Students Are Disoriented by Gen Ed. So Colleges Are Trying to Fix It.

Like a lot of undergraduates, Yulianna Estrada arrived in college excited about her major. What didn’t particularly interest her? Fulfilling her general-education requirements. In fact, she put them off until her junior year, packing her schedule at Boston University with biomedical engineering and pre-med courses instead. General education, by contrast, was something “that I just had to get done,” she says.

When she finally dug into her options, Estrada was pleasantly surprised. A sociology course tackled the complex topic of gender. A history course got her thinking about the ethical dilemmas embedded in medicine. She learned, for example, that some early advances in gynecology were made at the expense of enslaved women. For her final project she included research on lobotomies, which were used at times on women who were considered difficult or different.

In her future career Estrada would like to create better prosthetics for amputees. Her gen-ed courses, she says, have made her think more deeply about the ethics of designing devices that go into the human body. None of the courses in her major delved into the human costs that underlie the evolution of medicine and medical devices. Those she found only in the Hub, as BU calls its gen-ed program.

“Sometimes we don’t think about it in that way. We just think about it as a medical device that just happened to be created,” she says. “But we don’t know why or who was being experimented on.”

Estrada’s experience with her gen-ed courses is the ideal version of what it is supposed to be. A distinct element of American undergraduate education, this set of required courses is intended to give students a broad liberal-arts-based education, one that complements and expands on what they learn in their given major.

Instead, many students and more than a few professors see it as something of an unwanted party guest: demanding, dull, and unavoidable. And the fault lies with colleges themselves. Many left their general-education requirements untended for decades, allowing them to grow haphazardly, like weeds.

On many campuses general ed still takes the shape of a checklist: two courses from this category, three from that. Because there is no overarching design to this approach, students often flock to courses with the easiest requirements, or the ones that check the most boxes, rather than those that genuinely interest or challenge them. The language used by students, advisers, and professors, too, is telling: These are courses that you want to get through, get over, get done.

But at a time when the value and purpose of college has come under intense scrutiny, neglect of general education has become increasingly untenable. Families are asking what they’re getting for a costly, four-year degree. Credentialism has led many students to seek out double majors, or minors that provide job-ready skills, reducing their patience for poorly thought-out extras. The utility of disciplines that have historically been staples of gen-ed programs, in the humanities and social sciences, has also been called into question by families and politicians.

And when students learn that they may have accidentally taken a gen-ed course that doesn’t count, or that they need to take a different set of required gen-ed courses because they switched majors, their skepticism grows. Completing a confusing chart of mandated courses is nobody’s idea of a meaningful educational experience.

For general-education reformers, this very large problem holds a gold mine of promise.

“We throw millions of dollars at student-retention efforts,” most of which focus on what happens outside the classroom, says Kate Drezek McConnell, vice president for curricular and pedagogical innovation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “You want a retention strategy? Have gen ed not be the lemon in your curriculum.”

Many students and more than a few professors see general education as something of an unwanted party guest: demanding, dull, and unavoidable. And the fault lies with colleges themselves.

The problems with general education are well known, and colleges have tried to solve them. First-year seminars and capstone courses, for example, are common on many campuses. When institutions were coming out of the 2008 recession, says McConnell, many began creating more-robust gen-ed programs to include experiential learning and other practices that have been shown to increase engagement and retention.

As finances and enrollments dipped again, she says, colleges began examining the curriculum with a more critical eye. Was it giving students the value and the skills they and employers were demanding?

After the pandemic hit, a whole new line of inquiry opened up, focusing not only on what was taught but how it was taught. “Teaching and its potential weaknesses were laid bare as students from colleges went home and parents saw things on Zoom,” says McConnell, whose work at AAC&U assists colleges with their gen-ed-reform efforts. “It heightened this sense of, Why am I paying for X, Y, and Z?”

The latest wave of efforts to fix general education involves more foundational changes. It often includes scaling back distribution requirements and standardizing them across majors to allow students to tailor their degree plans or switch majors more easily; imbuing gen-ed courses with skills like teamwork and ethical reasoning to enhance their value to students; creating interdisciplinary courses that tackle pervasive challenges like social justice or climate change; and creating minors and certificates among gen-ed courses with similar themes to appeal to this credential-focused generation.

