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Work underway to ‘transform’ general education

General Education class

A key goal of the revised general education curriculum is to prepare students to succeed in today's world. Photo: Douglas Levere

By SUE WUETCHER

Published April 24, 2014

“The majors change all the time — they revise their offerings and move with the times. Gen ed should, too.”
Andrew Stott, dean for undergraduate education

Another key element of the UB 2020 strategic plan is moving forward as the university works to restructure the general education program “to foster learning for college and for life.”

“The time for general education reform has come,” says Andrew Stott, dean for undergraduate education and chair of the General Education Committee, which is overseeing the effort, a massive undertaking involving nearly 90 faculty and staff members from across the university.

Provost Charles F. Zukoski says restructuring the gen ed program “will have impact across our campus and fundamentally transform education at UB.  A new gen ed curriculum will enrich our students’ educational experience and help prepare them to succeed in today’s world.”

A new gen ed curriculum is part of the “curricular distinction” initiative, one of the two signature initiatives —along with Communities of Excellence — to be launched from Realizing UB 2020. Stott calls a revamped general education program “one of the pillars of curricular distinction.”

The effort to revise and reinvigorate UB’s gen ed program began formally last May and builds upon a 2009 report on general education produced by a task force assembled by then-Provost Satish K. Tripathi. The group’s work is informing the current effort, Stott explains.

A preliminary gen ed plan was completed in December, Stott says, and the effort has been expanded from the original 26-member General Education Committee to a steering committee overseeing nine working groups, each focused on a specific component of the plan. The working groups now are “putting the finer points on each of these components,” Stott says, as well as addressing such issues as transfer students’ needs and the resources required for the institution to implement a new general education program.

Ezra Zubrow, professor of anthropology and chair of the Faculty Senate, notes that general education “is one of the core functions of undergraduate education and an important aspect of any first-rate research university.”

The proposed gen ed program will be reviewed and debated by several Faculty Senate committees, Zubrow says, and "will come before the full Faculty Senate for approval, most likely in the fall."

UB’s new general education program, which is expected to take effect in fall 2016 with its first class graduating in 2020, proposes several key elements:

  • Shared intellectual experiences for all students. “We want a program that all students will take and that won’t be modified depending on the major or school,” Stott says.
  • Strong foundation courses in communicative literacy, scientific inquiry and quantitative reasoning.
  • A first-year seminar, ideally taught by tenure-track faculty, that tackles conceptual problems from a disciplinary perspective while also developing critical thinking and ethical reasoning.
  • Themed clusters introducing students to themed learning built around the UB 2020 institutional themes of health, humanity, innovation, justice and environment. Students will look at different disciplines through “thematic lenses,” drawing information from different disciplinary fields and methodologies, Stott says. The idea is for students to see how those different methodologies “embrace and encapsulate the world, while retaining the flexibility of thought and critical thinking, and allowing them to take the best from each model.”
  • An integrative capstone. Throughout the program, students will be asked to reflect on their studies and draw its disparate parts together to make meaning from what they’ve taken. The aim, Stott says, is for students, irrespective of their discipline, to be able to “move across disciplinary boundaries and connect educational and experiential learning.”

One of the program’s mantras is “options, not requirements,” Stott stresses. “At this level, we value the metacognitive skills over insisting on ‘essential’ content. The old system says, you can’t be a three-dimensional being if you haven’t taken an arts, humanities, three history courses, a foreign language, math, science, that kind of thing.

“We don’t question the value of a broad education in liberal arts, but all too often the reality is that we insist on a checklist of courses that have no relationship to one another. Instead, we want students to be able to explore connections and see how one field complements another or stands in tension with it,” he says.

“We’re saying, what’s most important is critical thinking, and your ability to integrate and articulate the progress you make in your studies. Your major is there for depth, mastery and technical competence; general education should introduce you to the rich variety of disciplinary methods, while also preparing you to make sense of complexity, diversity and change as you move through your life,” he says.

Employers, Stott notes, are increasingly interested in students with the ability to adapt to different settings, who are flexible in their thinking and can pick up new skills easily — people who have a kind of “cognitive fleetfootedness” when it comes to adapting themselves to new situations.

But the most important attribute employers are seeking, he says, is the ability to communicate: Can students write well, speak well and engage their peers and other audiences?

Without some reform, Stott says, the current gen ed program “is not really set up to answer those needs.”

“The majors change all the time — they revise their offerings and move with the times. Gen ed should, too.”

Work on the plan continues, with the steering committee meeting weekly and the working groups bi-weekly. All information — meeting minutes, agendas and other documents — is shared via a SharePoint website, Stott says, so everyone involved in the process can have access to all the information.

“We’re trying to be as open and transparent as we can. Not only is this a very large undertaking, but it’s a very, very open one.”

A draft of the final plan is expected to be released to the campus community for review and feedback in mid-May. A campus-wide, town hall meeting on general education will be held in the fall.