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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Assessing General Education

My university has begun the process of extending our system of assessment into the general education program. Before I began this process I thought I knew the purpose of general education and I was happily ignorant of its size.

Before I launch into thoughts concerning the purpose of general education, let me first comment as to its extent. At my university, each student must have at least a total of 124 credit hours to graduate. Of those 124, at least 46 credit hours must be general education. This is slightly over one-third of the total requirement. Somewhere among the remaining two-thirds of those 124 hours, the student must specialize in something and do some exploring on his own.

In the book Excellence without a Soul, Harry Lewis remarks that the idea that students should know one thing very well but also know a little about everything has long been an ideal at Harvard where he taught. This same ideal permeates higher education throughout the United States and informs our attitude toward general education. In addition, there are other functions performed by general education.

In a setting where many of the students are the first generation of their families to attend college, there is often a lack of knowledge among the students and their support groups of pathways open to them through education. General education provide samples of areas in which students might find a career that they might not otherwise have known about. We all have heard the student stories that begin "I'd never even heard of X before, but I took Professor Y's Introduction to X because my adviser made me, and it changed my life."

There are also aspects of general education that are foundational to later learning. At my school, we have decided these are writing, mathematics, and communication. We refer to these as our Basic Skills.

It is with the Basic Skills that we have chosen to begin as we extend our assessment system to general education. This is being done for a number of reasons. The disciplines involved in this area are almost universally (as near as can be expected on a university campus) accepted as being a part of general education. In addition, Basic Skills only includes courses being taught by three departments, and, therefore, the politics involved are more manageable.

Even though we are only beginning, it has been discovered that expectations for student learning outcomes in these areas can vary widely. We are currently looking at writing, and, without being too surprised, we've learned different disciplines expect different styles of writing. Some expect students to write in a literary style, some in a business style. Some expect essays and some expect text. As we continue to examine mathematics and communications, I expect similar results.

Our purpose, however, is not to bludgeon the faculty into saying there is a single correct vision of any of these areas. We must open lines of communication so that the needs of the students are correctly understood by those whose charge it is to teach them. And, as assessment is our charge, we must do that in such a way that we can measure how well these needs are being met.

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