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Curricular and Pedagogical Issues in General Education

By Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Ph.D.

Rhode Island College reformed its General Education program and moved ahead of the curve in 1996. With an innovative approach to curriculum General Education 2000 balanced the study of the Western and non-Western worlds in the Core curriculum, and emphasized classroom pedagogy focusing on the skills of intensive writing and critical thinking. Evaluation of the program was launched two years after its introduction and a campus wide dialogue about the changes has been sustained, including substantial student and faculty input. The process, goals of the reforms, as well as the evaluation of the new General Education program are discussed critically in this essay.

Fundamental reform in the General Education program at Rhode Island College was instituted in 1996 with elements that both altered the curriculum in structure and content, and reinvigorated discussion and debate on campus about pedagogy. Renamed the “General Education 2000” program, appropriate to the new millennium, the new Core curriculum introduced a Core-Distribution model of General Education that balanced study of the non-Western world with the West under its title “Cultural Legacies and Critical Thinking.” The study of Western literature and history in the Core curriculum (Cores 1 and 2) reduced the required number of courses from four to two and requisite hours from twelve to eight. The pedagogy emphasized in these courses shifted from “surveys” emphasizing “coverage” of the literature and history of western civilization to thematic approaches and the process of studying the West. Five distribution areas were also included: Social and Behavioral Sciences; Visual and Performing Arts; Laboratory Science; Mathematics Category; Additional Science or Math category.

The most dramatic aspect of the curriculum reform was the innovation of incorporating the study of non-Western cultures together with the comparative examination of Western and non-Western societies into the Core curriculum (Cores 3 and 4). Unlike other campuses across the region and nation that have engaged in the “culture wars” as they attempted to revise their curricula, Rhode Island College managed this change within a milieu of collegiality and mutual respect. Although differences were frankly acknowledged and debate was often drawn along sharp lines, there was nonetheless a consensus that internationalizing and globalizing the general education curriculum was the right thing to do as the college anticipated the dawn of the 21st century. A one course non-Western requirement in the prior General Education program helped to pave the way for the more fundamental reform, but the diversity of background and interests of the faculty who crafted the program was decisive, along with critical high-level academic leadership.

While the Western literature and history courses were revisions of established courses, the non-Western and comparative courses generated for the GE2000 program were all entirely new created especially for general education. Over 60 new Core 3 and Core 4 courses have been approved since 1996. The culture areas of the Core 3 courses span the global regions of Africa, South America and the Caribbean, and Asia while the array of subject matter for the comparative Core 4 courses is diverse and of contemporary relevance. The Core 4 courses—of necessity, comparative and critical—are among the most popular courses on campus, and are often in demand as electives.

Some titles that reflect the diversity of course offerings in Cores 3 and 4 include a series of new non-Western literature and history courses offered by the English and History departments, such as several “Perspectives” classes--on India, East Asia, Africa, Muslim World, Amerindian Peasants. Another set of new courses in non-Western music, sociology, political science, African and Afro-American, women’s studies, and film studies were developed specifically to tell the stories of these cultures on their own terms, such as “Cinema and popular culture in East Asia” or “Afro-Brazilian Cinema.” New Asian and Native American philosophy courses were also developed. Anthropology courses on the Middle East, West and southern Africa, North and South American indigenous peoples--specifically US American Indians, Mayan and Yanomami cultures, the Caribbean, and New Guinea were carried forward and modified from the previous General Education one course “non-Western” requirement. The method employed to be used in all of these courses is to employ native voices and indigenous writers as much as possible to faithfully reflect the lives of non-Western peoples.

The comparative Core 4 courses have been among the most popular including a series entitled “Intercultural Encounters” that deal with subjects such as social-historical encounters between “Judaism, Christianity and Islam” and “Arab-Islamic Culture and the West,” and “Religious Resurgence and Democracy,” while various “Global” course-- “Global Competition,” also “Environment” “Hunger,” “the World’s Children,” “Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples,” the state of women in the world in “Unequal Sisters,” as well as courses that compare music and socialization traditions in Africa and African-American society. The program has been much admired and praised outside of the college, within the state and in the New England region.

