The Value of GE or the Answer to "Why Do I Need to Take This Class?"

September
2012
Beth Smith, Vice President

In the past only students seemed to ask about the value of a class that they were taking. Some asked innocently, while others somewhat antagonistically, and challenged a teacher to explain why a given class was required or important. Today not just students but also people beyond the perimeter of the campus are questioning why some courses are included in general education (GE), whether the class in question is art history, algebra, anthropology, or from another discipline. In fact, some people within the college family may not realize or understand why GE is essential for all college graduates and why that fact remains especially true today. Since community college faculty mostly teach general education courses, we must be able to articulate not only why our own course is important but also how it fits within the whole of GE at the college and why GE is important. We cannot fend off the inquiries from off campus until we, as faculty, can convincingly describe the value of GE.

This quick exercise may help to put GE in perspective: Think of all the skills you have needed for the various jobs or roles you have held in your life and eliminate all the ones tied to your major or discipline. Skills that come to mind might include technological abilities, writing, organizing, prioritizing, working alone and together, understanding complicated documents such as a human resources manual, a ballot, or a medical prescription, parenting, patience, communicating with someone from another place, planning a sprinkler system, navigating workplace cultures, and so on. Now think about where you learned these skills. In many cases, the answer may well be that you learned them in a general education class. For another exercise, think of three skills you obtained in your GE classes that you routinely use today. I remember a food-science preparation course, one about folklore of the Great Plains, and a biology class that continue to influence decisions that I make about my life. Of all the GE courses I took, I use Spanish the most, though I enjoyed music appreciation the most.

Other exercises might also help to remind us of why our own experiences as students in general education courses were valuable. Because I teach mathematics, I will use it in the following example. Write a list of some key words from mathematics that students and colleagues use every day and without which understanding other disciplines becomes more challenging. The following words all originate from the study of math: symmetry, graph, radius, dependent, function, system, factor, variable, parallel, rate, equivalent, elliptical, spherical, volume, dimension, independent, linear, and proportional. Many faculty members from other disciplines use these words in their every-day lectures, and they often do so without thinking because they expect students to know and use a college-level vocabulary, and often they expect students to understand the mathematical definition and application of these words. Teachers of art, political science, geography, and many other subjects use "radius" within the context of their disciplines. The mathematics courses that students take provide a foundation for them to understand the content of other courses. While many of these words may have different meanings across disciplines, the result of using the words in multiple classes is that student learning is reinforced and students begin to build understanding for what they have learned in one class and how to apply it in another.

All of us know implicitly the value of our courses in the curriculum in general and to students specifically, but we must be able to articulate that value. How does one answer a student who asks, "why do I need to take this class?" When teaching a class specifically for students majoring in that field, the answers are different than if the course is a GE course. If we answer, "because it is good for you to know xxxxx" or "you are the one who wanted an education" or "because this class is a prerequisite for others," then we are missing a great opportunity to help students understand how one course links to other courses, skills in the workplace, or applications in roles outside of school and work. Discipline faculty can have a conversation about appropriate answers to this common question from students. Answers to the question would fit nicely into program review. Academic senates can have a similar discussion. Imagine the powerful message to students if faculty in every class provided parallel responses to questions about why a course is important for a general education or valuable for lifelong learning.

The college should already be of a like mind when it comes to the value of GE because of adopted GE or institutional student learning outcomes (SLOs). These SLOs communicate to students and others what the college community believes is important for students to know and be able to do upon completion of a GE pattern. Because many of our colleges encourage students to complete the CSU—GE Breadth pattern of GE, faculty may be interested in what CSU believes students gain from completion of those 39 units. The CSU adopted the Association for America's Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) essential outcomes for its GE program in 2008 (CSU Executive Order 1033):

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

  • ww Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring”

 

Intellectual and Practical Skills, Including

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance”

 

Personal and Social Responsibility, Including

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges”

 

Integrative and Applied Learning, Including

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

“Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems”

 

Because our courses articulate with CSU courses for general education, community colleges are expected to produce the LEAP outcomes too. Colleges can check their local GE or institutional outcomes and see if they align with these outcomes. Given the great work by faculty to fully participate in SLO creation and assessment, the match between CSU's desired results for students and those from our colleges should be remarkably close.

CSU goes further by looking for high impact teaching practices from which students can realize these outcomes. Community service learning, learning communities, and thematic GE patterns are all part of the equation for CSU, and community colleges incorporate many of these same strategies already. Themes within a GE pattern may not have crossed the desks of many community college faculty yet, but curriculum committees and senates may want to discuss the pros and cons of such options for students. Some of the more likely themes include sustainability, globalization, and civility, though there are many others. Other colleges invite a theme according to particular piece of literature, such as "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot. With literature as a theme, the entire faculty has an opportunity to incorporate aspects of the book into their individual syllabi for the class. Then, at the end of the year, faculty can share how they integrated the literature into their classes and analyze the results for an overall measure of success and improvement for the following year.

Faculty should also be mindful of the Title 5 §55061(a) regulations that address the value of the associate degree but, most importantly, convey the philosophy behind a strong GE program:

 

...The awarding of an Associate Degree is intended to represent more than an accumulation of units. It is to symbolize a successful attempt on the part of the college to lead students through patterns of learning experiences designed to develop certain capabilities and insights. Among these are the ability to think and to communicate clearly and effectively both orally and in writing; to use mathematics; to understand the modes of inquiry of the major disciplines; to be aware of other cultures and times; to achieve insights gained through experience in thinking about ethical problems; and to develop the capacity for self-understanding... General Education is designed to introduce students to the variety of means through which people comprehend the modern world. It reflects the conviction of colleges that those who receive their degrees must possess in common certain basic principles, concepts and methodologies both unique to and shared by the various disciplines... It is also desirable that general education programs involve students actively in examining values inherent in proposed solutions to major social problems.

 

Faculty have many ways to answer the question "why do I need to take this class?" such that a student is connected to learning throughout the college as well as the workplace and life. General education or institutional outcomes provide reasons that the college believes the course is important, Title 5 provides philosophy on the value of GE, and discipline faculty can speak with one another about how a course serves the purpose of providing a general education for students. Local senates can review outcomes and processes, such as program review, to ensure that faculty are armed with good reasons that courses serve to broaden "certain insights and capabilities" for students. As a start to these discussions, faculty can try the exercises included here with colleagues and then try them with their students.

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