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We have all had to take the same basic courses throughout high school, and now in college that may not be in our ideal picture portrait of what college should be like. Whether its math, English, science, art, foreign language, or communications, there’s always going to be that one subject that’s not particularly your cup of tea. It doesn’t help when the teacher or professor doesn’t seem particularly excited about their job either. In college, this problem can present an eminent distrust between the student and the faculty member, making it hard to succeed in class.
I mean that’s why we are here right?
To learn new things; be exposed to new perspectives and opportunities that we may never experience again. To provide students with a well-rounded, valuable education, universities across the world have been racing to adopt the best general education programs so that students can get the most out of both their time and money spent there.
Here at the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point (UWSP), that goal has brought us the general education program (GEP) we have today, which includes an offering of a variety of courses not related to our majors, but required to graduate from the University. However, with the governor’s new proposed budget cuts to the UW systems; this system may not be as dynamic as originally thought.
The University needs to integrate critical thinking and writing skills into one major-related curriculum to ensure that students have all the tools they need to be successful both in the school setting and in life.
Currently, UWSP’s GEP program offers students a variety of courses from all different subject matters. Most everyone is required to take at least some kind of English, math, and science class before they are able to dive into their subject of interest. The GEP’s are grouped into four major levels including the foundation level (first year seminar, English, math…), investigation level (arts and humanities), cultural and environmental awareness level, and lastly, the integration level (experiential learning, communication, and capstone in the major).
While this program is very thorough, providing students with lots of course options, some would argue it is almost too extensive; offering more classes than necessary for a student to succeed in college. There can be a hefty cost to taking lots of generalized courses, when they may be unnecessary as well as a large time commitment to students who simply wish to get a solid education and start their career. Too many required courses usually mean larger class sizes also, which can be harder for professors to handle as well as students who may not be used to learning in such a vast environment. Exploring how other institutions from around the world have designed their GEP programs to be centered on student’s interests, a solution can be drawn to make it easier for students to get both their degree and a well-rounded education all in one accessible program.
By addressing what the difference is between a general and a liberal education system, we can begin to understand what qualities a student can and should gain from these types of GEP programs to prosper. When asked what the difference is between a general and liberal education, most people have trouble distinguishing between the two. However, their variations can be the key to seeing what makes a good GEP program system. General education systems, like the one we have here at UWSP, are aimed at exposing students to different fields of study such as English or science, which is why they usually require students to take general courses in nearly every kind of major. Liberal education systems, on the other hand, try to expose students to different ways of learning; teaching them how to make educated decisions in life to become better citizens.
Originally, a liberal arts education was thought to be one that would give students the education they needed in order to be free citizens (Arum 6). There is not necessarily a right or a wrong system; they each have their advantages and disadvantages. General education programs can be very beneficial to students who are unsure of what career path they wish to pursue and can also offer a kind of broad based, flexible education some would view important in today’s job market (Arum 6). However, they can also be tedious, and expensive additives to a student’s centered area of study to which they have committed. A liberal education can be helpful for preparing students to become responsible adults; however, they can sometimes be lacking when it comes to preparing students for their specific careers.
For example: taking liberal arts classes that involve having lots of group discussions and writing essays can help students learn about others’ perspectives, but they do not benefit students with certain majors that require a lot of hands-on work experience before applying for the job like in the sciences. As Steven M. Cahn notes in his publication Education and the Democratic Ideal, “An appreciation and understanding of the literature, art, and music of various cultures enriches the imagination, refines the sensibilities, deepens feelings, and provides increased awareness of the world in which we live” (9).
These qualities explained are very important to have because they help broaden our views and encourage us to explore different ways of life we may not be used to. When we are more aware of our surroundings, we have the ability to make more educated, rational decisions as adults. By combining the qualities of general and liberal educations into one curriculum that targets a student’s interests (their major-field of study), an institution could yield students who are both liberally responsible adults, as well as educated professionals in their careers. For example, a student majoring in biology would be required to take a “biology statistics” course that would combine the concept of biology (plant/animal systems with statistical methods (instead of having to take separate biology courses and a statistics course like they currently have to).
They could learn how to conduct population number increases or declines out in the field and record/organize/analyze that data using the statistical concepts they learned from that class. Students would be much more interested in taking a course like that that would include some of their interest in plant or animal populations while also giving them a taste of statistics as well. Also with this additional knowledge, they would have a step up above other job applicants who may not have that kind of “combined concepts” knowledge and look more desirable to future employers.
