My thanks to Kathy for getting the conversation on how GEMs principles are enacted on our campuses started. I love the idea of threaded courses. We have a first year program on our campus that is based on integrating a set of general education courses around a theme. About 80 incoming freshmen experience Integrated Studies and I wish we could provide that opportunity for more of our students. One of the big challenges for us as a medium-sized (almost 15,000 students) state university is taking good practice to scale.
In choosing a principle that I think the University of North Dakota has done well with the fifth, “Transparency and Assessment,” was the most obvious to me. The principle states:
Students, faculty members, and other stakeholders should understand what proficiencies are being developed in any general education program, course or activity, and how these proficiencies can be demonstrated at key milestones in the students’ progress towards the degree. Students and institutions should be able to point to students’ work, especially their “Signature Work” in problem- and project-based inquiry, as demonstrations of proficiency worthy of credit across institutional settings and as a body of work associated with earning a degree.
My immediate thought? This sets a high bar. There are a lot of challenges involved in its full implementation (and this is true of all of the GEMs principles). For example, on our campus we have done pretty well with students, faculty, advisors, and academic staff understanding our general education (“Essential Studies” or ES) proficiencies but I don’t think we have done so well with other stakeholders—especially parents and members of the state legislature. We really need to work on community outreach too. On one hand, I think we do a good job of getting the message to students about what proficiency a given class addresses. But on the other, we are not consistently asking them to demonstrate those proficiencies at key milestones. We do ask them to demonstrate proficiency in the required ES capstone—what you could think of as “the last of the milestones”—but not along the way in any kind of consistent fashion. The principle serves to remind me that we have some good practices in place, but we have a long way to go. So while acknowledging that we need to do better, let me tell you a bit about one mechanism I think encourages and supports greater transparency and assessment around our general education program.
When we enacted our general education reform one of the useful things we carried over from the old program was a process we referred to as “validation” or “revalidation.” This was the administrative means for courses to be included in the program. Although the process had little in the way of requirements prior to the reform (often serving primarily as a check for where a course fit in the distribution requirement), it did uphold the principle that courses had to be approved by the faculty committee for inclusion. And, perhaps equally important, once included courses were reviewed regularly to make sure they should remain in the program. “Revalidation” was scheduled on a regular cycle. Much about the old process was problematic -- it was centered on content rather than on learning outcomes-- but the fact that the process was part of our campus culture was helpful. It gave us something to build on.
Our reform took place within the context of a statewide set of system requirements and transfer agreements, so we continued to operate within the distribution requirement. However, determined to get the focus onto skills and proficiencies, we articulated new student learning goals and put in place a second layer of what we called “special emphasis requirements.” These requirements ensured student learning around goals assessment data revealed to be weak spots for our graduates. The validation process kept its same edifice but now asks that faculty identify the ES goal their course addresses and how that ES goal aligns with their course goals, their use of in-class time, and any graded activities. If the course is seeking inclusion for the first time, the instructor needs to include an assessment plan (with both direct and indirect measures) that will demonstrate how well students are meeting the goal. If the course is taught by multiple instructors, the assessment plan needs to describe how they will gather data that is representative of the course as a whole. Faculty are also asked to supply the course description and syllabus, which must include a statement describing the goal sought and how it should be met in the class.
All ES courses are revalidated on a three-year cycle. When revalidations come up, faculty are asked to reevaluate their course. Does it help students intentionally study and learn the goal for which the course was validated? How do you know? Instructors are asked to share both direct and indirect evidence of student learning that demonstrates how well students are achieving (or not) the ES goal selected. They are also prompted to analyze and interpret their assessment results. What do they think this data means? How well do they think their students are learning the ES goal selected? If the course has been validation to meet an ES Special Emphasis the same procedure applies but the criteria are more intensive and more focused on the particular learning outcome for which the course is validated. The whole process is designed to generate more conversations about the new goals and evidence of student learning around them. To further encourage this members of the review committee are assigned departments to liaison with, and are tasked with helping that faculty navigate the process.
ES validation is a good example of a policy and structure that encourages transparency and assessment. When Kathy and I were discussing the GEMs principles she made an excellent point that we should think not just about how the principles are evident in our GE programs but also about how we (faculty and staff) model the principles for students. While it seems like such a basic thing to require faculty to talk about outcomes and assessment on their syllabi, it is one of the few documents (if not the only one) most faculty share with their students regarding their intentions for the course. So even this small requirement serves to send the message that we are going to be clear about why you are taking this course, the learning you should accomplish, and how we will know you have done that.
We hope that you will let us know how you see GEMs principles enacted on your campus. Feel free to start a new thread on one of the principles Kathy and I did not address, or respond to either of our posts to let us know either what you think of our reflections or to add a reflection of your own. Thanks!