Liberal Education

The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems, a folio distributed at the opening plenary session of the 2015 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities at which the LEAP Challenge was formally launched.

To order free printed copies of the original brochure or to download a PDF version, please visit

Liberal education: Preparing students for complexity and change

Liberal education prepares students to understand and manage complexity, diversity, and change. Students who experience an engaged liberal education gain broad knowledge (e.g., of science, culture, and society) and in-depth knowledge in a specific area of interest. They develop high-level transferable skills, including communication, evidence-based reasoning, and problem solving, as well as proficiencies particular to their fields.

Perhaps most importantly, liberally educated students learn how to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. They develop a sense of social responsibility so they can contribute with integrity to their workplaces and to their communities.

Over the years, the goals of liberal education have endured even as the courses and requirements that define such an education have changed. As in past periods of societal change, new forms of liberal education are emerging today—approaches that recognize the value of focusing more explicitly on specific twenty-first-century learning outcomes and integrating high-impact educational practices, while also requiring in-depth study.

As it marks its Centennial, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) introduces the LEAP Challenge.

The LEAP Challenge: Signature Work for all students

The LEAP Challenge invites colleges and universities to make Signature Work a goal for all students and the expected standard of quality learning in college.

In Signature Work, a student uses his or her cumulative learning to pursue a significant project related to a problem he or she defines. In a project conducted throughout at least one semester, the student takes the lead and produces work that expresses insights and learning gained from the inquiry and demonstrates the skills and knowledge he or she has acquired. Faculty and other mentors provide support and guidance.

Signature Work might be pursued in a capstone course, through research conducted across thematically linked courses, in field-based activity, or through an internship. It might include practicums, community service, or other forms of experiential learning; it always should include substantial writing, multiple kinds of reflection on learning, and visible results. Many students may choose to use e-portfolios to display their Signature Work products and learning outcomes.

Signature Work's essential role

A twenty-first-century education must prepare students to deal successfully with unscripted problems. Today's graduates will participate in an economy fueled by successful innovation and engage with diverse communities that urgently need solutions to intractable problems. Our graduates will have to secure environmental sustainability, find ways to maintain human dignity and promote equity in an increasingly polarized nation, and manage a world rife with conflict. They will need to balance family and career in a climate that increasingly devalues personal privacy and presents obstacles to flourishing.

Negotiating such a complex and challenging environment requires an education that explores issues from multiple perspectives and across disciplines and that helps students apply what they learn to real-world situations. Signature Work is a powerful way for students to integrate the various elements of their education and to apply their learning in meaningful ways.

Signature Work

Understanding Signature Work: Tapping motivation

In Signature Work, each student addresses one or more problems that matter—both to the individual student and to society as a whole. A problem may be related to a contemporary issue that needs a practical solution, or to an enduring concept, such as freedom, integrity, or justice.

Through Signature Work, students immerse themselves in exploration, choosing the questions they want to study and preparing to explain the significance of their work to others. This process helps students develop the capacities (e.g., for investigation, evidence-based reasoning, and constructive collaboration) required to grapple with problems where the "right answer" is still unknown and where any answer may be actively contested.

Of course, colleges and universities can and should assess a student's Signature Work for evidence of proficiency on key learning outcomes. But the value of Signature Work goes far beyond assessment. It taps students' own motivations, kindling imagination and providing opportunities for in-depth learning that go well beyond the traditional compilation of course credits, grades, and credentials.

Signature Work also plays a central role in preparing students to navigate through ongoing and often disruptive change. The world is evolving quickly. And in today's economy, graduates are likely to move into new jobs, or even new careers, multiple times. These transitions may require new skills or even personal reinvention. More than ever before, students' ability to tap their own inner resources—their sense of purpose, ethical compass, and resilience—will be an important component of success in work and life.

Building skills employers require

Signature Work can help every student get more out of higher education and prepare more effectively for work and life. It helps students integrate their major area of study with other disciplines and apply what they have learned to real-world situations.

