Grounding General Education in Principles That Matter

About a decade ago, a little advisory committee in the big state of Texas reflected on the way their college students experienced undergraduate and general education. The committee was concerned about successfully navigating the information-driven environment of the twenty-first century, maintaining and increasing the quality of education, and maximizing scholarship and current national best practices for the benefit of Texas students. With well over fifty general education outcomes—each with state-required assessment—institutions had many outcomes to teach but had little evidence of their success. So, when the state Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee (UEAC) made their recommendations to the Texas Commissioner for Higher Education, they advocated for redesign. In January 2009, the committee issued their report, Designing Texas Undergraduate Education in the 21st Century, thereby launching a two-year period of general education redesign.

After countless hours of study, review, and alignment, and armed with best practices from a broad range of institutions, states, and professional organizations, the UEAC submitted their next report to the commissioner in April 2011, Revising the State Core Curriculum: A Focus on 21st Century Competencies. Concerned with college completion and being accountable for students’ progress toward their degree, as well as asking larger questions about essential knowledge and skills for students to be successful in college, their careers, and their communities, the UEAC placed essential learning outcomes and their integration at the foreground of their general education redesign. By fall 2014, Texas public institutions of higher education had to be ready to implement their general education redesign.

Lessons from Texas

As it launched a general education redesign, Texas also became the tenth state to join the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) States initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in 2014. Texas’s intent to weave the essential learning outcomes throughout general education and the majors was a big driver for joining the LEAP States initiative. Implementation of the state’s redesigned general education curriculum and the integration of the essential learning outcomes throughout Texas public institutions’ curricula needed ongoing support, shared good practices, and an avenue for collaboration that could reach across many miles. A group from Texas also participated in AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives project, which promoted two of the most important aspects of meaningful redesign—to create support for faculty and to promote collaboration.

Despite some limited success, integrating the essential learning outcomes across disciplines in general education and the majors continues to be a challenge. To facilitate continued adoption in both, institutions are engaged in ongoing discussions about what works and what does not, based on cycles of assessment of essential learning outcomes. Thus, general education redesign continues to be a popular conversation both locally and nationally.

To that end, AAC&U released a report, Recent Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches (2016), which examined these common campus conversations. For example, 85 percent of AAC&U member institutions have a common set of learning outcomes for all undergraduate students, and there is agreement across institutions that these outcomes apply to a range of skills and knowledge areas. On the other hand, the report noted that educational leaders did not believe that students have a greater understanding of their intended learning goals. Regarding general education specifically, educational leaders noted general education redesign as a growing priority, with 67 percent placing an emphasis on the integration of knowledge, skills, and applications.

While subject matter “depth and breadth” used to be the most common elements of general education, now just one-third of educational leaders identify broad knowledge acquisition as the function of general education. Instead, three in four of these leaders believe that general education programs have “clear learning outcomes.” More than two in three, 68 percent, believe that their institutions “assess student achievement of learning outcomes” in general education. While this important report reveals our need to continue our efforts in transparency and communication to students about the value of general education and essential learning outcomes in college and in life, it is yet another indicator of the commonality of this important conversation about general education redesign across our nation. This topic resonates particularly in my new home of Georgia, where I serve at an institution within the University System of Georgia. As such, 2016 marked Georgia’s beginning as a LEAP state. Since that time, the conversation about Georgia’s general education and core curriculum redesign has been swelling, along with a focus on essential learning outcomes, demonstrating the state’s further engagement in this already popular conversation.

General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) in Action

AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs), a framework for designing and evaluating curricula and programs, emphasizes pathways for student success and progress and advocates for institutional consideration in the general education redesign process. With acknowledgment of students’ movement among nstitutions, as well as their own life circumstances, GEMs brings focus to redesign efforts for institutions, systems, and states. This issue of Peer Review highlights best practices in efforts from across our nation using the five GEMs design principles for general education:

  1. Proficiency
    Proficiency, the first GEMs principle, focuses on clear statements of student learning outcomes that students can describe; that ground our development of general education programs, curricula, and experiences; and that are aligned with the twenty-first-century knowledge and skills sought by institutions, systems, states, and employers. In their article in this issue of Peer Review, authors from St. Cloud State University discuss how they are bringing proficiency to the fore of their efforts to redesign general education.
  2. Agency and Self-Direction
    Second, students’ experiences should facilitate student agency, self-direction, and active participation, so students can master the skills and proficiencies that are needed beyond graduation for work and life. When students pursue and develop these proficiencies, producing high-quality work in accordance with their interests and aims, as shown by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s article in this issue, then the institution is highlighting agency and self-direction in its redesign.
  3. Integrative Learning and Problem-Based Inquiry
    Third, integrative learning and problem-based inquiry—in which students’ insights ultimately emerge from multiple areas of study—purposefully combine and integrate curricula, cocurricular programs, high-impact practices, and community-based learning for more focused and full comprehension and demonstration of skills. In their article, Longwood University prioritizes integrative learning and problem-based inquiry within their redesign.
  4. Equity
    Equity, the fourth principle, is intended to shift how faculty, staff, and administrators approach inequalities in learning opportunities and promote practices, policies, and procedures that address potential differences among students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, returning adult learners, veterans, and others, and uplift the achievement of outcomes and proficiencies across the institution. In their article, authors from California State University−Channel Islands share how they create meaningful, pragmatic, clear, and well-communicated pathways for all.
  5. Transparency and Assessment
    Finally, transparency and assessment—the fifth GEMs design principle—establishes the expectation that students, faculty members, and other stakeholders should understand what proficiencies are being developed in the general education program and how these might be demonstrated at key milestones in students’ progress and development by pointing to students’ college work. Students’ work, emerging from well-designed assignments, not only provides institutions with evidence of strong teaching and learning, but also gives demonstrable proof of learning and competence that students can carry with them into the future, potentially using ePortfolios as a repository, to show themselves and others that they have gained proficiency over time. In their article, authors from the University of Rhode Island describe how they used transparency and assessment in their redesign of general education.

