Task Force Recommends Changes to General Education

After extensive research and engagement with the University community, including visits with faculty, students and staff at every undergraduate campus and college, the General Education Task Force has proposed to the Faculty Senate a revised curricular structure that uses contemporary learning objectives to develop and assess a General Education program that better prepares students to live and work in competitive global contexts.

The full report, available here, will be voted on at the April 28 Senate meeting. It proposes a General Education curriculum that embraces breadth of knowledge while maintaining intellectual engagement and flexibility.

“It’s about helping students make connections,” said Janet Schulenberg, co-chair of the task force and associate director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies at University Park. “A commitment to integrative thinking is a hallmark of contemporary General Education programs. It prepares students to think across multiple domains and modes of inquiry, and to be able to transfer knowledge within and beyond their current contexts.”

The proposal frames the curriculum with measurable learning objectives – effective communication; key literacies; critical, analytical, integrative and creative thinking; social responsibility and global learning – which would allow the University to assess General Education on an ongoing basis.

Assessment is a high priority for accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Formal review of the existing program has been difficult, however: The last revision of General Education at Penn State was in 1997.

The proposed curriculum combines elements of three earlier prototypes. It allows students to choose courses that are intellectually engaging without impeding their progress toward degree completion. The proposal does not change the number of credits that are required in General Education.

“It’s not a radical change,” said Maggie Slattery, co-chair of the task force and assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “It shouldn’t be – that would be disruptive – so this keeps parts of our existing program. But it also looks forward. It improves general education in ways that already have been tested at other universities, and it allows the University to make additional adjustments as we go forward.”

The proposed curriculum reinforces the role of foundation, or “skills,” courses in writing and speaking and quantification. These courses, when taken early in a student’s program of study, provide a basis in key literacies, which subsequent courses refine.

The new curriculum would require a C-or-better grade for foundation courses. That would align the General Education program with the University’s baccalaureate programs, which require 15 credits of C-or-better coursework in the major, and with courses that are transferred from other institutions.

To promote interdisciplinary thinking, the curriculum also would require six credits of integrative studies, delivered in one of two ways: through inter-domain courses or a pair of linked courses.

The creation of integrative studies makes explicit the University’s commitment to integrative thinking. Having two options for integrative studies provides students, faculty, campuses and colleges the flexibility they need to adopt integrated courses.

Inter-domain courses, offered at the 200 level or higher, would meet the criteria of two knowledge domains. (An ethics of science course, for example, could meet learning objectives for both natural sciences and the humanities.) For students, the course would be double-counted to apply in both domains.

These courses could be taught by one faculty member, or could be team-taught.

Inter-domain courses would encourage student exploration by providing flexibility, allowing students to sample an unfamiliar field, incorporate world language courses or complete a minor without extending their path to degree completion.

Linked courses would promote integrative thinking by pairing courses from different knowledge domains, with faculty members working together to help students make connections. For example, students in each course could share reading assignments and collaborate on service learning components.

Linked courses could be offered at any level in the curriculum, which would scaffold general education beyond the introductory levels. Similar models already are in place at several commonwealth campuses, including Penn State Greater Allegheny, which develops annual themes and course clusters for its Teaching International program, and Penn State Berks, which offers learning communities.

To increase student flexibility, the proposed curriculum would replace the “9-6-3” option, in which students substitute a third course in the social and behavioral sciences, humanities or arts for a second course in one of those knowledge domains, with a new “Move 3” option, in which three credits from any knowledge domain can be substituted for credits in any other domain. As with the “9-6-3” option, no knowledge domain could be eliminated. Other existing substitutions that allow flexibility in general education, such as the foreign language and upper-level course substitutions, would remain in place.

To learn more about the proposed curriculum, or to join the discussion at General Education at Penn State, please visit gened.psu.edu.