The way most colleges teach general education to undergraduates is hopelessly broken, according to a group of professors and administrators at Southern Utah University.
Introductory-level courses typically are designed to be the first in a series for students who eventually major in that discipline. But their relevance to nonmajor, general education students is far less apparent, said Scott Wyatt, Southern Utah’s president.
Those students tend to get buried in specialized material, he said, like vocabulary that becomes a framework for future courses. And the scattershot, buffet model to general education courses means much of the material students learn is not connected to a coherent, holistic curriculum.
“This is the worst part of your educational experience,” said Wyatt. “We’re pushing it out on the margins.”
Yet despite calls by many to improve general education, including a decades-long push by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, colleges have an incentive not to mess with status quo. That’s because general education courses are generally cheap to teach.
Those courses lack expensive laboratories and often are taught in huge lecture halls. So a classroom of 500 students in Psychology 101, particularly when taught by adjuncts or graduate assistants, can be a cash cow for that department.
“They’re treated as a revenue builder by most universities,” said John Taylor, an associate professor of biology and faculty fellow for academic affairs in the provost's office at Southern Utah, a public university located in the largely rural southwest corner of the state.
Wyatt and a team of faculty members last year hatched a plan to reinvent how general education works at the university. Their solution, dubbed Jumpstart GE, began this fall with 43 students. It’s certainly a different approach. And while the experiment is too young to show any real learning outcomes, experts said the concept shows plenty of promise.
The first-year students are taking the full 34 credits for their general education requirements this year -- the equivalent of 13 courses. But all that material has been converted into one course that eight professors from different disciplines are teaching jointly.
The class meets every day from 9 a.m. until noon. Two to four professors are there at any time, working with students on material from the introductory courses they typically teach. But the professors also collaborate in those lectures and discussions, making connections for students across typical subject-matter boundaries.
Learning objectives are anchored to a specific theme, which will change each year for students in the pilot project. This year is organized around the question “What is freedom?” The course is divided into six-week chunks, in which students work in groups to explore specific aspects of the overarching theme.
“Every discipline provides an answer or a part of the understanding,” said Wyatt.
For example, the class recently used Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a central text. The English professor taught about the novel. An art historian led discussions on Mississippi River art. And Matt Barton, a professor of communications, used the book as a jumping-off point to teach about racial identity and social media.
Professors said they have learned from each other in the course.
“You have to be on your game,” said Barton, adding that professors call on each other in class. “That’s fun and a little bit scary.”
But with that welcome challenge also come efficiencies. Professors said they don’t have to cover material from other disciplines, which they often do in normal courses. For example, Taylor can leave the writing instruction to the English professor and focus instead on biology. Each professor gives grades within their own discipline.
Barton said he’s a big fan of the experience so far, which he says has been freeing for him and students.
“General education is not some rite of passage” in the Jumpstart GE program, he said. “It actually has a purpose.”
Build the Foundation First
Wyatt has big goals for the project. He thinks it could be a model for other institutions to imitate. And he thinks the approach to general education will be a selling point for the university, which enrolls roughly 7,700 students.
“We actually believe that we can brand ourselves as a general education college,” he said.
It’s already working, said Wyatt, with several students having enrolled in the program who otherwise would have gone to other universities.
While the experiment is too young to judge, several experts said, the approach is worth watching.
“The institution -- top to bottom -- should be commended for taking educational risks,” said Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College and former senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education. She called the experiment bold and thoughtful.
Students with remedial needs are not eligible to participate in the group-course approach to general education. Neither are those in certain majors with stringent intro-level course requirements, particularly a few majors in STEM fields, such as pre-med.
However, Taylor said he’s convinced Jumpstart GE can work for most majors.
“Just give us that first year and let us build a solid foundation,” he said.
Wyatt agreed, predicting that more students will stick with STEM majors when introduced to those disciplines in this format. He also thinks more students will graduate in four years when they start in Jumpstart GE.
“The departments get 100 percent of their students’ attention for three years,” he said.
Students who arrive at the university holding substantial credits from Advanced Placement or dual enrollment courses from high school will not be eligible for the program. However, those students and ones who major in ineligible disciplines can participate in a less ambitious version, called mini-Jumpstart, in which a few courses are combined into one semester that a group of professors jointly teach.
Next year the mini versions will enroll 400 students, said a university spokeswoman. The full Jumpstart GE will expand to two sections of 48 students, she said, and those sections are filling up. The themes will be national parks and “an active America.”
Students who complete Jumpstart GE will earn a general-education certificate from the university, which other institutions in the Utah System of Higher Education will honor. That means transferring students will not lose any of the 34 credits they earn in the unusual program, at least if they transfer to another public institution in the state.
The course material is drawn from existing courses, Wyatt said, meaning that the program has not caused any financial aid or accreditation problems.
Gross said a big test will be how well students do in their majors after the first year of Jumpstart GE. The project will require sustained support from the university’s leadership, she said, and participation by “top of the batting order” professors.
“Change doesn’t occur often” in higher education, said Gross. “And when it does, it’s usually tinkering at the edges. This isn’t that.”
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