How did RIC take an ordinary distribution model General Education program and turn it into a leader in general education? The answer is both political and curricular, and is worth reviewing in the current atmosphere of fiscal austerity. In 1995 a directive to streamline the bloated general education from 40+ hours to 34-36 hours was given by the president to the vice-president for academic affairs and the Committee on General Education (COGE). Vice-president John Salesses and COGE took this mandate as an opportunity, and over the next two years of discussion and debate a new curriculum was created built upon new goals and skills that guided the process. These goals and skills include the following:

GOALS: persuasive speaking; critical analysis and synthesis; receptive listening; clear and rhetorically informed writing; critical and engaged reading; applications of technology

SKILLS: quantitative concepts and methods; global historical perspectives; cultural diversity; philosophical, ethical, and moral issues; society; literary and artistic thought and expression; scientific understanding

Led by Dr. David Thomas, then Chair of COGE, a revised and reformed general education program emerged constructed by members of COGE with input from other faculty. The impetus for the reforms was primarily curricular, but complementary focus on pedagogy utilizing the goals of GE2000 was also strongly endorsed.

In the initial years of the new GE2000 program, the twin pedagogical engines of intensive writing and critical thinking were emphasized in syllabus development and teaching of the core curriculum. Instructors were encouraged to increase the number and vary the types of writing assignments in the core courses. The result was that within the first two to four years of the program’s implementation the traditional, single assignment of the end of the term paper had all but disappeared from general education teaching. A variety of writing assignments, such as non graded “free writes,” and responsive writing assignments, as well as term papers, perhaps written in drafts, began to replace the one time semester paper for which there was often little feedback for the student or opportunity to re-write. In the revised western History course, the use of primary documents for reading and response, and an emphasis on drafts and re-writes of papers became standard pedagogy. Faculty Focus groups with instructors in these courses conducted by COGE members indicated that, within two years of the implementation of the GE2000 program, objective exams with true and false and multiple choice questions had fallen into general disuse replaced by more active, engaged critical writing essay formats. In the Western literature courses, a retreat from the survey approach of previous years allowed choice of fewer representative works with a focus on themes that were intended to be compatible with many of the themes developed for teaching the western History course. The original intent of coordinating the themes, possibly even using the same texts to be examined from different historical and literary perspectives in Cores 1 and 2, is a goal that is still not realized, and is in need of review in the future. The Honors Program’s general education special courses, with smaller class sizes, apparently engage in more coordination among the core courses, probably constituting a better practice. The survey approach of the old model of ‘covering’ Western history in two semesters is still a source of frustration and is not entirely abandoned by some instructors. New approaches that have been discussed include the more intensive examination of specific time periods, such as the Enlightenment, or the Victorian-colonial era and of the use of primary texts in literature and history to understand these periods in more complex ways involving concepts of gender, race, and class and an understanding of how history as a process is generated.

In the focus groups many faculty expressed enthusiasm for the content and pedagogical changes that have attended the development and implementation of the GE2000 program, but as many lament the poor preparation of incoming RIC students for the enriched curriculum and enriched pedagogical approaches.

COGE Evaluation and Implications for Pedagogy

Between 1998 and 2001 COGE engaged in an evaluation of the pedagogical goals of intensive writing and critical thinking by conducting surveys of over 700 students in Cores 1, 2,3, and 4, as well as over a dozen focus groups with faculty and students involved with the courses. The focus groups were conducted by members of COGE and faculty teaching in the Core curriculum volunteered to conduct the student surveys at the end of each of the six semesters of the evaluation period. The quantitative and qualitative data generated has yielded a very good basic understanding of the attitudes of students and faculty toward this new curriculum and pedagogy.

The student survey focused primarily upon writing and critical thinking, and little upon matters of course content and no evaluation of instructor performance. Not surprisingly, overwhelmingly students report that it is “very important” to them to know how to write well and think critically. It is useful for faculty to keep these clear sentiments in mind as we strive to ensure coverage and content in our courses, especially in the foundation courses in general education and the disciplines. With respect to writing, the good news is that students want to learn to write better, however the less than good news is that only 61 of 710 respondents indicated that their writing improved “very much” in the core course they were taking. However, 493 indicated that their writing improved “somewhat” while 199 reported that their writing did not improve at all. Of those who reported that their writing improved “very much” or “somewhat” (N =554) the types of assignments that students saw as improving their included in order of frequency were:

1) formal writing assignments, a clear first place [length specified as more than 5 pages in length, but other features, such as format, style, number and kind of references was unspecified]

2) responsive writing, a strong second

3) rewrites of formal papers

4) essay exams

5) non graded “free writes”

6) journal writing (these latter two tied for last place).

