Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Liberal Education to the Core: Gen Ed Reform at USAFA

A team from the United States Air Force Academy will be presenting on the reform efforts discussed in this article at AAC&U’s General Education and Assessment Conference, February 15–17, 2018, in Philadelphia.

Unlike most higher education institutions, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) knows where their graduates will go after graduation.

“With rare exceptions, all of our graduates will be officers in the Air Force,” said Steve Jones, senior associate dean at USAFA. “We need them to be leaders in a world of ever-increasing complexity.”

Students’ job roles will shift throughout their careers, and the technological, political, and legal aspects of the Air Force’s primary business—international conflicts and national security—“are dynamically changing, and we can’t perfectly predict what the nature of international conflicts is going to be five or ten years from now,” Jones said. “We need to equip our graduates with a really good foundational set of skills that they can apply in a variety of ways so that they have the intellectual agility to confront any number of problems they might face, even those we can’t predict right now.”

Knowing cadets’ future employer, and the challenges that employer faces, allows USAFA to provide the necessary foundational skills through a broad—but highly targeted—liberal education.

“We know the mission and values of our employer—the US Air Force—and we can tailor what we are doing at USAFA to the proficiencies required for students to be successful,” said Brigadier General Andrew Armacost, dean of the faculty. “The precepts of a liberal education are that we need to prepare students to become good citizens, and I can’t think of a better mantra for our Air Force Academy cadets.”

An Evolving Core

The education provided by USAFA “is a uniquely immersive experience,” said Colonel Gary Packard, vice dean. Each cadet remains with the same cohort of classmates in squadron settings, dormitories, military training activities, and athletic experiences. “That common immersive experience is really the hallmark of what we do.”

Adding common intellectual experiences to this immersive atmosphere, the general education curriculum has been the defining characteristic of USAFA since the academy was established in 1954 with a single core curriculum and no academic majors.

From 1954 until today, when it still comprises two-thirds of every cadet’s courses, the core has constantly evolved.

One big reform effort came in 2006 after a team attended a summer institute offered by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and created a plan to develop and assess a single set of institution-wide outcomes based on the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. In this revision, USAFA mapped a list of nineteen outcomes to a variety of courses, experiences, and assessments that spanned all three branches, or “mission elements,” of the institution: academics, athletics, and military training.  

While several outcomes were assessed using robust data-collection and analysis strategies, including assessments embedded within courses and nationally normed instruments like the Critical Thinking Assessment Test, “our eyes were a little bigger than our stomachs,” Armacost said. “When you have this dense mapping of courses to outcomes it creates a pretty significant assessment and data-collection challenge.”

A second reform effort began in earnest in 2013 when a team of staff and faculty from the three mission elements took the complicated web of nineteen outcomes and cross-referenced it with the “Institutional Competencies” that the Air Force uses in its development program over the course of officers’ careers.

Figure 1. White Papers for US Air Force Academy Outcomes

Figure 1The result was a list of nine outcomes and a series of related proficiencies. To create a common lexicon around the outcomes, USAFA created nine “outcome teams,” one for each outcome, that wrote white papers defining each outcome and the proficiencies that a cadet should achieve (see figure 1).

“One of the challenges that we have faced historically is that if we use a word like critical thinking, people don’t always necessarily agree on what it means,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, USAFA faculty and staff spent several years discussing alternative designs for the core curriculum. Armacost appointed Packard to head a committee tasked with proposing a new core curriculum that would be closely aligned with the nine new outcomes. Packard’s thirty-member committee included representatives from all three mission elements, all academic divisions (social sciences, sciences, humanities, and engineering), and an academic working group of cadets.

The committee met weekly and set a goal of having a proposal written by Thanksgiving of 2015, allowing time in the spring to get feedback from internal stakeholders and external reviewers including retired senior military officers and higher education leaders from AAC&U and other institutions.

“What I think made us successful in actually getting a product up for a vote [by the end of spring 2016] was having very specific milestones along the way,” Packard said. “Having a process forced us to make the hard choices that we wouldn’t have made otherwise.”

The hardest choice was deciding how to eliminate three courses from the core, a change that was necessitated by a reduction in faculty in 2015. Each of the academy’s twenty academic departments had at least one course in the core, and each core course included about one thousand students.

“Losing a core course is meaningful, not only because you lose that disciplinary piece of the core, but because you lose students and the faculty and resources that come with having a large student load,” Packard said.

The core curriculum proposed by Packard’s committee remained nearly the same through subsequent negotiations, debate, external review, approval in spring 2016, and implementation in fall 2017.

“Many of these core courses existed before, but the alignment of those core courses to the outcomes is, if not new, certainly more robust,” Jones said.

Intercurricular Collaboration

The new twenty-nine-course core academic curriculum (see figure 2), combined with core cocurricular requirements including military training, a competitive intercollegiate/intramural/club athletic component, and an academic major of cadets’ choice, collectively lead to a bachelor of science degree and commissioning as a second lieutenant. The interconnected nature of the core and the nine outcomes “holds a lot of promise for building bridges between parts of the institution that haven’t always communicated with each other as well as they could,” Jones said. “We are seeing greater levels of collaboration across courses and programs, to include collaborations that exist between the academic elements and nonacademic elements of the institution.”

