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General Education: University-wide faculty inclusion and innovation

By Elizabeth R. H. Sanchez (‘15M)

GenedIn the late 1980s, administrators at James Madison University began transforming the Liberal Studies Program into what is now General Education. The time-intensive and impassioned process, as described by the Director of Assessment at the time, Dr. Dary Erwin, “made a lot of people uncomfortable.” Yet, the instruments used to collect Liberal Studies assessment data revealed dismal progress in student learning—and the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) took notice.

In fact, out of the seven areas of the Liberal Studies program: communication, fine arts, history, literature, mathematics, philosophy and religion, and social sciences, only the scores of students who had taken math courses had improved on post-curriculum assessments.Gened A comment from SCHEV, in Planning Virginia’s Progress in Higher Education (1993), stated: “Negative results, rather than stimulating curricular change, seem generally to be ascribed to poor student motivation, poor fit between assessment instruments and curricular goals, or scoring techniques and standards.” Students also struggled with what appeared to be a disorganized curriculum. According to former Dean of General Education Dr. Linda Halpern, a freshmen seminar that allowed faculty members to choose what they wanted to teach left “students furious” based on what she called the “roommate effect”—everyone’s roommate had an easier or more enjoyable course.

Recently retired Director of Assessment Dr. Donna Sundre admits that even today “courses are like [isolated] pillars;” faculty have a hard enough time planning their individual courses to keep program-level student learning outcomes in mind. In essence, the lack of learning improvement and the widespread dysfunction in the Liberal Studies program should not come as surprise to those in higher education.

There exists no manual on how to reboot a struggling curriculum—and no collected data or state mandate make clear how to go about the process. At least, the process of defining measureable learning objectives had not yet been implemented in an institutional assessment program when General Education underwent its transformation. At JMU, an evolving programmatic roll-out amidst a politically charged atmosphere on campus, a lack of well-defined goals of Liberal Studies programming, and uncertain roles of faculty made for a rough transition into anGened assessable General Education curriculum intended to improve student learning. For example, members of the faculty at the time mentioned that they found the goals of Liberal Studies “…so vague that [it was] difficult to determine what should be included in a common core for all courses,” and also that they knew “...very little about what was taught in the Liberal Studies courses in other departments” and that there was “little communication across disciplines (and in some cases within a discipline)…” Changing the atmosphere of the JMU campus alongside developing JMU’s five Cluster General Education program, which is now considered to be successful, is an especially impressive accomplishment.

In fact, despite the challenges came much success—mostly attributed to thoughtful and unprecedented faculty involvement initiatives. A General Education Committee (GEC), chaired by Dr. Doug Brown, and a Goals and Objectives subcommittee which included Halpern, Erwin, and Dr. Herb Amato as members, formed to change the Liberal Studies goals using the following two questions as their guiding criteria: Do the goals/objectives provide content standards by which courses will be judged for possible inclusion in the General Education curriculum? Do the goals/objectives guide you in the teaching of your course?gened4 And of course, goals such as “enduring sense of the past and of change” emerged as student-focused, measurable learning objectives, including: “After completing a Critical Thinking course, students should be able to: Evaluate claims in terms of clarity, credibility, reliability, and accuracy.”

In order to satisfy a diverse faculty who understandably felt invested in and protective of the courses they taught, the GEC asked for contributions of existing objectives listed on syllabi and for everyone’s ideas of what JMU students should know, think, or be able to do after experiencing the General Education curriculum. The GEC listened to all stakeholders, no regulations existed; “The only thing [JMU] couldn’t do,” recalls Halpern, “is get rid of learning outcomes.” One hundred and forty faculty, members of 30 different academic units, helped populate a list of 1,300 total objectives.  As Erwin mentioned, this call for inclusion incentivized Liberal Studies professors to “decide what it is that [they] want to teach.”

“Giving away” the outcomes, as Halpern remembered, was a pretty risky decision that took energy and commitment from faculty participating on their own good will—and then, a lot of analysis and re-articulation for Cluster Committees. Subcommittees were formed, external stakeholders were consulted, and faculty were encouraged to voice concerns. After reading and reviewing the submitted objectives, the Goals and Objectives subcommittee created five “piles” which are now the five Clusters of JMU’s General Education: Skills for the 21st Century, Arts and Humanities, The Natural World, Social and Cultural Processes, Individuals in the Human Community.

After each of the Cluster’s goals were written in measurable objectives, JMU’s own General Education assessment instruments underwent redevelopment. Under the leadership of Erwin and Sundre, faculty worked with what is now the Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS). Standout assessment practices emerged. This critical evaluative component of demonstrating student learning was finally met. A feat that, to this day, makes JMU remarkable among universities nationwide. The “highly collaborative” approach, Sundre states “[leads] to a lot of teachable moments.”

The inclusion of faculty in developing learning objectives alleviated some lingering fear and uncertainty; Halpern noted that it was the first time that all of JMU was talking about what students should know and not what programs or departments needed to do or change. Further, as pointed out by Erwin, the idea of General Education student learning objectives, then and still today, are to identify what every graduate should know, and are not major-specific. Meaning, teaching skills such as critical thinking do not reside solely on the philosophy genedand religion department. Interestingly, Associate Vice Provost of University Programs Dr. Meg Mulrooney notes that, to this day, the General Education curriculum is not “one size fits all…each Cluster proceeds differently and has specialized needs.” She continues, how each Cluster functions is an “innovative…faculty driven process.”

But completing the difficult task of re-structuring a program, establishing new and measurable goals, and developing assessment instruments that provide valid and reliable data in and of itself does not lead to improved student learning. As many Cluster Coordinators and assessment practitioners preach, the re-assessment of students using the same instrument to compare scores is the only way to see if a change the curriculum led to improvement—a task that is now designated to each individual Cluster. As Mulrooney states, the process of re-assessment is not simple, there are plenty of factors that prevent higher education employees nationwide from participating in campus-wide assessments—“faculty are spread thin” and contingent faculty play a unique and challenging role in establishing a culture of re-assessment. However, JMU faculty sacrifice and involvement—two necessary qualities for the transition from Liberal Studies to General Education—are still critical to the continued success of university-wide programming and assessment efforts.   

As the General Education programming overhaul demonstrates, improved student learning is contingent upon faculty involvement and innovation. It was and is successful, because faculty can write their own objectives, either guided by CARS or on their own. As Sundre notes, CARS can help educators “see, touch, feel, and taste” what they are teaching by working collaboratively with others to establish broad goals and measurable objectives. And, positions Erwin, if faculty at JMU do not like the assessment instruments that they are using, they can go to CARS to help create new ones. Further, if pedagogical approaches fall short of intended goals, the Center for Faculty Innovation could help. Mulrooney, too, relies on the initiatives that each Cluster takes to vet new evaluative instruments, assess students, make curricular and pedagogical changes, and re-assess students.

The complete redesign of Liberal Studies, the presence of mandates from state accreditors, and the transitions the JMU community endured were not easy—but when students and their learning became the focus and when faculty, as Sundre likes to say, “worked smarter not harder” the effective General Education structure became what is today: an exemplary program structured on innovation and dependent on the contributions of faculty and great leadership.