Peer Review

General Education: Charting a Roadmap toward Student Success

Is this really a general education course? What criteria do we use to decide? At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), we have been wrestling with these and other questions about general education for many years. NOVA defines general education as that part of the NOVA experience, unbounded by disciplines, that honors the connections among bodies of knowledge. Degree graduates are expected to meet specific outcomes in communication, critical thinking, cultural and social understanding, information literacy, personal development, quantitative reasoning, and scientific reasoning.

NOVA participated in AAC&U’s Developing a Community College Roadmap project to refine the process for identifying and approving courses that can be used to meet students’ general education requirements. This refined process helps faculty map courses to specific general education outcomes as they design new programs. This, in turn, helps ensure student success in learning by leading us to update courses, improve advising, and make sure our curricula reliably incorporate each general education outcome.

Our Roadmap team worked with colleagues on NOVA’s Council for General Education to review more than 200 courses that had been approved as general education courses in the humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences, and laboratory sciences/mathematics categories. The council split into three groups so that reviewers of any given set of courses did not teach in that category of general education. Reviewers compared the content summary for each course—which lists student learning outcomes and required topics—with a matrix listing all thirty-six of the general education outcomes NOVA expects of its degree graduates.

As we conducted our review, new questions arose. Can general education courses have prerequisites? We decided they could. How many general education goal areas or competencies must a course address in order to be considered a general education course? We decided that each course must address at least one goal area, but preferably more. At what level must a course address the general education goals and competencies? We agreed on three principles: introduction, practice, and mastery. In other words, each course must introduce some general education competencies, provide practice for some competencies, and help students master some competencies.

After defining the criteria for the general education designation, we carefully examined each currently identified general education course and made one of three recommendations: (1) continue to approve the course as a general education course, (2) restructure the course, if necessary, and modify the content summary to more clearly show that it is a general education course, or (3) remove it from the list of approved general education courses (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. The NOVA Council for General Education’s GE Course Recommendations

General Education Category
Number of Courses Reviewed
Number of Course Summaries Revised
Number of courses Removed from List of General Education Courses
Humanities/Fine Arts
Social/Behavioral Sciences

Our recommendations were shared with faculty in the affected disciplines, who were given time to respond by making the requested modifications or, in a few cases, developing missing content summaries. Council members served as resources to the faculty who chose to develop course summaries that clearly showed how their courses address general education outcomes. After several months, recommendations to remove courses that did not meet the criteria from the list of approved general education electives were authorized by the college curriculum committee and executive leadership.

This process resulted in greatly improved course content summaries that explicitly link general education courses to specific general education goals and outcomes, thereby clarifying the student pathways through general education. In general, the faculty agreed with the council’s assessments of their courses and embraced the summary revision process.

The catalog and the degree audit programming were updated to reflect these changes. Workshops provided advisors with the new information.

In addition, this close examination of general education led the college to develop a new category of general education elective that would prove to be useful for success in transfer. Labeled “other” general education courses, the category will include courses that meet the core general education requirement of addressing the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values characteristic of educated persons, but that do not meet the specific disciplinary criteria to qualify as humanities, social science or math/science courses. As a practical matter, these courses will have to transfer readily. Examples would include painting I, beginning Spanish, and applied music courses. The information will be included in the college catalog where it will help students and their advisors select general education electives that do not need to fall into a particular category. By identifying “other” transferable general education courses, we can revise transfer curricula to include general education electives rather than general electives. Student success, especially in terms of transfer preparation, is enhanced by this improved advising.

The new process provides much-needed clarity about how to define a “general education course” and how to map such courses to general education goals and outcomes. As a result of the project, we now have a new protocol for approving general education courses, with student learning at the center. Faculty who are seeking the general education designation for new courses must map the course content to the General Education Goal Matrix to substantiate the claim.

We are taking every opportunity to communicate general education roadmaps to faculty, counselors, and students. Our programs are all entered into our student information system, so students already can use the “what if” function to explore the use of various courses to complete their degrees. Additionally, we are seeking ways to help students select the very best courses for their particular employment or transfer plans. We continue to conduct workshops to help faculty advise students about general education. Over the summer, dozens of faculty who had participated in special training served as advisors to hundreds of students, assisting them with their general education choices. To see if all of this training had been effective, we reviewed the thousands of course substitution requests submitted by students over the past four years. It was clear that advisors and their deans are making far more appropriate recommendations now in all areas of general education than they did four years ago.

Through its participation in the Roadmap project, NOVA improved its standards for general education courses, developed ways to map these courses to general education outcomes, and revised its curricula to take advantage of our deeper understanding of general education. As a result, a clear general education roadmap for our students has emerged. Now, we can confidently say NOVA helps steer its students through a comprehensive and well-defined general education experience, providing a critical stepping stone on the road to success.

Sharon N. Robertson is the associate vice president for academic services at Northern Virginia Community College.

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