University Community — September 12, 2017

Redefining General Education at Ohio State

Central to the discussion is one particularly sticky issue: How to create a General Education program that students and faculty consider relevant and worth embracing. Or put another way: How to change the culture surrounding Gen Ed.

“What we’ve heard from a variety of groups in the listening sessions, and it’s also been part of discussions in committee, is that achieving the mind-shift necessary to enhance the perception of General Education will take contributions from everybody,” Krissek said. “That means from the top down and from the bottom up—from administrators who can reinforce the idea that General Education is important, as well as from advisors and faculty members who are a direct line of contact with students.”

Krissek, Montalto, Vice Provost Randy Smith and committee member Andrew Martin, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Sociology, recently sat down to discuss how the Gen Ed review is progressing.

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A recurring theme in listening sessions, they said, is the notion that students want to get Gen Ed “out of the way” to focus on their majors.

That sentiment was echoed by a dozen undergrads who were informally surveyed for this article. While all appreciated the opportunity to choose from a broad range of classes, and most of them regarded the classes as a welcome change of pace, none saw the General Education curriculum as having any particular coherence.

And that’s precisely the problem, Smith said. Instead of a series of disjointed cafeteria-style classes, General Education needs to be conceived and structured as an integrated program that plays a central role in the Ohio State undergraduate experience, both in the classroom and in co-curricular activities. Equally important, it needs to prepare students to grow and adapt to the unexpected changes they will face in their lives.

“General Education should prepare them to be resilient, both here and later in the workplace,” Montalto said. “Resilient students won’t be stymied. They will embrace the opportunities that change offers.”

Later this fall, with its initial report completed, the committee will hold more listening sessions to incorporate the university community’s feedback, then submit final recommendations to the University Senate by the end of the year. Once the recommendations are approved, individual colleges will determine their course offerings to meet the new GE standards.

  • Late 2016: The University Senate’s Council on Academic Affairs recommends a review of the General Education program based on a report from the University-Level Advisory Committee.
  • Phase I, February to mid-May 2017: The General Education Review Coordinating Committee holds listening sessions across the university to solicit input from constituencies. Online feedback also is solicited.
  • Phase II, summer 2017: The committee uses input from listening sessions and related literature and research to outline goals and possible templates for the Gen Ed program.
  • Phase III, autumn 2017: Follow-up listening sessions will held to share the proposed goals and templates and to solicit feedback. The work of the review committee ends after this phase.
  • By Dec. 31, 2017: Final recommendations submitted to University Senate.
  • January 2018: Senate undertakes its formal review.
  • 2018: Individual colleges set course offerings to meet the new Gen Ed standards.
  • Academic year 2019-2020: The new General Education program begins, coinciding with the start of sesquicentennial anniversary year.

So what could the next generation of Gen Ed look like? There’s still a long road ahead, but the topics below have repeatedly bubbled up in listening sessions. That doesn’t mean they will be included in the final mix, but they are being discussed.

Thematic areas

Certain core competencies are the bedrock of any broad-based education, so it’s virtually certain that whatever Gen Ed program emerges will include the meat and potatoes—foundational elements like writing and mathematics. That’s one component. A second idea that has attracted a lot of attention is to include thematic areas of study that students could choose. These would be in addition to the core courses and could infuse Gen Ed with a coherence that is currently lacking. Suggested themes include citizenship, health and wellness, urban issues and sustainability.

“We would like students to gain insight into a theme from a couple of different perspectives,” Martin said. “So an urban-issues theme, for example, might include a class that provides a humanities point of view and a class that offers a natural sciences point of view, all to give a well-rounded view of the topic.”

Smith said themes could easily be adjusted to reflect emerging societal issues, thereby giving Gen Ed even greater relevance.

Gen Ed across the undergraduate career

Threading the Gen Ed program through the full course of a student’s undergraduate career also would increase coherence. “Having students involved in GE in their third and fourth years would counter the ‘check-the-box’ mentality that is frequently mentioned,” Montalto said. “We really want the Gen Ed program to be building at the same time students are building expertise in their major.”

Holistic assessment

General Education as a program, not just as a series of classes, relies on a cumulative momentum that allows students to connect and synthesize information from beginning to end. To do this, Krissek said, there should be “several well identified steps built into the program’s structure so that students can stop and think about what their Gen Ed is contributing and how the various parts are linking together.” The culmination could be a capstone course or a similar integrated component, he said.

Diversity

Diversity was raised in essentially every listening session and might play a role in the themes. “This could be an important part of what makes the Ohio State Gen Ed experience different,” Krissek said. Researchers who spoke to the committee “made it very clear that students coming out of high-school typically do not have any academic background in diversity.” He said the committee is looking to build a diversity component across multiple years, for instance, in a student’s first year and then again as a junior or senior.

“It’s really about being comfortable working across differences,” Montalto added. “It’s about understanding the differences to allay fear and ignorance.”

Faculty support

Changing the culture of Gen Ed starts with the faculty, Smith said. “It needs to be resurrected as a front-and-center component of the undergraduate experience. And because it’s academically based, we need faculty to say they believe in it and to be talking about it.”

Team teaching

The revised Gen Ed program could encourage more flexibility in how courses are taught. “Faculty members in our listening sessions were especially excited about the possibility of team-teaching across colleges,” Krissek said. Traditionally, interdepartmental roadblocks have made that difficult, but the University Institute for Teaching and Learning could convene the conversations needed to overcome them, said Montalto.

Transfer credits

About 3,000 students transfer to Ohio State every year, and many of the credits they bring with them align with Gen Ed core courses. “We have to be compliant with statewide issues on transfer,” Smith said. “We can’t walk away from any of that.” Krissek noted that the challenge with transfer students is to create a Gen Ed program that doesn’t block credits but still reflects the Ohio State experience. Adding a theme-based component could be one way to do that.   

Flexibility

The committee is considering how to make Gen Ed more consistent across colleges so students who change majors or add a second major don’t find themselves trying to meet two different requirements, Montalto said. At the same, the university wants Gen Ed to be as flexible for students as possible. “We’ve been kind of rigid over the years,” Smith said. “ ‘You must take this and you must take that.’ That kind of thing. If we’re going to have a new version of Gen Ed, flexibility needs to be addressed.”

Mission/vision

Ideally, the Gen Ed program would reflect Ohio State’s role as a public, land grant, research, urban-engaged institution. “Not many universities can claim all those attributes,” Smith said. “Our Gen Ed can be distinctive if we base it on the university’s new mission/vision statement.”

With several months of work invested in the Gen Ed review, and with several more ahead, team members say they are heartened by the discussions they’ve had and look forward to the feedback they’ll get this fall.

“I have been pleasantly surprised by the general willingness of people to think creatively without immediately bumping into budget obstacles,” Krissek said.

Martin was quick to agree and said he was particularly struck by the passion evident in the listening sessions. “It’s worth noting that faculty aren’t advocating only for their own disciplines,” he said. “There is a real commitment to provide a broad education and nurture well-rounded students.”