Some of these newer ways of thinking “are innovations that have some real legs,” says McConnell, who helped spearhead a general-education overhaul at Virginia Tech that now includes a popular set of minors. “They’re not necessarily brand-new and shiny. It’s just using things in gen ed that we haven’t used before.”

photoillustration of a shattered compass

Delcan & Co. for The Chronicle

Equally significant, some colleges are asking faculty members to rethink their teaching to answer foundational questions. What does the discipline of history or math or sociology or biology have to offer someone who may take only one such course? Why do students need breadth and not just depth?

In other words, how do you respond when answering perhaps the most common question students have of general education: Why am I taking this class?

Before he became assistant provost for general education at Boston University, David Carballo didn’t give much thought to the answer. A professor of archaeology, Carballo began working at the university under its old divisional gen-ed model. It was an “uninspired” approach, as he puts it, in which students had to take a certain number of courses in the humanities, natural sciences, and so on. Faculty members focused on teaching their discipline, since that was all that was required of them.

“I needed to do nothing in order for those courses to earn a social-science credit,” he says. “And so as a result, I thought nothing about general education.”

As he got involved in the Hub, which was rolled out in 2018 after four years of planning, Carballo began pondering the gen-ed dilemma, which he thinks is particularly acute at large research universities like BU. The incentive structure is based more on research than on being a good university citizen. It rewards teaching your discipline more than helping students achieve broader learning goals.

But those incentives don’t align with where the world of work is headed, Carballo notes. Less than 30 percent of college graduates are working in a career closely related to their major, and the average worker has 12 jobs in their lifetime. That means, he says, that undergraduates must learn to be nimble and must build transferable skills. Why can’t those skills and ways of thinking be built into general education?

For many academics, framing education in terms of skills sets off alarm bells. That is the language of ed-tech evangelists, higher-ed skeptics, and alternative-credentials advocates. But as Mark Garrett Cooper, a professor of film and media studies at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, argues in a recent Chronicle essay, “professors have everything to gain by co-opting their agenda: Embracing skills may be the least disruptive way for us to remind an increasingly skeptical society of our value.”

Recruiters are more likely to list the skills they’re looking for: sometimes in lieu of a degree, sometimes in addition to a degree, notes Cooper. While this might seem a matter of semantics, it points to a fundamental culture shift: A college degree is no longer presumed to confer such abilities.

“Anyone paying attention to the nonacademic job market,” he writes, “will know that skills, rather than specific majors, are the predominant currency.”

What does that mean for colleges? Surveys of students, professors, graduates, and employers, some of which focus on how higher-education institutions can position themselves in, as one puts it, “a degree-optional world,” suggest that educators need to be more explicit about what they are teaching students and document it more clearly. In doing so, they may discover gaps in what they thought they were teaching.

AAC&U, for example, surveyed employers about the attributes they most value. Workers who think for themselves, adapt as problems arise, work effectively in teams, and have critical-thinking skills are highly prized. Yet the survey shows a disparity between what employers want and how prepared they think recent graduates are.

For many universities, then, the new general-education program is more deliberate in design, explicit in its goals, gradually introduced to tie into students’ majors, and subject to regular review.

At Howard University, general education is “the binding agent across all of the different majors,” says Kenneth Alonzo Anderson, associate provost for undergraduate studies. The university’s gen-ed revamp process, he says, has given people a chance to think about what defines a Howard education. “It’s really about what it means for a student to graduate from your respective institution.”

For Boston University this has meant creating a revised set of requirements, one more closely integrated into the four-year experience.

The Hub combines traditional disciplinary knowledge ― such as quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, philosophical inquiry, and intercultural literacy ― with an expanded group of communication skills, such as digital and multimedia expression, and an “intellectual tool kit” that includes critical thinking, teamwork, research and information literacy, and creativity and innovation. An archaeology course, for example, could meet a historical-consciousness requirement, as well as one for writing, research, and inquiry. In all, students must earn 26 of these units, which typically requires taking 10 to 12 courses.