By linking general classes and major related classes together, the hassle of transferring and costs for students would also significantly decrease. Costs are such an important part of the decision making process when choosing a college, and depending on how much the student is willing to fork out, there are three major types of institutions available for secondary education: community colleges, private schools, and public schools. With many colleges’ costs going up every year and the new proposed budget cuts, the University may be forced to lay off more professors, which causes bottlenecks in certain classes, leading to larger class sizes (Mueller).
Also armed with the knowledge that the first few semesters are usually general education requirement classes anyway, many students have opted to taking the more economical route; beginning at community colleges to get their general courses out of the way and then transferring to a higher ranked institution for their career-related education. While this is a very resourceful approach, it can be tedious, having to go through so many hoops to jump right into the college setting. Some courses may not transfer over from school to school and then the students are left to take similar-related ones a second time, which wastes time and money. Students make friends and then have to leave them, which adds to the stress of a whole new routine and environment.
Some students, on the other hand, choose private schools, which also have their advantages and disadvantages. Some private colleges boast about their prestigious liberal arts programs that claim to provide students with valuable skills they can use as individuals; however, it all comes at a high price not many can afford. It would simply be easier and less costly if all the classes students needed to take were major-related courses at one university that both interested them and satisfied the general, ground laying requirements at the same time. A longitudinal study done by Lee Ann Carroll, author of Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers proved that students especially valued projects that marked points of transition or milestones in their introductory classes because it allowed them to make connections between their individual interests/experiences and their writing (49).
If this type of curriculum were adopted here at UWSP, the university would likely generate more income because more students would be attracted to the efficient classes that naturally integrated everything they would need to know. Additionally, students would be able to secure a solid “roots” system at the university knowing that they will be spending their entire college career there, getting more comfortable with their new home base. Plus, with less “fluff” courses, they would likely finish their degree faster and begin their career sooner. However, it takes more than students to make a university work; they would be nothing without guidance and wisdom from teachers and professors.
When choosing a college and looking at their general education program, many times we don’t think about the professors, however, they play a vital role when it comes to making the GEP program successful. In some cases, even the best-intentioned professors can stumble under certain circumstances they are faced with by their employer. For example, here at UWSP some general education requirements only offer a few courses that satisfy the requirement, leaving students slim pickings when it comes to their interests/schedules. This in turn, leaves professors stressed out and with large class sizes where it can be difficult to help students one on one if they do not understand something. When asked on a scale from one (low stress) to ten (high stress) how stressful their job was, one GEP professor from UWSP said “10+. As large as it’s been in 9 years” (Buchanan).
Clearly this shows that our GEP system can be improved upon so professors are not burdened with so many classes and responsibilities. It also makes it difficult to have good class discussions that broaden perspectives, critical thinking skills, and give the opportunity for reflection and exploration when there are too many students in a class (Arnold 48). If students have a genuine interest for what they are learning in a class, it can be easier for them to absorb the material that the professor is trying to teach. For example, a student majoring in biology would likely be more interested in writing an essay about animals or plants than on a historical event. When professors see student’s interest, it can be easier for them to help the student succeed because they can see the student cares about what they are learning. That is how an integrated GEP program could benefit both the students and GEP professors.
Plus, when students succeed, the institution reaches its goals of producing well-rounded, responsible adults. Since most of the faculty enjoy teaching students who they know have a passion for what they are learning, they have the potential to form closer bonds with them. This can lead to more fun research projects and other hands on field trips that give the student valuable skills they can take to their career. This kind of interaction is more unlikely amongst large scale general courses because the students are mostly just trying to get the class “out of the way” and don’t care about the actual material; and the professors know that. It’s harder for the professors to feel motivated to teach students who don’t share their same interests, nor respect them or their class.
If classes were to be integrated with both students’ interests and required course values, both the students and the faculty would have peace of mind knowing that there is mutual respect and passion for what they are studying/ teaching. When asked about the current GEP curriculum, UWSP assistant professor of education Kym Buchanan noted, “In both my FYS [freshman first year seminar] and my Arts courses, the GEP provided clear outcomes. This greatly simplifies designing curriculum and assessment. I like knowing that my courses are fitting smoothly into a larger learning experience.” While our current system makes it easy to evaluate student success, the new integrated program would also make it simple to see results due to the increased amount of student interest and smaller class sizes.
Plus, professors would be able to clearly see their positive teaching effects on students as they grow in their majors. If the university were to lose some funding, due to the proposed budget cuts, having fewer classes with combined curriculums would also save a significant amount of money. Professors from different classes could work together to combine the values of each of their classes into one integrated course. For example, faculty from the biology department could work with faculty from the English department to develop a “biology English” course for English majors that would give them a taste of biology, or other science curriculum by writing about it.