Gems in Texas and Beyond

The GEMs principles particularly resonated in Texas. From its inception, LEAP Texas has sought “to provide Texas students with consistent high-quality higher education through implementation of outcomes-focused general education, authentic assessment, high-impact educational practices, inclusive excellence, and improved access to higher education” (LEAP Texas, n.d.). The organization was dedicated to

  • upholding the commitment of faculty across various institutions to provide a strong educational foundation for an increasingly diverse student body—one that prepares them for work and citizenship in the twenty-first century, well aligned with stated goals of employers;
  • adhering to the required Texas Core Curriculum (largely informed by the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes: www.aacu.org/leap/essential-learning-outcomes), facilitating rigor and transferability within a context of innovation;
  • responding to the increasing national focus on student learning outcomes; and
  • applying the scholarship of teaching and learning (LEAP Texas, n.d.).

An early and sustained focus for the LEAP initiative is “creating a capacity for large-scale, inter-institutional collaboration in robust and authentic assessment.” Through the support and leadership of two LEAP Texas assessment fellows, one from a community college and the other from a university, LEAP Texas was able to form the Texas Assessment Collaborative (TAC) of seven colleges and universities, a project that aimed to leverage “the newly redesigned Texas Core Curriculum for the overall improvement in undergraduate education, advancing the authentic assessment of student work in the Texas Core, and promoting the development and refinement of the capacity of authentic assessment” (King and Duke 2018). The TAC was designed as a state-level complement to the Multi-State Collaborative, a national large-scale authentic assessment collaborative sponsored by the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ Association (SHEEO).

Encouraged by the early and continued successes of the Multi-State Collaborative, the TAC set out to collect samples of student work and enlist faculty panels to score the work using AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics. In response to the need for proof of concept for using VALUE rubrics to assess student work, the broad use of VALUE rubrics across the country, and the growing needs of institutions and systems, AAC&U, in partnership with Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, established the VALUE Institute to help document, report, and use learning outcomes evidence to improve student achievement and success.

Using the VALUE Rubrics

In the process and implementation of general education redesign, and regardless of which GEMs design principle fosters that redesign, scoring real student work using VALUE rubrics offers insights into the delivery and practice of learning outcomes. These crosscutting learning outcomes for today’s college students, such as communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving, are crucial in our fast-changing world that is heavy with new information and the need to process it. Therefore, it is our responsibility to articulate learning outcomes and give well-designed assignments to help students practice and develop the intended learning outcomes. For VALUE rubrics to function as a beneficial assessment tool, there must also be well-designed assignments that align with them, something that AAC&U, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), and LEAP Texas learned quite quickly.

In response to the need for well-aligned assignments, NILOA and AAC&U launched the Charrettes and Collaborative Assignment Design, a collaborative assignment-design process for educators designing and using assignments linked to proficiencies and the LEAP essential learning outcomes. Some Texas teams, as well as teams across the nation, were accepted into the NILOA Collaborative Assignment Design Charrettes, an intensive faculty-driven collaborative peer review process for assignments given to students. Two useful and expanding resources emerged from this effort: the Assignment Charrette Toolkit (www.learningoutcomeassessment.org/assignmenttoolkit.html) and the Assignment Library (www.assignmentlibrary.org/). The Assignment Charrette Toolkit provides excellent resources to empower faculty to conduct collaborative assignment design workshops on their campus or within their professional organizations. Many of the resources can be adapted to fit specific needs. The Assignment Library provides well-vetted assignments for broad proficiencies at various levels that can be adapted to specific classroom or institutional needs. Examples include assessment instruments that are frequently adapted from VALUE rubrics. Peer-reviewed examples for assignments from various academic disciplines and assignment characteristics are also available in the assignment library.

One of the LEAP Texas faculty fellows focused exclusively on assignment design. With expansive experience in faculty development, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and general education leadership, the faculty fellow set out to conduct Collaborative Assignment Design workshops across Texas, from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston to San Antonio. After a whirlwind summer tour, feedback from faculty who participated indicated a strengthening of alignment in general education between the assignments given to students and the usefulness of the VALUE rubrics to speak to student achievement of learning goals.

Opportunities grounded in principles that matter await all who are called to redesign general education. Such work must be conducted in environments rich with collaboration, thoughtfulness, creativity, innovation, and inquiry. And ultimately, using the VALUE rubrics to score students’ work provides the best and most authentic evidence of their achievement and gains toward the expected—and essential—learning outcomes.

References

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2016. Recent Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/publications/recent-trends-general-education-design-learning-outcomes-and.

King, Larry J., and Chris Duke. 2018. Report of the Texas Assessment Collaborative. LEAP Texas. http://leaptx.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/TAC-Report-March-2018.pdf.

LEAP Texas. n.d. “About Us.” Accessed September 10, 2018. http://leaptx.org/.

Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee. 2009. Designing Texas Undergraduate Education in the 21st Century. Austin, TX: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/pdf/3564.pdf.

Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee. 2011. Revising the State Core Curriculum: A Focus on 21st Century Competencies. Austin, TX: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/pdf/3565.pdf.


Loraine Phillips, Associate Provost for Academic Effectiveness, Georgia Institute of Technology

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