To have a course included in the Hub, faculty members must submit a proposal to the General Education Committee, which is made up of about two dozen professors from the nine schools and colleges at BU with undergraduate programs. The proposal explains their pedagogy and how they plan to meet the Hub requirements, or learning outcomes, they would like to cover. And it includes a syllabus that describes to students how course content and assignments will achieve those objectives. It’s not enough to say that a course will foster a skill such as ethical reasoning; it must explain how.

Kathryn Spilios, director of instructional labs in biology, undertook this process when she wanted to include the capacity for teamwork and collaboration in large-enrollment biology courses. Spilios is a fan of the new requirements because they map to how the world works. Bioscience is a collaborative field, she notes. “It’s not just biology,” she says, “it’s actually biology plus understanding how to function as a team, understanding how to be a leader, understanding how to be a good citizen of the world.”

Before, she says, a lab instructor might simply point to two people sitting next to each other and ask them to work together on an assignment. Now, she says, the graduate students teaching each section are trained to talk to students about what it means to take on different roles, such as a facilitator or data manager, and how to set expectations as they work as a group.

Carballo, the assistant provost, says some of the work asked of professors comes down to scaffolding ― or building a step-by-step process of how they plan to teach a certain area of knowledge. Two of his archaeology courses were initially rejected by the review committee because he had not sufficiently explained how he was going to achieve specific learning outcomes. Going through the review process, he says, helped him teach more effectively.

In one course, “Deep Histories of Conquest: Aztec Mexico and New Spain,” where one learning objective was to develop critical-thinking skills, he planned for students to do close readings of primary sources from several viewpoints and consider author bias. After the committee asked him to pursue this outcome more systematically, he built argument-mapping into the assignments to teach students a method of evaluating claims and counterclaims.

More colleges are taking this approach, asking faculty members to submit their course for review if they want it to count toward general education. For some professors, this process has proven more agreeable than for others.

“If you came to the Hub and had been used to having total autonomy over your syllabus and never had to answer to anyone, then I think ‘hubbing’ stuff was painful,” says Sophie Godley, a clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health. “You had to learn this new language and accountability.”

You want a retention strategy? Have gen ed not be the lemon in your curriculum.

For Godley, though, public health is a discipline that has long focused on devising clear learning outcomes for students. “We obsess about that all the time: What are they getting out of this? What will they know how to do when they’re done?”

This year, Godley helped develop an interdisciplinary course created specifically to be part of a new Hub “pathway,” where students can take a combination of courses focused on social and racial justice. The two-semester sequence was designed to respond to students’ growing interest in the topic and meet a number of Hub requirements. The fall semester focused on systems and structures. Godley taught the spring-semester course, which focuses on how to engage in advocacy and action to challenge inequity.

Godley helps students develop a form of deliberative argumentation, which requires figuring out what you may have in common with the opposing side. In a recent session, students discussed the language that conservatives and progressives use to describe what it means to be “tough on crime,” and how the phrase can be manipulated to different political ends.

“I know people find general education to be annoying and formulaic, but I think it’s brilliant,” says Godley. Her course is intended for first- and second-year undergraduates, and has drawn students from a range of majors, including data science and engineering. “There is nothing better than watching a student find something new to be passionate about.”

Benjamin Siegel, an associate professor of history, created the course Estrada took, “Bodies, Drugs, and Healing: A Global History of Medicine,” specifically to be part of the Hub, focusing on two of the competencies students are required to earn, historical consciousness and ethical reasoning. The course attracts a lot of STEM majors, he notes, for whom this might be the only history course they take. He designed the final project as a poster presentation, since those are what scientific researchers frequently use to present their work at conferences.

Siegel hopes his students ― half of whom are pre-med or pre-Ph.D. ― see the value in understanding the social and political context of a person’s life. “I think it’s going to make them intelligent in how they help patients navigate really complex social systems, medical systems,” he says. “I’m really happy because I get that encounter with them.”

