Diversity and Democracy

Resource-Friendly Reform in General Education

California State University-Sacramento is currently developing a general education (GE) pathway to provide access to effective practices and pedagogies for all students, regardless of major. Despite important curricular changes in previous decades (such as the development of ethnic and women's studies, first-year experiences, and learning communities), the current GE program is an artifact of the early twentieth century, emphasizing learning for its own sake, transfer of content knowledge, and random acts of course selection through which students may eventually "find themselves." But beginning in fall 2011, a new GE pathway will offer a coherent program with integrated high-impact practices to a cohort of incoming first-year students.

A Compass for Reform

Currently, incoming students at Sacramento State can take any combination of more than four hundred approved courses to fulfill GE requirements. GE is something students "get out of the way"--or not, in the case of those who don't graduate. Sacramento State's Compass Project, conducted with support from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), aims to change this. A grassroots, faculty-driven endeavor, the Compass Project seeks to bring coherence to GE by reconciling goals and outcomes and establishing an assessment system focused on student learning.

Our philosophy of curricular reform is grounded in theories of experiential education (Dewey 1997) and culturally responsive teaching and learning (see, for example, Ladson-Billings 1992). It draws on what AAC&U has called high-impact practices, such as first-year seminars, learning communities, and collaborative assignments (Kuh 2008). Our demonstration project, Sacramento State Studies, applies these philosophies and practices using a small-scale model that can be expanded for broader structural reform. While the project currently targets first-time freshmen who are undeclared or pursuing majors with relatively few credit hour requirements, a second demonstration project will target high-unit majors.

Sacramento State Studies

Beginning in Fall 2011, Sacramento State Studies will offer a group of first-time freshmen--probably the university's most diverse segment in terms of linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds--an opportunity to complete 90 percent of their lower-division GE requirements in a four-semester series of learning collaboratives. Each learning collaborative will consist of 150 students and be cotaught by three instructors using a variety of pedagogical strategies.

Each nine-unit collaborative will meet three times a week--for example, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:00 to 11:45 a.m.--with each day reserved for a different teaching format: large-lecture meetings, small-group meetings, and nonclassroom activities such as online discussions and field trips. These rotating configurations will address constraints related to classroom capacity, scheduling conflicts, and class size. For example, three nine-unit courses will use the same large lecture hall on the same schedule, but with lectures on different days of the week. At the same time, the rotating configurations will expose students to several high-impact pedagogies, as described below.

Interdisciplinary Themes and Practices

The learning collaboratives will address all of Sacramento State's recently adopted Baccalaureate Learning Goals (which draw from the recommendations of AAC&U's Liberal Education and America's Promise campaign) in a developmentally appropriate fashion over the course of four semesters. Their interdisciplinary, team-taught nature will ensure that faculty design activities that facilitate students' understanding of connections between, and differences among, academic disciplines.

The collaboratives will be organized around broad contemporary themes, including globalization, sustainability, society and the digital age, and social change and social justice. Each collaborative will explicitly incorporate what Sacramento State calls Interdisciplinary Core Experiences, including leadership, service, experiential learning, community engagement, learning communities, and development of information literacy and intercultural perspectives. These high-impact practices correlate positively with retention and graduation, particularly for first-generation college students and those from historically underrepresented and minority communities (Kuh 2008). Many faculty already use them, but they are less evident in lower-division courses.

Given the correlation between high-impact practices and graduation rates, we are hopeful that the new pathway will support the current systemwide initiative that aims to improve graduation rates for first-time freshmen by 8 percent while also halving the 11 percent graduation rate achievement gap between underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM students by 2015 (Sacramento State 2010). Project leaders will collect data to provide feedback on progress toward these goals and to improve program design. The project will also use electronic portfolios and AAC&U's VALUE rubrics--available at www.aacu.org/value/--to assess student learning over time.

Sample Learning Collaboratives

Privacy: An Outdated Concept?
Description: Is the notion of privacy disappearing? Advances in computing power and new data mining and electronic surveillance methods have enabled governments, corporations, and individuals to intrude on others’ privacy in unprecedented ways, but have also contributed greatly to our convenience. This class explores the human need for (varying degrees of) personal privacy, as it has manifested itself in diverse cultures and in the legal and policy systems of different nations. In considering the interplay of culture and technology, students will debate whether an erosion of privacy is occurring—and if so, whether it is worth worrying about.
Theme: Technology, Society, and the Digital Age
GE Areas Covered: World Civilization, Foundations in Social and Behavioral Sciences, Understanding Personal Development

Environmental Chemistry and Justice for Minority Communities
Description: Nuclear waste dumps on reservation land. Smokestacks and incinerators in poor urban neighborhoods. Coal mines in rural Appalachia. The toxic burden of persistent environmental chemicals often falls upon the powerless. Building on a foundation of basic chemical and physical concepts, this course equips students to understand the long-term harm imposed on minority communities by chemical toxins, and to analyze alternative waste and emission policies in terms of fairness, ethics, and justice. Students will do twenty hours of experiential learning with the Sacramento office of the Environmental Working Group or the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Theme: Social Change and Social Justice
GE Areas Covered: Written Communication, Physical Science, Major Social Issues of the Contemporary Era

Meeting Multiple Challenges

Importantly, the demonstration project will support students in their often-transient educational trajectories. Within the California State University (CSU) system, GE programs must align with transfer policies requiring portability both within and across institutions. The pilot project is thus designed to allow students who leave early or join late to transfer their credits. Each nine-unit learning collaborative will cover three areas of GE, and faculty will grade in three-unit increments in keeping with CSU's one class-one grade requirement.

The project will also address challenges rooted in the GE program's history. While GE curriculum is the purview of the faculty, few faculty currently teaching GE were its designers or its original instructors. Furthermore, Sacramento State is committed to alignment of its GE goals and its new Baccalaureate Learning Goals. Finally and importantly, the current GE program is difficult to assess, and the creation of a more assessment-friendly program will allow faculty, students, and external stakeholders to benefit from data about teaching and learning.

To effectively address the challenges, those with the greatest investment in GE--faculty who currently teach it--will engage in the redesign process. The demonstration project will thus sponsor summer institutes and ongoing faculty interest groups to assist interested faculty in repurposing their existing GE courses. In addition, existing GE committees will retain oversight of the demonstration project.

A Paradigm Shift

In redesigning GE, faculty members at Sacramento State are attempting to change a paradigm by retaining its most useful features. We are working within existing structures, making use of existing processes and initiatives, and drawing from past and current best practices. We are engaging stakeholders to provide students with educational programs that are rigorous, relevant, and geared toward improving access to high-impact educational practices for all.


Dewey, J. 1997. Experience and education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Kuh, G. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Ladson-Billings, G. 1992. Culturally relevant teaching: The key to making multicultural education work. In Research and multicultural education, ed. C. A. Grant, 106-121. London: Falmer Press.

Sacramento State. 2010. Increasing graduation rates and closing the achievement gap.saweb.csus.edu/students/download/
Graduation_Initiatives_Report_Sacramento_State_03_ 05_2010.pdf

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