Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

The I-series courses, a new general education requirement unique to UMD, introduce students to inquiry-based learning in their first two years on campus. These courses “invert the curricular pyramid” by focusing a specific problem or issue, rather than giving the broad disciplinary survey common in introductory courses. (Photo courtesy of John T. Consoli/University of Maryland)

Innovation, Inquiry Key Outcomes of New General Education Program at the University of Maryland, College Park


A 2008 survey conducted by AAC&U revealed that a large number of colleges and universities are reforming their general education programs, revamping old distribution requirements or adding new elements to engage students in more integrative and active learning. The University of Maryland at College Park (UMD) is one such campus. Ira Berlin, a distinguished professor of history at UMD, led a task force that was given free rein to completely re-envision the university's general education program.

What the task force ultimately did, however, was update the general education system in a way that both increased the rigor of existing requirements and introduced new elements unique to a UMD education. "In some ways we're still within that old frame," Berlin says, "but the substance is different." One of the most striking changes is the introduction of the I-series courses—a new set of topical classes that focus on complex problems and engage first-year students in inquiry-based learning. Other courses have been added or revised to put new emphasis on scholarship in practice and fundamental learning outcomes.

These changes are part of a renewed commitment to undergraduate students at UMD, says Donna Hamilton, dean of undergraduate studies. "We've recruited a fine student body," she says, "and there's sense on campus that these are very valuable people and we need to provide them with what they need."

Enacting Change across the Curriculum—Not Always Easy

As part of its accreditation process in 2007, UMD was charged with updating its general education program, which was thirty years old at the time. "It wasn't a bad program," Berlin says. "Mostly it was an old program.... It didn't do some of the things that we wanted it do, and it wasn't as rigorous as it was created to be."

Another concern was that the purpose of the general education requirements wasn't being communicated to students, Hamilton says. "There had been, at the time it was designed, a very eloquent justification for the old program, but the language of the justification was no longer broadly known or expressed across the campus. As far as many students were concerned, they were taking courses in order to check off a bunch of boxes."

An initial task force was convened and given authority to completely overhaul the general education program. They did exactly that—and the faculty rejected the plan. "You might want to dream up an entirely new world of gen ed," Berlin says, "but it turns out that university faculties can be extraordinarily conservative. They didn't see what they knew, and it went down in flames." Berlin was chosen to head the second task force and, again, was given free rein to devise a new general education framework. However, the second task force decided "not to look at it from thirty-five thousand feet and rethink the whole thing, but to take something that was familiar and see how we could improve it. We took every piece that we had and we examined it and said, 'how could we make this better?'"

One of the first steps in this process was increasing the number and rigor of courses focusing on essential skills and learning outcomes, which have been updated in the new Fundamental Studies requirements. Berlin points to the old general education program's writing requirements, which could be skipped by students with high SAT scores or AP English classes. "We started out by saying, there is no one on this campus who can't write better." Various classes could be offered for students arriving with different degrees of skill, but every incoming student would be required to complete two three-credit writing courses (though the AP exemption remains). The task force also boosted mathematics fundamentals with the addition of a second course focused on analytical reasoning and added a new requirement in oral communication.

The old distributive studies, too, were redefined by the task force. "It turns out the old program categories had grown increasingly fine over time," Berlin says. "You not only had a natural sciences requirement but a physical science requirement and a biological sciences requirement. Some students couldn't take a certain course that semester and they were graduating late." The new distributive studies include just three categories—natural sciences, history and social sciences, and humanities—but require multiple courses for each requirement, giving students more flexibility with scheduling.

Other requirements had their content revised. While the previous general education program had included a diversity requirement, many students opted for courses based on what Berlin calls "reification of identity"—students took courses that focused on their own ethnic, racial, or gender groups. "There's nothing wrong with learning more about who you are, or who you supposedly are, but that wasn't doing the job," he says. The revised diversity requirement includes two courses—one on understanding plural societies, and the other on cultural competence.. "There's a growing literature on this matter, on how you deal with other cultures," Berlin says. "Turns out every hospital in the country and many businesses teach a course in cultural competency."

Inverting the Pyramid

In addition to tweaking and revising old requirements, the task force introduced new some elements, including a requirement for "scholarship in practice," fulfilled by courses that give students opportunities to work outside traditional classroom practices and engage in work that is authentic to the course discipline. Examples include architecture, business, education, and English courses in which students create architectural designs, business plans, educational curricula, and original poetry.

The biggest addition, however, is the I-Series: a group of courses that "speak to important issues, that spark the imagination, demand intellect, inspiration, and innovation, and conclude where feasible with real-world implementation," according to the university's strategic plan.

These courses "invert the curricular pyramid," Berlin says, introducing students to big questions immediately, rather than waiting until after students complete introductory surveys and various specialties within their majors. Each course addresses a problem or issue—recent courses have taken on global warming, social networking, and the pursuit of happiness—and asks students both to consider that problem from the perspective of a particular discipline and to situate the issue in a broader context and consider its impact in their own lives.

Student-faculty engagement is a crucial element of I-series courses. "This is not something where you're going to show up and lecture," Hamilton says. "This is about students and faculty engaged in inquiry together." This can be challenging given that these are large-enrollment courses, between 60 and 120 students. "There are people at other universities who say you can't do that in a class that big—you can't do that unless you have twenty-five students in a class. And we say, oh yes you can—and we are doing that." To support this goal, the program provides seminars for faculty currently teaching in the I-Series. Faculty share teaching strategies and discuss specific pedagogies and technologies for engaging with large groups of students.

All students must complete two I-series courses in their first two years, with the exception of transfer students. There are, however, special provisions for transfer students. "We have a transfer-friendly articulation agreement with public institutions in the state of Maryland," Hamilton said, "including community colleges." Transfer students who have completed their general education requirements at these colleges are also considered to have completed their UMD general education requirements, with the exception of an upper-level writing course and any additional courses needed to reach the minimum forty credits of general education at UMD.

Challenges to Implementation

Hamilton praised the curricular plan devised by the task force and approved by the University Senate, but noted too some of the challenges of implementing the plan. Hamilton's office was charged with devising a plan for distributing the teaching load across UMD's eleven colleges. Developing a funding model was also challenging. While the provost and president of the university have remained committed to maintaining funds for the new program, "We still had to figure out how to allocate the funds and rationalize that allocation," Hamilton explained. In the case of fundamental studies, funds were allocated to the colleges on a per seat basis—something the university had never done before.

Digitizing all the new courses proved to be another hurdle. Doug Roberts, a physicist and associate dean for general education, created a new computer program for faculty to enter their courses; the system has been incredibly effective. But the sheer amount of coding to implement the new program and synchronize it with student registration delayed putting the new requirements in place by a year.

One element that has facilitated implementation, though, has been the faculty ownership of the new general education program. Not only were the requirements redrawn by a faculty task force, but the decisions as to which courses will fulfill these requirements are being made by faculty members. A faculty board, with representatives from various colleges and departments, was created for each requirement category. This faculty-driven process can be challenging as faculty members on each board bring a variety of pedagogical and disciplinary experiences and ideas to the table, Hamilton noted. "But in the end, course approval decisions are reached by faculty consensus, not administrative fiat," she added.

The General Education Implementation Committee also has associate dean representatives from each of the eleven colleges, and the nine faculty boards include more than sixty faculty from across the campus. The faculty seminars, too, anchor the emphasis on undergraduate teaching across campus. "Now when faculty come to a meeting to talk about teaching, they're participating in a campus wide event," Hamilton says. "These structures elevate and foster the significance of general education and our undergraduate teaching mission at the University of Maryland, College Park."

University of Maryland at College Park