With respect to critical thinking significant differences were reported in the survey with students apparently better able to evaluate their progress in this skill. In response to the question “This course improved my ability to think critically,” students reported improvement in this skill at “very much” in numbers more than three times greater than they reported comparable improvement in their writing (N =190 of 710 compared to N= 61 of 710). The “Somewhat” improved response was also high (456), although slightly lower than the comparable response to writing improvement (493). The ‘no improvement’ response was significantly lower at 66 as compared with 199 for the writing question. Of the overwhelming majority of students who reported that their critical thinking had improved ‘very much’ or ‘somewhat’ (646 of 710), they indicated that the following features of the core courses improved their critical thinking, in order of frequency were:

1-2) Lectures by the professor and writing assignments tie for first place at N=404 and 402, respectively

3) reading assignments

4) class dialogue

5) videos and films

6) focused small group discussions

7) student presentations

8) exams.

Focus groups with faculty and students corroborate these figures indicating a high degree of enthusiasm by students for the content and new learning that occurs, especially in Cores 3 and 4. Satisfaction expressed by faculty in these courses is that they are able successfully to address matters in a more critical and complex fashion by elevating critical thinking to a specific goal in the course. The enthusiasm for writing assignments as a factor enhancing their critical thinking probably reflects this involvement with refreshing, new material. However, as mentioned above, focus groups with students and faculty in Cores 1 and 2 indicate frustration by faculty with coverage and poor preparation of students, while students complain of not receiving enough new material or fresh approaches, especially in Western history. However, students did express enthusiasm for the responsive writing assignments, and prefer the opportunity to re-write their major papers.

Discussion

It is clear from COGE’s preliminary evaluation results that pedagogical improvement in critical thinking may be easier to achieve than improvement in writing as a skill. Of course, both writing and critical thinking are complex cognitive, behavioral, and educational processes, and neither the survey by COGE and focus group discussions nor this initial analysis are meant to simplify or over generalize these. However, as we are called upon by NEASC and other accrediting bodies to become more accountable for students’ outcomes in higher education learning processes, we need to examine objectively and critically our curriculum and pedagogy. The RIC Committee on General Education is currently working with the Committee on Assessment of Student Outcomes to develop specific desired outcomes from the Goals and Skills of the GE 2000 program, that have been developed, but not as yet fully implemented. In the fall of 2002 we are beginning to evaluate and assess the progress of students as they move through the Core Curriculum, comparing the writing and critical thinking of students in Cores 1 and 2 with those in Cores 3 and 4.

Unlike other general education programs in New England that are skills driven, the General Education 2000 program at RIC has been more content driven, especially in its Core Curriculum, and is recognized as having moved “ahead of the curve” for its mainstreaming of non-Western and comparative studies in the core. This reform was facilitated by a non-Western, one course requirement in the previous general education distribution model curriculum that was instituted in 1981. The University of Rhode Island has just approved in 2001 a facsimile of this former requirement with its new ‘Foreign Language/Cross-cultural competence,” although the category is not defined as non-western languages and cultures. The content base of GE 2000 remains strong, as an average of three to five new courses in these areas are approved in each academic year since inauguration of the program in 1996. Students tell us that they still learn the most from their professors’ lectures and the assigned readings, and they say they learn how to write better through research and responsive papers, and through drafts and re-writes. COGE has added to the pedagogical agenda the importance of beginning to implement its goal of “persuasive speaking,” and some instructors make this a formal part of core courses. As reported in the survey, the value placed upon class dialogue, student presentations, and focused small group discussions and their regular use by instructors indicate a desire on the part of students and a commitment by professors to improve public speaking as a goal of general education through the vehicle of interesting course material.

During this past academic year COGE engaged with the Curriculum Committee and other campus constituencies in a discussion of “liberal education” with its emphasis on student choice and experimentation with courses and disciplines outside of their major. A tentative recommendation might be made that the campus professional programs consider a reduction in their required number of hours (perhaps to be capped at 60 hours) in order to permit students this measure of sampling other fields and experiencing the joy of discovery essential to liberal higher education. Many students experience some of this enriched “good stuff” in the present general education Core curriculum and Distribution requirements. The lesson to be drawn is that excellence in course content and pedagogy should never be opposed to one another in and either/or equation, and that probably the best learning takes place when relevant pedagogy is seamlessly incorporated with engaging course subject matter. To the degree that general education can “frontload” this approach in the first two years of undergraduate education means better outcomes later as a student specializes. In the end this translates into a valued outcome of public higher education itself, a well-prepared citizen of the state, nation, and world.

(1) The document “Summary of Data from COGE Student Survey Evaluating General Education Core Courses – 1999-2001” is available by request from the Chair of General Education, currently Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Professor of Anthropology, ext. 8006; cfluehr@ric.edu.

Copyright © 2002 Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Ph.D.

Curricular and Pedagogical Issues in General Education, Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.

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Page last updated: March 15, 2006