Figure 2


Bringing three separate mission elements together required collaboration across all levels of the academy, starting with the athletic director, the dean of the faculty, and the commandant of cadets, who often refer to each other as “battle buddies.”

The collaboration is also fostered by the outcomes strategy team and the nine outcome teams, which oversee the curriculum and assessment of each outcome.

“Outcome collaboration started at the top, but it doesn’t end at the top. It must filter through,” said Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Horner, deputy department head of physical education and a member of the outcomes strategy team.

One of the best examples of collaboration between the mission elements is in the Officership courses aligned with the Leadership, Teamwork, and Organizational Management outcome. In previous iterations of the core curriculum, junior-level students completed a three-credit leadership course, Behavioral Sciences 310.

Recognizing that some course content might be more effective if it were delivered earlier or later in a cadet’s experience, the commandant’s office—which delivers programming across four years designed to develop character and prepare officers for commissioning—worked with the behavioral sciences department “to leverage what we are targeting in terms of leadership, teamwork, and organizational management with what the academic core is targeting, and to have those integrate with and complement each other across the four years,” said Earl Brewster, senior development advisor to the commandant.

As with the leadership outcome, all three mission elements contribute to the advancement of the warrior ethos outcome. The outcome is served by physical education courses, military strategic studies, and history courses, as well as military training programs such as Basic Cadet Training. In various ways, all courses and programs intentionally and directly develop cadets’ physical and mental qualities deemed necessary for active duty military service, including physical and moral courage, discipline, and an intimate knowledge of the profession of arms.

“In addition to providing physical performance and lifetime fitness skills, our physical education curriculum acts as a stress laboratory,” Horner said. To draw out proficiencies like grit and courage, cadets confront tangible and perceived risks, mitigated with safety protocols yet evoking real stress from specific challenges built into the curriculum. By facing these trials during the course of instruction, cadets can apply skills and knowledge in a controlled environment before experiencing similar situations on active duty.

“Each course doesn’t have to develop all outcome proficiencies, and they don’t need to develop all proficiencies equally,” Horner said. “What we have asked course designers to do is target a subset of them—in coordination with other courses in the outcome—and start aligning and assessing learning experiences accordingly.”

For the warrior ethos outcome, the effort to build bridges between departments and mission elements is “somewhere between the exploration and experimentation phase,” Horner said

A prime benefit of the outcome initiative at the academy is the establishment of a “universal language” used across mission elements, with a common vocabulary and definitions grounded in each outcome’s white paper.

“We use the same definitions, we use the same vocabulary, and we’re trying to move the bar forward on those same proficiencies in different ways,” Horner said.

Assessing a Nontraditional Core

USAFA has a long history of assessing student learning by drawing from multiple methods including embedded assessments within courses, standardized tests, and nationally normed tools like the National Survey of Student Engagement.

To get a better picture of how USAFA prepares students for their careers, the academy also surveys graduates and their direct supervisors in the Air Force.

“One big advantage that we have as an institution is that nearly all of our graduates go to work for the same employer, the United States Air Force, so it’s relatively easy for us to follow up and see how well our graduates are doing when they take on their first operational jobs,” Jones said.

However, the unique nature of the Air Force also brings assessment challenges. Outcomes like warrior ethos, which is specific to a military institution, have fewer national examples of rubrics and other tools to draw upon. To find definitions for proficiencies or for models of assessment practices, Horner looks to other service academies like the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy.  

“We all place graduates into military services, and, in many cases, those services are looking for similar characteristics,” Horner said.

Another challenge that outcome teams face is bridging assessment efforts across academic departments or mission elements. Each outcome team is currently working on toolkits to help instructors better align their efforts with the outcomes. Toolkits will include resources to help instructors design lessons, create assignments, and build rubrics to track cadet progress.  

Communicating about the Core

With a common lexicon and numerous interdepartmental committees driving the reform efforts, the new core curriculum’s most immediate impact has been a heightened level of communication about outcomes and assessment.

As part of a concerted PR effort, the outcomes have been introduced at parents' weekend, in individual classes of students, at faculty meetings, and whenever groups of faculty, staff, and students gather together. In addition, members of outcome teams have attended national conferences, including AAC&U’s General Education and Assessment conference, and the outcome teams are celebrated for their good work with campus-wide awards and public recognition.

The communication effort has led faculty and staff—including those who were initially opposed to the reforms—to get out of their comfort zone and hear best practices from other institutions. This “really breaks that paradigm that this is just another initiative among many,” Horner said, and shows faculty that “this is what good institutions do.”

For Armacost, the impact of the communication effort was most apparent when he traveled to Washington, DC, for a meeting with USAFA’s Board of Visitors. He heard the athletic director, Jim Knowlton, speak about how everything USAFA does in the athletic department, in classrooms, and in military training is connected to the nine outcomes.

“It was music to my ears,” Armacost said. “When our athletic director, our commandant, and our dean are all talking about outcomes assessment and outcomes achievement, I think we’ve overcome some major hurdles.”