This could prepare the English majors for careers in fields such as journaling about environmental/biological topics, and enrich their basic knowledge of the sciences while still in the English major. Students would get more one on one time with their professors because class sizes would not be as big and general as they are today and professors would be more willing to help foster new ideas and talents in students they have a closer connection to interest-wise. Although the diversity of student interests may be slightly sheltered by only taking courses related to their major, there are plenty of great opportunities on campus for students to meet others with different tastes such as through sports, clubs, or other extracurricular activities.
In fact these kinds of interactions would further encourage new values, perspectives and social conversation in students by meeting new people from other interest groups. Similar to the way we benefit from having discussions in class, we can also learn a lot outside of the classroom simply by learning new ideas and viewpoints from others with different interest groups. By looking at how other institutions have developed their GEP programs, and nurtured student growth, we can discover new methods and perspectives that work toward success. The following schools all have unique ways for providing their students with an integrated GEP program that works smoothly to integrate students interests (for their major) within other courses or experiences.
In London, class sizes tend to be smaller, and taught by British professors who prefer essay tests and projects to multiple-choice exams (Carroll 54). These kinds of examinations force the student to think critically and develop their own opinions about a topic, which are great qualities to have as a professional in any field of study. We are told over and over that the job market is getting harder and harder to jump into. Because more students are able to go to college these days with financial aid options, employers are narrowing their searches and looking for students who have both gotten a lot of hands on experience ahead of time, and know how to think critically for themselves and make important decisions (Pagel).
Inquiry and critical thinking, communication, diversity of human experience, and social responsibility and ethical values are four goals that Portland State University strives to provide its students within their GEP program (Gabelnick 165). It offers community-based learning experiments and requires students to record their achievements in portfolios in which they can later use to develop strong resumes. If we applied these principles to the GEP program at UWSP, it could help students make a “road map” for themselves to look at their academic successes/qualities and help them develop a strong job application. Jerry Gaff, a founding director of the Association of American Colleges and Universities noted that “many of the skills required in general education need sustained practice and should be an integral part of the work in the major… [this] kind of interdisciplinary perspective and breadth that general education attempts to foster may become more meaningful as a student progresses” (Smith 164).
Many colleges have begun to realize this actualization and see the benefits of infusing general and liberal educations together into one. And as Gaff pointed out, sustained practice is important, so some schools have went above and beyond, developing all four-year GEP programs. One institution in particular that offers students a four-year GEP program is called Wagner College, located in Staten Island, NY. The program is called “Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts.” In this program, the focus is on learning communities (small groups of students and faculty who share the same academic goals and values) as well as experiential and community-based learning.
Students are encouraged to span their learning outside the classroom with the help of faculty and other members of their community,” resulting in integrated learning within their studies (Smith 166). The dean of enrollment and advising at Wagner College, Ann Goodsell Love, declares that these learning communities can be very helpful for students coming in who are very narrow minded about their future profession by giving them a larger perspective on life, seeing courses in a more integrated way (Smith 166). While these are only a few examples of other introductory level programs, UWSP could benefit by adopting some of these ideas and values into its own program to focus more on integration of student interests and academic skills into the major.
Since people’s opinions and attitudes about certain topics can change over time, a four year, GEP-major-based curriculum would allow both students and professors worldly views to grow and be influenced by other’s perspectives. “Students’ worldviews certainly change over four years but a composition course is just one small point of transition that may or may not reinforce student’s previous beliefs or contribute to changing them” says Carroll (72). Being able to be open to new ideas from others helps us learn new view points and develop as individuals, whether our personal views change based on those discussions, or not. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education” (King).
These words from Martin Luther King, Jr. effectively illustrate the importance of critical thinking and writing skills with professional knowledge from a generally and liberally integrated education. College should be a place for fun, interest-filled learning outcomes, not dreaded, and cramped general education courses students are forced to drag through. Both considerable time and money is saved when general education values such as critical thinking skills and decision making skills are integrated into major-related courses.
Every student wants to get the most out of their college experience, and needs intelligent, willing professors to help guide their journey through it. When professors can see their positive teaching effects on students, it is so rewarding for not only them, but for the prospering student as well. By adopting some of the techniques from other successful institutions such as Portland State University or Wagner College’s four-year span program, UWSP has the potential to develop a strong, economically efficient system for both faculty and students to benefit from. Ultimately, students will be prepared to carry out their fullest potential in an ever-changing world of glorious opportunities.
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