As with many revamped general-education programs, though, plenty of faculty members complain about the new bureaucracy they have to navigate in order to have their syllabus reviewed and perhaps changed to meet the new standards. BU’s General Education Committee, for example, may request revisions, as Carballo’s experience illustrates. And the rules concerning which and how many learning outcomes can be included are complicated, says Sol Eisenberg, a professor of biomedical engineering and senior associate dean of academic programs in the College of Engineering, who co-chairs the review committee with Carballo.

“That’s a lot of oversight,” he says. “There are voices in the faculty that argue that it’s not particularly informed oversight, or it’s not always good oversight, or that it’s not always consistent oversight. It’s hard to get a committee to always be consistent as members change over the years.”

Navigating complicated logistics and overcoming faculty resistance are just two of the reasons why gen-ed reform often gets pushed to the back burner, even when people are aware that their existing system is underperforming.

A larger reason is that reform taps into the big questions about the purpose of college itself. In other words, you can’t tackle gen-ed reform without reimagining the entire undergraduate experience. If colleges want to expand students’ options — as many do — that may mean rejiggering what’s required of them in their majors. Otherwise, where will they find the time to take advantage of experiential learning, interdisciplinary coursework, and other common elements of modern general education?

Reform is hard, says McConnell, of AAC&U, because “it’s actually culture change.” It is the vehicle through which a college makes fundamental decisions about academic offerings, as well as approaches to course design, teaching, and assessment.

The Johns Hopkins University has been wrestling with that kind of culture change as it takes on a new model of undergraduate education.

You might appreciate your French course, but learning a language doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of global citizenship.

While it is still a work in progress, some key ideas have been driving these reforms, says Janet Schreck, senior associate vice provost for academic affairs. One is that major requirements at Johns Hopkins began taking up a larger chunk of time. To allow for more interdisciplinary exploration, some departments will need to “resize” their majors, she says. The commission developing the new model for undergraduate education, for example, recommended that major-specific requirements in the school of arts and sciences and in the school of engineering be limited so that at least 33 percent of student credit hours are unprescribed.

And, similar to Boston University, Johns Hopkins is replacing the traditional distribution model of general ed with six foundational qualities that students must acquire, such as complex creative expression and ethical reasoning.

In essence, “we’ve doubled down on the liberal arts,” Schreck says. “We all know we’re preparing students for careers that don’t exist yet. And we know that students can get ahold of any information they want. What we need to teach students is how to use and critique and synthesize that information.”

Reducing majors to free up time for more humanities courses, among other experiences, has been a tough sell in the natural sciences and engineering, says Schreck. But sharing research on the kinds of undergraduate activities that lead to greater career satisfaction has helped, she says. According to a Gallup poll, for example, working on a long-term project was key for many successful graduates, as was having a mentor. That led the Johns Hopkins commission to include in its recommendations an optional semester-long, faculty-mentored project for juniors and seniors.

Boston University, too, is expanding its gen-ed offerings in ways that tie in more closely with the rest of the undergraduate experience. Faculty members have created a series of interdisciplinary courses within the Hub, called Cross-College Challenge (XCC). They function as capstones, drawing students from a variety of majors to use some of the skills they learned in their disciplines to help a community partner tackle a problem.

Langdon White, a clinical assistant professor of computing and data science, teaches one of the XCC courses, called “Data Science for Good.” In it, he and a co-instructor work with students on a project of public interest. This semester the course, which he taught with Lipou Laliemthavisay, a lawyer who works as a public defender, focuses on helping to improve transparency in law enforcement by digging into publicly available datasets on policing in Boston.

The course pairs students from different majors, such as data science, software engineering, and social sciences. All XCC courses fulfill four Hub requirements ― innovation, communication, research and information literacy, and teamwork. That, says White, serves as a draw for students who might otherwise be reluctant to tackle an ambitious, open-ended project.

One weeknight in April at the university’s new Center for Computing and Data Sciences, about 20 students reported on the status of their research. Some had mined data on the arrest records of individual police officers. Others looked at pay, misconduct reports, or frequency of field interrogations. White and Laliemthavisay prepped students for that evening’s presentation to an advisory panel.

The teams often found the data to be incomplete or inconsistent and were struggling with the best way to analyze it. “Part of what they’re learning,” says White, “is to tolerate the instability.”

Then the student teams took turns offering their preliminary findings to the panel, beaming in on Zoom. The panel, which comprises a group of academics and lawyers focused on police transparency, listened carefully to the highly technical presentations, offering advice on where to look or how to interpret data, as well as words of encouragement. Even limited data, they noted, could be useful and could sometimes help sway court cases.

For White, the roadblocks and workarounds are an integral part of the course, although he recognizes that his students might not fully understand the value in that. His role, he says, is not to tell them what to do to get a good grade, but to help them figure out what they want to deliver and evaluate them on how well they do that.

“It is exactly about giving them the experience of what it will probably look like in the real world,” says White, “but also trying to satisfy the concern that they do a good job. It is a very tight balance. Some students really get it immediately. Other students get it eventually. Other students are really nervous all the time.”

Do students understand the point of general education? And do any of these reforms in the process make a difference?

A perennial complaint facing general education is its lack of immediate relevance. Unlike a course that is preparing you for a career in, say, journalism, or engineering, one that primes you to think about ideas or events in different ways does not provide an immediate payoff.

“All the data is there. We know from lifelong learning, salary studies, everything: A broad and general education drives American innovation,” says Bridget Trogden, an associate dean at Clemson University who oversaw a revamp of the gen-ed program. “But students don’t always think about that when they’re 18 to 22.”

Though it’s been five years since the Hub’s creation at Boston University, it still puzzles many students as they sort through the units they must complete, which span more than 20 areas. And Hub courses, despite undergoing a required review, are still taught inconsistently, some say.

You might appreciate your French course, but learning a language doesn’t necessarily give you a sense of global citizenship, even if that’s listed as one of the Hub’s learning outcomes, says Eitan Marshall-Pinko, a junior on a student-advisory board to the Hub. “If you’re just calling something global citizenship and then never talking about it, it’s going to give the impression of a rubber stamp. And I think that’s the reality for a lot of classes.”

The Hub is great in theory, says Marshall-Pinko. But realistically, he says, it’s impossible to oversee the 2,000 or so courses that have made it into the program. If a professor wants to phone it in, there’s really no one watching over them.

Eisenberg, the senior associate dean who co-chairs the review committee, agrees that this is a challenge. How do you maintain program integrity, he asks, and review 2,000 courses every five years in a way that is efficient but not just a rubber stamp? He and other committee members have been talking about this, knowing that faculty who teach a course might change year to year, with potentially little conversation about what it means to tackle particular Hub learning outcomes.

“I think there are some elements, some fraction, who say, ‘Well, I’m in charge of this course, and screw the Hub. Let the Hub police find me,’” Eisenberg says.

When it comes to good teaching, Marshall-Pinko says his most successful course was a freshman seminar, focused on rhetoric and writing, in which the students spent hours in conversation with the instructor. Among the most frustrating were an ethics course in which the professor never stopped lecturing ― “he even lectured in the discussion section” ― and a history course in which the professor would sometimes cut students off mid-sentence. “Pedagogy,” says Marshall-Pinko, “is definitely a lost art.”

He and other students on the advisory council point to other problems that still need to be worked out, including a lack of strong advising when picking courses that meet Hub requirements and the desire for a less prescriptive system.

“If students are paying that much money, if parents are paying that much money,” says Jacob Aznavoorian, a sophomore on the advisory committee, “then they should have the freedom of choice.”

The Hub’s administrators say they’ve heard these criticisms and have been working to resolve them.

Incoming students seem to be having an easier time finding courses that fit their interests and requirements than seniors did in the early days of the program, administrators say. Campus leaders are also working on including more discussions about the Hub in first-year orientation programming, ensuring that all advisers understand its purpose, and engaging with the career center to help students translate what they’ve learned in general ed for future employers. And they’re planning to survey graduates once they’re a few years out of college, in hopes that they can speak to the value of the skills they developed in their Hub courses. The first cohort graduated in 2022.

As for the quality of coursework, BU, like a number of colleges, has increased teaching support and program assessment for general education. It offers consultations and workshops through its Center for Teaching & Learning for faculty members who want to, say, ensure that their course counts toward a creativity and innovation unit. Last May dozens of faculty members got together to review nine of the newest areas of the Hub’s learning outcomes to determine if the assignments and assessments produced evidence that students were actually learning what professors said they would.

While the Hub is still evolving, administrators say they have seen worthwhile changes. For one, more students are taking courses in different colleges across campus. At a place as big as BU, where undergraduates can easily get siloed into majors, that’s a step forward, says Carballo. And hundreds of students are signing up each year for the Cross-College Challenge courses and other Hub programs, like co-curricular courses.

Still, the frustrations among students at BU reflect a universal challenge: General education is a tough sell. Lifelong skills? Becoming a good citizen? How is that happening, students wonder, among a disparate set of courses.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s getting across to students,” says Hanna Dworkin, a junior who sits on the advisory council. “You have to be out of college and into the real world to really understand that.”

Dworkin, who is studying political science, philosophy, and economics, points to her own experience. She enrolled in the “Data Science for Good” course in the fall, she says, essentially because of a scheduling issue. Students analyzed eviction data across the city of Boston, comparing neighborhoods and demographics to determine if the city’s new housing-stability policy had been effective in reducing eviction rates.

On the one hand, says Dworkin, the course challenged her and felt meaningful because it had real-life implications. But it was also poorly organized, and she found it difficult to navigate. “I was taking charge of something I was not necessarily trained to understand.”

Despite that, or perhaps because of it, she says, the course became a transformative experience. “I learned so much about data science, so much about leadership and about consulting,” she says. “And that’s something I talk about during job interviews now, and it’s on my résumé.”

Most students still think career preparation comes primarily through their major.

In one survey, BU students scored general education lower on providing job or work-related experience than in other areas, such as improving communication and analytical skills. And in response to a question about whether it prepared them for life beyond the university, only 24 percent of seniors last year agreed, with another 30 percent saying they were neutral and the rest disagreeing.

“One of the things we realized is that students don’t understand that they are learning to do some of these things in their general-education classes,” says Amanda Urias, managing director of the Hub. For example, a senior might have taken two courses that focus on teamwork and collaboration, she says, but not think about them providing those skills.

Some universities are tackling this translational challenge by designing courses that focus explicitly on understanding general education.

Ohio State University created something called Bookends as part of a new general-education program that went into effect last fall. Bookends consists of two courses, which students take at the beginning and end of their college experiences: Launch and Reflections.

Launch teaches students about why they are required to take general education, what skills and habits will help them succeed in college, and how to develop a plan for their college career.

Melissa Beers, senior director of the Bookends program, says the course has two other critical elements: It is taught in small sections of 19 students, and all instructors work from the same curriculum. That ensures consistency for thousands of students who will take the course every semester. And it allows a variety of instructors to teach the course, including tenured faculty members and professional staff.

In one assignment, students were asked to meet with a faculty member in one of their courses and ask them about general education and how their course relates to it. “It turned out to be one of the best assignments of the class,” Beers says, with students talking about how meaningful they found those conversations.

Another element of Ohio State’s new gen-ed program is the addition of an e-portfolio, something that employers have found increasingly valuable. In Launch, students take their first steps, such as defining their academic identity. The final product is a plan for learning, which they can add to over the years. They will revisit their e-portfolio in the Reflections course, which aims to connect their general-education co-curricular work to a future career.

Beers says Bookends is like “a gift to these students.” She says it allows them “to think about who they are and what they want to do, to think about exploring the resources available to them, and then, before they graduate, again taking the time to sit back and reflect on the things they have done.”

It’s a huge lift for colleges to improve their general-education programs by offering more-meaningful, relevant, and well-taught courses that provide lifelong skills. But it won’t work unless students can see how it all adds up. And that’s a real challenge. After all, if gen ed does its job, so much of the payoff only arrives years later.

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