Worthwhile Reform or Vain Endeavor?

One year ago, the UNC system’s general administration and Board of Governors published an ambitious set of plans for the state’s 17 public universities called Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina. One of those plans aims to revamp general education curricula. It seeks to promote core competencies like critical thinking, quantitative analysis, scientific inquiry, historical understanding, and technological literacy, and to create a student assessment system that ensures that those competencies are being taught.

Over the course of the year, however, the bold general education initiative has been watered down. This new version appears to instill no accountability on the part of universities—reform will be voluntary. Rather, it looks like university officials will be able to check-off their “to do” list without ruffling feathers or making concrete improvements.

General education coursework covers areas of knowledge deemed necessary for a student’s full development and educational refinement. Traditionally, such coursework covers writing, logic, the humanities, and other topics that are helpful to all students, regardless of their majors or career choices.

Last spring, as a byproduct of the strategic plan, the UNC general administration commissioned a new General Education Council (GEC) to explore changes to the system’s general education programs and learning outcome assessments

The system’s president, Thomas Ross, appointed faculty and administrators from each of the 17 system schools to the Council. He charged the GEC with a few heady tasks—to conduct a “comprehensive review of existing general education architecture,” to prescribe learning outcomes applicable to all of the UNC schools, and to “explore methodologies appropriate to assessing these outcomes.” So far, so good, and in line with the plans of Our Time, Our Future.

But the update given to the Board of Governors at a February 20 committee meeting revealed something different. Katharine Stewart, the general administration’s associate vice president for academic affairs and learning strategies, reported a survey of 3,000 UNC system faculty members, as well as the business community. From those surveys, she said, two skills emerged as being “bedrock competencies” crucial to student and career success: critical thinking and written communication. It’s unclear how the survey was worded to reach those results, or why the other competencies were dropped (scientific inquiry, historical and social perspective, human expression and creativity, information and technology literacy, global and cultural awareness, diversity, and citizenship). Perhaps they are just being placed on the back burner. But such goal modification certainly makes the GEC’s job less burdensome.

The GEC defines “critical thinking” as “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas and assumptions, artifacts, data, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion, hypothesis or conclusion.” The other core competency, “written communication,” is defined as “the development and expression of ideas in writing.” The definition states that “[w]ritten communication abilities develop through iterative experiences across the curriculum.”

The GEC broke those two down into smaller components. Stewart said that these smaller, more specific components of critical thinking and writing also happen to be the “most complex” skills in terms of creating helpful assessments. “We need something that is system-wide,” she said. Stewart said that while students are assessed via quizzes, tests, essays, lab exercises, and even departmental exit exams, there is no assessment that homes in on written communication and critical thinking skills acquired (or not) across multiple courses.

To that end, the GEC is working with the general administration and the board to pilot a new assessment of learning outcomes for general education curricula. Before the GEC was formed, the system had already started a project using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, one of the best-known assessments. It is currently being tested by Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. If the CLA trial run is successful, the GEC wants to incorporate that pilot into a partnership with Educational Testing Service (called the “world’s largest private, non-profit educational testing and assessment organization”). The hope is that a well-crafted assessment will help schools “dig deep” into the learning outcome data. If it works as intended, faculty can begin integrating assessment information into coursework and degree programs.

As the GEC moves forward, Stewart said the challenges are numerous. Many questions need to be answered: Who will use the test results? How can the university get a system-wide “buy-in” on the part of students (college seniors tend to be indifferent to non-GPA-related tests as graduation approaches)? When should testing take place? (After each semester? Each calendar year?) And finally, there are concerns about how test results will actually “inform instruction and improve pedagogical effectiveness.”

Thus the council has a two-pronged emphasis on assessments and redesigning general education programs. The redesign may prove to be more difficult than creating an accurate assessment.

Last November, the Pope Center produced a report criticizing UNC-Chapel Hill’s general education course offerings. Authors Jenna Ashley Robinson and Jay Schalin called the general education curriculum “incoherent” and “unstructured.” They argued that many of the more than 4,700 general education courses offered by UNC-Chapel Hill are either trendy and superficial or don’t bolster the key skills—including critical thinking and written communication—required in all degree programs and careers. Robinson and Schalin proposed a more rigorous, streamlined general education alternative consisting of 717 courses.

Although some readers were sympathetic to the report’s findings and conclusions, others were unhappy with them. These critics claimed that more course offerings are a sign of vitality for a university hoping to attract a diverse student population and prepare students for the 21st century workforce. One editorial went so far as to allege that the Pope Center opposed “freedom” and “choice” for wanting to reduce the number of courses offered.

The controversy resulting from the Pope Center report could presage a vitriolic faculty-versus-administration confrontation if major changes are made to general education guidelines and if the GEC’s assessment is made mandatory. But it’s unlikely that meaningful reforms will be made. The bold leadership required to make sweeping changes may be hard to come by, as the Pope Center’s report implied.

The Pope Center report noted that the current general education program 

reflects the control of curriculum by faculty, many of whom regard it as a means to advance their own department’s courses and even their own narrow fields of research. The inclusion or exclusion of a course in the GenEd program can influence course enrollment and thus the courses’ possible continuation or elimination.

At the educational planning committee meeting, Champion Mitchell, a first-term board member, asked Stewart and others representing the General Education Council for specifics about how the new data will be used to improve curricula. He referred to a course at UNC-Chapel Hill titled “The Folk Revival: The Singing Left in Mid-20th Century America” as one that may not adequately improve critical thinking and written communication skills. Would such a course be identified as one that needs to be changed or even eliminated?

Stewart and other GEC members didn’t provide a clear-cut answer. They said that while they couldn’t address questions about drilling down to the course level, their initiative would give universities more options when brainstorming coursework reform ideas.

Suzanne Ortega, the UNC system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, suggested that some change would occur. “Faculty members weren’t taught to create a specific exercise designed to align [competencies with coursework],” she said. “I think that if you can figure out how to trace the assessment to courses you will have some stuff exiting the core curriculum.”

In April, the GEC will give a presentation to the entire Board of Governors, and it hopes to beta-test by spring 2015. In the meantime, it will continue to consult with faculty and explore various standardized assessment techniques. We’ll have to wait to see if the GEC can meet the lofty demands outlined in Our Time, Our Future.