According to a recent survey, 93 percent of employers believe that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving abilities are more important than a potential employee's undergraduate major. Nearly all the employers surveyed (95 percent) give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace.3

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Signature Work in action

Signature Work is underway at colleges and universities across the country. The names and approaches differ, but the concept of students taking the lead on complex learning is the same. Following are selected examples:

  • The Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a set of interdisciplinary, problem-based courses for students majoring in fields across the sciences, engineering, and public health. Students take one course each of their first three years and complete a yearlong independent research project during their senior year. iCons courses use a case-study model, with case studies focused on the evolving role of science in addressing unsolved social or health problems.
  • LaGuardia Community College engages students with learning communities anchored by development of individual electronic portfolios. Students use the e-portfolios to display their best work as well as to track and reflect on their own progress in achieving their academic, work, and life goals. LaGuardia's curricular pathways also provide opportunities to engage with and apply learning in the diverse neighborhoods surrounding the college.
  • The College of Wooster requires every student to complete an in-depth senior research project called Independent Study. The entire curriculum builds students' capacity for this project, so by senior year, students are able to research effectively.
  • Cornell University recently announced the launch of Engaged Cornell, an effort to make community engagement a hallmark of its undergraduate program. Over the next ten years, across all its colleges, Cornell aims to expand curricula that incorporate learning experiences in communities, guided by a set of cross-disciplinary learning outcomes and good practices for community partnerships. By 2025, the initiative aims to provide the opportunity for every student to participate in community engagement, at home or around the world.

The LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes

Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty first-century challenges by gaining:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

  • Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual and Practical Skills, Including

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal and Social Responsibility, Including

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative and Applied Learning, Including

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

Liberal Education and America's Promise

The LEAP Challenge is part of the next phase of AAC&U's ongoing initiative, Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP). Launched in 2005, LEAP asks core questions about the learning students most need from college, listens and responds as employers make the case that today's workers need to be better prepared for a global economy, and focuses on education for knowledgeable and responsible citizenship, as well as careers.

The LEAP vision includes a commitment to

  • Essential Learning Outcomes—the learning outcomes essential for success in life and work in the twenty-first century (see sidebar);
  • High-Impact Educational Practices—first-year experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning, community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects;
  • Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE)—using students' own work and faculty-validated VALUE rubrics to probe whether each student is making progress on the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and can apply his or her learning to complex problems and real-world challenges;
  • Inclusive Excellence—ensuring that all students at every kind of institution benefit from a deep, hands-on, and practical liberal education that prepares them for success in work, life, and citizenship.

The LEAP Principles of Excellence

The LEAP Principles of Excellence offer both challenging standards and flexible guidance so they can support high-quality learning at any college or university. These principles can be used to guide change and to influence practice across the disciplines and in general education programs. Signature Work is a natural outgrowth of these principles.

Principle One
Aim High—and Make Excellence Inclusive
Make the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes a framework for the entire educational experience, connecting school, college, work, and life.

Principle Two
Give Students a Compass
Focus each student's plan of study on achieving the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes—and assess progress.

Principle Three
Teach the Arts of Inquiry and Innovation
Immerse all students in analysis, discovery, problem solving, and communication, beginning in school and advancing in college.

Principle Four
Engage the Big Questions
Teach through the curriculum to far-reaching issues—contemporary and enduring—in science and society, cultures and values, global interdependence, the changing economy, and human dignity and freedom.

Principle Five
Connect Knowledge with Choices and Action
Prepare students for citizenship and work through engaged and guided learning that is focused on "real-world" problems.

Principle Six
Foster Civic, Intercultural, and Ethical Learning
Emphasize personal and social responsibility in every field of study.

Principle Seven
Assess Students' Ability to Apply Learning to Complex Problems
Use assessment to deepen learning and to establish a culture of shared purpose and continuous improvement.

LEAP strategies for change

Hundreds of institutions and a growing roster of state systems now are using the LEAP framework of Essential Learning Outcomes, High-Impact Educational Practices, VALUE Assessments, and Inclusive Excellence.

The LEAP Challenge is intended to help institutions take their foundational work on liberal education and inclusive excellence to the next level. The long-term goal is to ensure that every one of our students reaps the full benefit of an empowering liberal education, no matter what his or her background, intended major, or career and life aspirations may be. There are many pathways leading to the achievement and demonstration of the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes through Signature Work. Each of our students deserves our help in finding the pathway that's right for him or her. 


1. Hart Research Associates, Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 7.

2. Gallup, Great Jobs, Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report (Washington, DC: Gallup, 2014), 10.

3. Hart Research Associates, It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 1.

4. The list of LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes was developed through a multiyear dialogue with employers and with hundreds of colleges and universities about needed goals for student learning; analysis of a long series of recommendations and reports from the business community; and analysis of the accreditation requirements for engineering, business, nursing, and teacher education. For more information, see Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2007); AAC&U, The LEAP Vision for Learning: Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and Employers' Views (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2011); or visit

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