Task Force Seeks Input on Revisions to Penn State's General Education Program

A comprehensive review of Penn State’s most popular General Education courses has determined that no consistent method is being used to place the topics being taught into broader cultural, scientific and ethical contexts.

Some of the courses are too easy, students and faculty members told the General Education Planning and Oversight Task Force, which formed in 2013 to review the program. Others would be more effective if connected to a coherent, rigorous curriculum, according to a report the task force has submitted to the Faculty Senate.

The task force has made the report available for public review and input online, at gened.psu.edu.

“General Education courses are offered purposefully for the non-specialist and, as such, exist at the lowest level of the curriculum and the cognitive ladder,” said Tanya Furman, professor of Geosciences and associate vice president and associate dean of undergraduate education. “They fail students in two ways: by neglecting to encourage their integration of knowledge and skills across multiple subjects and by failing to encourage their elevation to developmentally appropriate intellectual levels.”

The review of Penn State’s General Education program began in late 2012, when a faculty study group determined that the program “fails to deliver on the promise of a coherent, intellectual civic and scholarly curriculum for all students.” That review – summarized in the Cohen Report to the Faculty Senate – led to the creation of the General Education task force, which, with its subcommittees, includes more than 90 faculty members, students and University staff, half of them from the commonwealth campuses.

The group has examined model General Education curricula at institutions across the country. Members have come to a consensus on a model that they feel best reflects the purpose and scope of a Penn State education. It begins with a proposed set of easily accessible learning outcomes that fall within the areas of communication, literacy, critical and integrative thinking, ethical reasoning, social responsibility and intellectual curiosity.

Once those specific outcomes have been identified – with input from stakeholders across the University – the task force will propose a structured General Education curriculum that allows students to broadly explore multiple knowledge domains; gain fundamental skills in writing, communication and quantitative reasoning; and integrate knowledge in scaffolded, interdisciplinary topics within themes – purposeful collections of courses from multiple skill and knowledge domains that focus on a central topic.

The new curriculum will contain a portion of credits clustered around one of several chosen themes, with other credits allowing students to explore different subject areas. Students will cultivate foundational abilities in numeracy, writing, public speaking, and visual and digital communication. They also will develop the habits of public deliberation that are necessary for students to fully engage in increasingly interconnected professional settings.

“General Education is a way to ensure that all students, independent of major, develop skills that are essential for life and work in the modern world,” said Andrew Read, Alumni Professor in Biological Sciences and professor of Biology and Entomology. “But perhaps the most important purpose of a General Education program is to enable students to understand and respect the diversity of people and views in the world so they can respond flexibly to new challenges, address real-world problems and make decisions where there are competing claims to knowledge and understanding.”

Members of the task force are actively consulting with faculty members, students and University staff to improve this model curriculum. With support from Penn State’s TLT Studio, they have developed a website that provides several platforms for active engagement in all areas of General Education. The draft copy of a Senate forensic report on General Education is posted at gened.psu.edu; readers may comment on the document paragraph by paragraph, offering detailed and specific responses.

This is the first time an entire draft copy of a Senate forensic report has been made available for public scrutiny before it was finalized and presented to the Senate.

Focus groups and town-hall meetings are being scheduled to encourage additional discussion at all campuses across the commonwealth. “The task force is committed to ensuring that we propose a model that can be accomplished at every campus,” said task force co-chair Mary Beth Williams, professor of Chemistry and associate dean for undergraduate education. “General Education is the one academic experience that all students, regardless of major or location, share. It’s central to what makes us Penn State.”