Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Highlighting Relevance in College General Education Courses


“Why do I have to take this course?”

It’s a question American college students have asked for decades, as freshmen huddle in large lecture halls for courses with a 101 in the title wondering when they’ll ever get to classes that actually have something to do with their majors.

Many will drop out before they ever get there.

“Students often don’t understand why they’re being asked to take a lot of courses outside their major,” said Debra Humphreys, a senior vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. At most institutions, general education courses cover 42 to 45 credits, or about one-third of what students are required to take during their college career, she said. And while educators can appreciate the importance of a well-rounded, interdisciplinary education, STEM-minded students may fail to see the relevance of a history or literature class.

How colleges and universities can better highlight the relevance of those classes was the focus of a discussion about reforms to general education during a recent Education Writers Association conference on college readiness in Los Angeles.

“When you can highlight the relevance, you get the persistence,” said Ken O’Donnell, senior director of student engagement in the California State University chancellor’s office, who joined Humphreys and Ellen Treanor of Southern Utah University on a panel that was moderated by Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik. “You close those achievement gaps.”

The CSU system’s Chico campus developed a “Pathways” approach to general education that groups courses into subject areas, such as international studies or health and wellness, and allows students to select which Pathway they’d like to pursue. Students who complete a Pathway earn a certificate or minor in that area.

The model has caught on at other campuses, including a community college near CSU-Northridge looking to smooth the student transfer experience between schools.

Also experimenting with an innovative approach is Southern Utah University in Cedar City, where freshmen take all of their general education courses in two semesters through the Jumpstart GE program that began last fall. Classes across all subject areas focus on a common theme, and students are taught in cohorts by eight different professors. They also participate in field trips — like the latest one to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — that take them far from the classroom.

Treanor said the structure of the program has facilitated interdisciplinary learning students likely would not have experienced in a traditional general education format. For example, a Jumpstart English professor teaching “Middlesex,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an intersex man, collaborated with psychology and biology professors to teach students about the book through more than just a literary lens.

This practice of not teaching things in isolation helps students start to understand, “OK, I’m being required to take science, but not because they’re trying to make me jump through some hoop,” said Humphreys.

So how can reporters tell if institutions are doing general education — whether in 500-person lecture halls or self-contained programs — well?

The key, panelists agreed, is through establishing clear learning objectives and tying content taught in class to an institutional mission.

But O’Donnell said it’s the students who could answer that question the best, adding, “If they know why they’re learning this…then they’re doing a good job.”