Your General Education Program: Is It Time for a Redesign? Part 2

In a previous post, I wrote about how to assess your general education program. After you’ve gathered data on your current program, you can make decisions about what you have, what you need, and what you’d like to change. You can also determine if you really need to redesign your program with new goals and a different structure, or simply rebrand and reintroduce it to campus. Whichever way you go, there are a few things that are essential to consider.

The message

The intention of your general education program should be obvious; the goals and outcomes should be stated in all your materials and support resources. Your website, catalog, and marketing materials should explain the reasons why students need and will benefit from the general education offered at your campus—what they will learn and how they will change because of the well-designed path you have drawn for them.

If your materials miss the mark, there are two possible explanations. Perhaps the important details exist, but the message isn’t there. It’s also possible that the group of people charged with creating the mission and learning goals inadvertently forgot to inform other stakeholders.

Either scenario makes the case for rebranding.

Focusing on course and co-curricular requirements can quickly devolve into a check-the-box exercise. If you feel you have all the necessary program elements in place, but are disappointed by how the program is discussed and approached within your campus culture, try rebranding around outcomes. Outcomes answer why questions—why am I at this institution, why am I in this office, why is this class important?, etc. Rebrand your program around the why instead of the what or how. Also, when you focus on outcomes, conversations between advisors and students can become an exploration of historical perspectives, cultural awareness, and critical thinking goals in various situations. This is in stark contrast to a superficial “you need to take HIS 101 to meet your humanities requirement” mindset.

If you conducted focus groups, your response data can help structure your rebranding message. Highlight positive experiences, stories, and personal quotes from alumni about what they learned and how it’s benefiting them now.

If you have no evidence of purpose and no one in the room can clearly articulate it, don’t panic. Instead, consider this as an opportunity for a program redesign. Goals and outcomes communicate why a student is participating in the program. They signal the value of the program to all stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, alumni/donors, community members, employers. A program without a set of clear outcomes is a random assortment of experiences—with no clear purpose or direction.

When redesigning a learning experience, begin with outcomes, or you’ll risk missing your intent.

The assessment

You may or may not have collected learning data in your initial assessment. If you haven’t, you should. If you can’t, you should make a plan to do it. Critics and skeptics of higher education claim there is diminishing value to higher education degree. I don’t agree, but I do think higher education professionals should be able to demonstrate impact and produce evidence of the work being done. Again, I go back to intentions. Learning outcomes indicate why your students are participating in a program; learning outcomes data can show that it worked.

When rebranding, use learning outcomes data to show new and prospective students how they will change and grow. For example, your website could include a message like this:

University students met 84% of criteria in problem-solving activities delivered through rigorous coursework, community engagement opportunities, and fine art projects. Find your path to learning that works for you by speaking with your advisor today.

If your campuses doesn’t have learning data or an assessment structure to collect and share results, it is a sign to redesign. Clear goals and outcomes communicate why a program is unique and important; assessment plans provide a structure for determining if it’s actually working.

Assessment isn’t limited to learning, but should start with it. Once you have clear outcomes, establish what types of metrics you’ll need to measure them. Choose authentic and manageable methods that will give you evidence of what and how students learn.

Students are too often left out of processes designed for them. Find ways to include students in the redesign process. Ask them what their learning assessment experiences have been. Which ones have helped them learn more? Which have felt like a waste of time? There is wisdom in a seemingly naïve question. More to the point, eliminating students’ perspectives in the design process is a lost opportunity to see a project with fresh eyes.

The opportunities

Interpreting the inventory of learning opportunities and enrollment trends also depends on understanding the goals and outcomes of a program. A traditional liberal arts program may focus on course choice within the standard disciplines. Enrollment trends can help you see if you are providing ample options to meet student interests, showcase a variety of instructors, and accommodate scheduling. All of these can impact the ability to graduate on time.

A popular course may be popular because it has a stellar teacher and engaging ways to learn new things. If this is the case, enrollment will be high, and learning data will be positive. You’ll also know you have a successful practitioner on your campus—someone who can share ideas and tips with others as part of a professional development or teaching and learning program.

On the other hand, low enrollment doesn’t necessarily mean a bad teacher or an absence of learning. Rebranding means looking at low enrollment courses and finding out what small things can be changed to make them successful. If learning data is sparse but positive, it probably means the course is worthwhile but perhaps unrecognized. In your rebranding efforts, try highlighting the department or the instructor in places where students will see this information when making choices about their courses. It’s also important for colleagues to see the information when advising students on what courses to take.

As campuses move away from cafeteria-style programs, it is becoming more and more common to offer an applied or integrated learning project as part of their general education programs. If you are considering an addition like this, you are likely entering into a redesign project.

I am a huge fan of incorporating outside-the-classroom experiences into general education program. Can we ever develop knowledge or hone a skill without the opportunity to do so in the context of a real-life experience? Integrated learning activities are also a great way to include staff and students in the development and delivery of learning experiences, making the program holistic and community-based. Doing so means we have to offer thoughtful programs and learning opportunities with clear objectives and outcomes.

Learning outcomes are as essential for applied experience as they are for the classroom. They help students make connections between courses and life. They also reveal a clear path between learning experiences that can assist in the advising process. AAC&U reports 66% of campuses link their gen-ed requirement to outcomes. Imagine the time and resources that could be saved at the other 34% of institutions if they could demonstrate effectiveness through defined outcomes and methods for measurement?

Campuses often make the mistake of starting with the things students should do (e.g., courses, projects, etc.) and launching the program before a good outcomes assessment plan is in place. That leaves them stuck with a long list of requirements but no objective criteria to confirm if those requirements have any effect on anything. Once you know what your program is about and how you’ll measure its effectiveness, you can work out the details. If you’re torn about how and where to start, high-impact practices (HIPs) offer proven methodologies for impacting student success.

The value

The most important aspect of any program, of course, is its value. This value should be represented in the message, outcomes, and opportunities, and it should be openly supported through assessment processes.

In fact, all the data you used to establish your path to rebranding or redesigning should reveal, or potentially reveal, the value of your program. No one wants to waste time and energy on a program that has zero impact, and you can’t show impact without evidence. Transparency about the intent of a program helps students, faculty, and staff identify and exemplify why the time and resources dedicated to a general education are worth it.

For example, if your program is utilitarian—intended to prepare students for civic and business life—there should be service, graduation, and employment data to support its practical value. Similarly, classical curricula should create evidence of change in students’ learning and development in the areas highlighted in the program.

Establishing and proving value are imperative in both rebranding and redesigning scenarios. In a rebrand, you can use the examples of value you may have discovered in your initial assessment of the program:

In a redesign, be deliberate about setting up ways to capture all the good stuff you can use to keep the program strong and vital.

Whether you decide to rebrand or redesign, using data before, during, and after the process is essential. Students will enter the program informed and excited about what they are about to learn. Faculty and staff will be energized and fulfilled by their contribution to a meaningful endeavor. So try not to be overwhelmed or preemptively exhausted by rethinking your general education program. Instead, rest assured your campus is already doing important work and you are part of a process that reveals the value and meaning of a general education.

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Shannon LaCount

Assistant Vice President, Campus Adoption | Campus Labs

Dr. Shannon LaCount is Assistant Vice President, Campus Adoption. Her career in higher education before joining Campus Labs includes eight years of teaching experience as a clinical and classroom professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders and five years as Director of Student Learning Assessment at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), where she led a campus-wide assessment process for academic departments and student life programs. She has also participated in advising events and undergraduate research at UMD, as well as consultations and professional development events as a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Wabash College Center of Inquiry. She has a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University at Buffalo and a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota.