Another Stab at General Education

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Jerry G. Gaff, senior scholar, Association of American Colleges and Universities, wrote What Is a Generally Educated Person? in Peer Review, Fall 2004. He starts off with the usual paeans to liberal education:

Leaders of the professional accreditation bodies for business, education, engineering, and nursing have declared the qualities of liberal education to be central to the successful practice of all those professions. They and their colleagues in regional accrediting and in several educational associations have agreed that students should acquire the following attributes: breadth of knowledge and capacity for lifelong learning; abilities to analyze, communicate, and integrate ideas; and effectiveness in dealing with values, relating to diverse individuals, and developing as individuals (AAC&U 2004a).

Why are liberal and general educational outcomes valued so highly today? In part, it is because the United States has moved from an agrarian economy, through an industrial economy, to a knowledge-based economy. Labor economists have determined that, for a knowledge-based economy where many people work on solving unscripted problems, a liberal education is excellent preparation for the best careers (Carnevale and Strohl 2001). These views reverse the old saw, derived from the time of the industrial economy, that liberal and general education are impractical, irrelevant, or unnecessary and that only the major or professional preparation is of value. Indeed, a contemporary liberal or general education may be the most useful career preparation for the knowledge-based economy.

There's value and then there's value. There's what we say we value and then there's what we show we value through our choices. We can say we value equality, but as long as people move out of the cities into affluent, white-dominated neighborhoods, we won't get it. A CEO can say he values general education, but as long as the actual hiring focuses on technical skill, that's what will count in the marketplace. Regardless of how true it may be that broadly educated people make better workers, the economic reality is that employers get acceptable productivity faster by hiring narrowly-trained specialists than generalists. They or the broader society may pay for it later on, but there's an immediate payoff, and lots of people don't care about anything else.

The basic problem is that "good enough" is good enough for most people. The kid who "don't know much about history" in the song will probably get the girl, have a tolerable standard of living, and his vote will count just as much as the class valedictorian's. When he finds out that he can't earn very much, or gets downsized, he probably won't blame himself. Instead he'll probably complain that school taxes are too high because they cut into his meager salary. Any grading standard that seriously cuts into students' leisure time at the secondary or college level, or testing program that prevents them from graduating, will generate so much political opposition that it will inevitably be watered down to be about as challenging as Monty Python's Upper Class Twit of the Year Competition. And colleges that seek resources to permit smaller class sizes, more experimental courses, more free time for course development and so on find out pretty soon that most states just plain don't care about such issues because the results they're getting now are "good enough."

Gaff goes on to lament:

"When faculty are invited into a conversation about the curriculum, they tend to emphasize the issues important to themselves, such as disciplinary turf, workload, and resources. Understandably, they want to protect their own courses and departments, are wary of any extra work that a curricular revision might entail, and suspect that there may not be enough resources to support change. Although these are important issues, they ought not to drive the conversation."

This paragraph amounts to saying "if we can't get students and employers to sacrifice their own interests, maybe we can convince the faculty to." Let me suggest that so many reforms of general education fail precisely because these issues don't drive the conversation. Instead of devising a reform and then finding the resources, or taking on uncompensated load, let's get the resources first. Let's guarantee that positions won't be lost, that extra work will be compensated, and there will be "enough resources to support change." If the only people who care about the quality of education are college faculty, why do we bother?

On my campus, this point can be summarized in two words: Writing Emphasis. When research nationwide showed that college students often wrote less well upon graduation than when they enrolled, many colleges attempted to deal with the problem by integrating writing into as many courses as possible. In principle, since grading papers is a pain, the writing emphasis classes would have to be small. Do I really need to point out that the extra resources to support the program never materialized? This is a sterling example of trying to launch vast projects with half-vast support; faculty who teach Writing Emphasis get essentially zero compensation compared to those who don't.

Gaff, of course, is a devotee of Assessment:

"After more than two decades of serious attention to assessing the outcomes of a college education, few colleges and universities can answer legitimate questions about how much their students are learning. While there are good tests for measuring effectiveness in business, law, and other professions, the outcomes of general education remain elusive and relatively unstudied."

Actually, we do have effective measuring devices. We call them exams. The difference between higher education assessment and professional assessment is that the professionals let the assessments speak for themselves. An examinee who fails the medical or accounting or law exam is unqualified. End of story. The fact that she graduated from college with inadequate skills is a blemish on the institution for not having rigorous grading standards, but failing the exam is the student's problem and nobody else's. Nobody ever turns to a law school and says "why didn't you succeed in teaching these students what habeas corpus is?" If students from the school fail the bar exam in large numbers, the school will be asked "why did you graduate students who don't know what habeas corpus is?" but failing the bar exam will be a demonstration of the student's failure to learn, not the school's failure to teach.

However, in discussions about undergraduate education, when students fail general education or are poorly motivated, it is never their fault. The whole current discussion of General Education is flavored by the observation that student dissatisfaction is high. Maybe we should try harder to turn away students who don't want General Education?

Assessment is hot on campus right now. Who's assessing "assessment"? (in quotes to denote the formalized kind) Has "assessment" ever led to a demonstrable increase in quality, as opposed to the normal assessment and adjustment most people do all the time? It strikes me as more like just another managerial fad, like goals, objectives, and mission statements. I have always thought that if someone needs a mission statement, he doesn't know enough to be able to accomplish the mission even if we tell him what the mission is. If you have to tell someone the mission of a 747 is to fly someplace, you don't want that person in the cockpit. If you have to tell someone the mission of a university is to teach students, that person isn't qualified to be employed at a university or to judge its results. Look at any campus mission statement and list one thing on it that isn't trivially obvious from the mere fact of being a university.

Similarly, anyone who needs a formal assessment system to evaluate his effectiveness is so out of touch with what's going on, or so unfamiliar with the subject matter, that it won't do him any good. Even a supermarket bagger would figure out (or be told) after he rips three or four bags that he's packing them too full. We all assess our courses all the time; we judge that some assignments work better than others, some questions are too hard or too easy, some topics are obsolete or need upgrading, we're trying to pack too much into the class, etc. Can anyone give me a single example where "assessment" provided insights and improvements that normal on-the-fly assessment didn't? Or is "assessment" just another elaboration of the trivially obvious?

So why do we assess students? Easy. So other people can know how well they performed. Assessment (finals, bar exams, medical boards) makes sense if people have to make judgments about the person being assessed.

In many places assessment is required. That doesn't mean anyone has to take it seriously or have respect for it.

Gaff goes on to note:

"In a recent statement from its board of directors, AAC&U (2004b) urges institutions to focus on five widely valued sets of educational outcomes and to concentrate on assessing them. The outcomes are

  1. Analytical, communication, quantitative, and information processing skills
  2. Understanding inquiry practices of the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts
  3. Intercultural knowledge and collaborative problem-solving skills
  4. Proactive sense of responsibility for individual, civic, and social choices
  5. Habits of minds that foster integrative thinking and the ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one setting to another

Number 1 is directly marketable and tends to be high on the list of things employers want most and complain about the most. Numbers 2,3, and 5 are enhancers; they make a marketable graduate more marketable and position a graduate better for long-term career advancement as well as lateral moves to new careers.

Number 4 is where many universities fail. I contend you cannot hope for social, civic, economic or environmental responsibility unless you have individual responsibility first. We can start by stating that students are responsible for their own grades. Not long ago there was another opinion piece that actually lamented that colleges put the responsibility for learning on the students. How are we going to create a "proactive sense of responsibility for individual, civic, and social choices" in such a climate? This goal flies squarely in the face of all the rhetoric that assumes that poor student performance has to lie anywhere else but with the student.

The principal problem with all calls for assessment is they fail to distinguish between culpable problems like poor teaching, externally imposed problems like inadequate resources, and just plain lousy student performance. So let me suggest an assessment system.

  1. We assess Teaching by examining courses for rigor, organization and currency, quality of supporting materials, clarity, originality, appropriateness and rigor of exams, etc. We rely principally on these objective criteria, with subjective feedback like student evaluations assuming secondary importance.
  2. We guarantee Outcomes by refusing to graduate unqualified students.
  3. We Admit only motivated students. We look for evidence of rigor in their transcripts in the form of math, science, and my personal favorite, foreign languages. I don't know of a better overall indicator of motivation than an active interest in studying a foreign language (as opposed to taking it as a requirement.) Especially we look for evidence of going beyond the minimum necessary for graduation, and courses outside their intended major. The above measures are the only ones really under our control. We assess what part of the total picture is due to other factors by the following.
  4. Standardized Exams can be useful if they are used correctly. Since results relate both to teaching quality and to student effort, the obvious strategy is to compare results on standardized tests with grade distributions. If half the students in a college get A's but do poorly on the exams, the college is guilty of grade inflation. If half the students get A's and do well, both the college and the students are putting out. And if half the students get F's, and do poorly on the exams, the college is doing its job by saying that the students aren't.
  5. We assess student Effort by examinations or other standard methods. In the absence of evidence of teaching problems, outcomes here are solely the responsibility of the student. We add statements to their admissions forms that explicitly say so. This then becomes legally binding on the student.
  6. We assess Adequacy of Resources by, say, comparing funding needs with actual funding, or number of courses  needed to offer a solid program versus the number we actually offered. We factor in student complaints about availability of courses and use this rating to evaluate what part of our deficiencies are imposed by the State.

And my proposal for an all-purpose graduation exam. "Here's the syllabus, and here are your scores to date. Accurately project your final grade."


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Created 25 March 2005, Last Update 02 June 2010  

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