Institute Pedagogical & Curricular Approach: 2018 Institute on General Education and Assessment

General education and assessment change is, at heart, pedagogical innovation. The 2018 Institute takes inspiration from “design thinking,” an approach to problem solving well suited to complex, dynamic environments like college and university campuses. Pragmatic and solution-focused, design thinking employs both divergent and convergent thinking, moving from brainstorming and “outside the box” idea generation to a focus on creating solutions best suited to the unique dynamics and needs of your campus. There are many examples of design thinking in education; the Institute leverages the approach modeled by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (, applying to general education design and assessment the’s five-step process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Leveraging the design thinking process, the Institute curriculum is organized around a set of principles for re-imagining general education developed as part of AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) initiative. Drawing on the potential of these principles to guide general education reform that empowers students and increases achievement, participants engage in both shorter information and discussion-based sessions intended to foster dialogue and spark new ideas, and also longer workshops intended to provide opportunities for deeper analysis and application of ideas to campus-based reform efforts. AAC&U’s GEMs principles allow participants to engage with Institute faculty and colleagues from across the country around a set of intentional guidelines that illuminate the power of educational pathways that foster academic proficiencies and success in life and work.

Principle 1: Proficiency
General education should provide programs, curricula, and experiences leading to demonstrable, transferable learning proficiencies and outcomes that are portable across contexts and disciplines. Proficiencies, such as critical thinking, integrative learning, problem-solving, and intercultural competence, are skills honed over time through intentional and rigorous application across settings and disciplines. Where and how does general education intentionally develop these skills, providing opportunities to practice and apply proficiencies?

Principle 2: Agency and Self-direction
Undergraduate education should empower students to develop the intellectual and personal capacities to achieve their educational and professional goals, enrich their lives, and act in principled and constructive ways, both in their personal lives and in society. How does general education enable all students to take responsibility for cocreating their learning and find meaning in their roles as learners and contributors?

Principle 3: Integrative Learning and Problem-Based Inquiry
Students should demonstrate proficiency through an integration of curricular, cocurricular, community-based, and prior learning experiences, all of which can include digital communities of learning and practice. Students will achieve proficiencies most effectively through consistent engagement in problem-centered work on significant issues that are relevant to students’ interests and that require students to draw upon insights from multiple areas of study. How does general education engage students in integrating knowledge to solve complex, unscripted problems?

Principle 4: Equity
General education programs should be equity-minded in design and implementation. Faculty, staff, and administrators must be encouraged to understand and address inequalities in outcomes among students of color, students with disabilities, low-income and first-generation students, returning adult students, veterans, transfer students, and others. General education programs should advance practices and policies aimed at achieving the full spectrum of learning outcomes for all students regardless of their backgrounds. How does general education ensure that all students experience quality in their educational experiences and outcomes?

Principle 5: Intentionality, Transparency, and Assessment
Students and institutions should be able to point to student work, especially problem- and project-based inquiry (signature work), as demonstrations of proficiency worthy of credit across institutional settings and as a body of work associated with earning the degree. How can student achievement through general education be assessed (including through ePortfolios) while promoting reflection, actions for improvement, and community building? How do we report student learning outcomes and proficiencies in ways that are meaningful, externally and internally?

From Planning to Campus Action
In addition to participation-based workshops, a significant portion of the Institute curriculum is reserved for teams to work independently to advance their own general education reform goals. During these periods, teams share ideas, map strategies, and consult with Institute faculty on specific obstacles or issues. Teams use this time to prepare a campus “action plan” to bring back to campus. The action plan includes initial and continuing steps for implementation and advancement upon returning to campus, key persons to engage in the change process, and a realistic timeline for accomplishing goals. Action plans are shared in small groups at the end of the Institute with two to three additional campus teams in order to receive helpful feedback and guidance from fellow Institute participants and Institute faculty.