLUS committee is also working on a set of optional general education Pathways that will further connect the curriculum with real-world issues. In the Pathways model, students will take a series of courses, selected from all three knowledge domains, that all examine a particular theme; some of the proposed themes include sustainability, ethics and justice, and health and wellness. “The main idea,” Parker says, “is to foster connections between disparate material that students encounter and see how these connections can apply to different areas of their coursework and their lives.”

Students who choose to participate in a Pathway will be able to complete a Pathway Focus or a Pathway Minor, both of which will be noted on transcripts. The focus requires only that students complete three lower-division courses related to the same Pathway theme—one from each knowledge domain. To complete a minor, students will have to complete three additional upper-division courses that are drawn from at least two different knowledge domains. Students can potentially fulfill the upper-division requirement with courses from their major, ideally, doing so will give them a stronger sense of connection between general education and their major and help them see the relevance of both to their lives beyond college, Birberick says.

Integrating High-Impact Practices

In addition to describing new learning outcomes and general education requirements, PLUS also lays out recommendations to ensure that more students participate in high-impact educational practices (HIPs). HIPs, as described in detail by George Kuh in several AAC&U publications, have been widely tested and have been shown to have a positive impact on students’ retention and cumulative learning—especially for historically underserved students such as low-income and first-generation students and students of color.

Faculty at NIU have been conducting their own research on HIPs in their local context, with an initial focus on undergraduate research and a few other practices. The initial results confirm some of the findings from Kuh’s research and that of Ashley Finley and Tia McNair, suggesting that NIU students who participate in HIPs are significantly less likely to drop out, even when controlling for retention predictors such as GPA.

As part of PLUS, all students participate in at least two HIPs—a first-year seminar and writing-intensive courses. The writing intensive course requirement may be satisfied by general education courses or by courses in the major, but the courses must meet particular requirements. Courses must offer repeated writing practice within the context of a discipline or subject area, and each student must produce at least 3,500 words per semester. Discussions about writing style and structure also must be part of the course curriculum. The university is currently implementing another course with built-in HIPs, an upper-division career success course that includes experiential learning and written reflection; this course might become a university-wide requirement as well, Birberick says.

But students are just as likely to encounter HIPs though the cocurriculum as in their coursework, according to Spears. Many high-impact activities at NIU, such as undergraduate research and service learning, are overseen by the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning (OSEEL). And while cocurricular experiences are not credit bearing, they are designed and carefully vetted by faculty and staff to ensure that they will engage students in at least one of the NIU baccalaureate learning outcomes, and students engage in some kind of written reflection on their learning in most of these activities. OSEEL staff also have put forth proposals for noting participation in cocurricular activities such as service learning on student transcripts, which might encourage more students to participate in these practices even when they aren’t required, Spears says.

Going forward, students also are more likely to participate in HIPs, Spears says, because the university is communicating more with students about these opportunities and why they are important. “We already had these activities . . . but they went unnoticed, and only those students who stumbled on them got involved,” Spears says. “There’s more intentionality now in how they are communicated to students and parents—at the university level, in advising, in marketing, and at the college level for students enrolled in various programs. We’re more coordinated than we were in the past.”

Assessing General Education Outcomes

Although some aspects of PLUS are not fully implemented, faculty are already preparing to assess the program’s effects on student learning by collecting learning artifacts in introductory courses so they can establish a baseline for student achievement of the baccalaureate learning outcomes. “We’re starting out by looking at the skills we’re building in the foundational classes and then expanding through the rest of curriculum,” says Parker, who is leading the assessment effort. Initial assessment activities will focus on students’ written communication, oral communication, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and qualitative and quantitative reasoning skills. The assessment team is using modified versions of AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics.

Because the move from disciplinary course distributions to broad knowledge domains was one of the most dramatic changes implemented with PLUS, faculty in each knowledge domain have been asked to name two learning outcomes their courses address particularly well and to identify key assignments in which students showcase their achievement of these outcomes. Once faculty have established a baseline in foundational courses, they’ll start looking at learning artifacts from upper-level courses that address the same outcomes, Parker says. This assessment plan is one more piece of the broader effort driving PLUS—to bring all faculty into the conversation about student learning. “We’re trying to longitudinalize it,” Parker says, “and get all faculty to think about how they contribute to students’ progressive learning on these key outcomes.”

Read more about PLUS at NIU’s website. You can also learn more about similar work happening through AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) initiative. GEMs offers principles that can assist institutions of higher education in creating general education curricula that focus on core proficiencies, intentional educational pathways within and across institutions, and opportunities for students to engage in work that allows assessment of their demonstrated accomplishments in inquiry- and problem-based learning. AAC&U is also advancing similar work through the LEAP Challenge, which calls on colleges and universities to engage students in signature work that will prepare them integrate and apply their learning to a significant project tackling an unscripted problem.


Northern Illinois University