Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gen-Ed Courses

I am so incredibly frustrated with this.

General Education Courses

At my college, students must take a total of twenty-one courses (sixty credits, plus
two to six additional credits of lab work) to fulfill their general education
requirements. A major consists of thirty to forty-eight credits. This is especially
difficult for education majors because of extensive state licensure requirements.
According to the president of my college, this number of general education credits
is unusually high when compared to other liberal arts colleges. The president also
is in favor of decreasing the volume of general education requirements in exchange
for an increase in freedom. He recognizes that some students, - whether uninterested,
under-achieving, or devoted to something else (sports, for example) - will flaunt
this freedom and not take full advantage of the various course opportunities. He says,
however, that the freedom of all should not be restrained for the irresponsibility of
the few. It sounds like he's a Libertarian at heart.

I agree. Mostly.

However, I think that a reduction of requirements (and a simultaneous increase of
freedoms) would need to be coupled with a change in mindset.

There are lots of reasons why students complain about gen-eds, but I think that none
of them get at the heart of the real issue.

Is it because gen-eds are outside of the student's major field of study? Maybe.

Is it because they are unrelated and therefore not applicable? Maybe.

Is it because gen-eds are unfamiliar and therefore more difficult? Maybe.

But probably not.

These complaints are surface symptoms of a deeper issue. Well, two deeper issues.

In short, gen-eds are too gen-ed-y.

First, it is not that they are outside of the major, unrelated/not applicable, or
unfamiliar/difficult. Gen-eds are frustrating because they are viewed as and
treated like gen-eds by the faculty and students, which results in these three
surface symptoms. This mindset influences the way faculty approaches a gen-ed to
teach and the way a student approaches a gen-ed to learn.

Gen-eds are - simply put - seen as gen-eds. They are viewed as being outside of the
major, and therefore no effort is made to relate the gen-ed material to various
other majors, which results in the increased unfamiliarity and disproportionate
difficulty of gen-ed courses.

This is a mindset issue. But yes, I do wonder how practical it would be for faculty
to draw connections between a gen-ed course and as many as thirty-seven other fields.

In the meantime, perhaps this can be overcome with a small increase in personal
effort. In order to counteract the gen-ed-i-ness of gen-eds, maybe students can
seek to draw their own connections between their field and another, seemingly
unrelated field. Maybe. One potential problem is that most gen-ed requirements are
completed during a student's first year, when major courses generally are not taken
and when many students have not yet chosen a major field of study. Additionally, the
mindset that surrounds gen-eds does not create an environment conducive to increased
personal effort, which leads us to the second deeper issue.

Second, gen-eds do not inspire personal effort because most are surrounded by a spirit
of expectation that tells students, "It's a gen-ed, it's an easy course, no sweat."
This is worrisome for a few reasons.

This mindset does not inspire personal effort, which means that students generally
are not motivated to study because they assume that they will do well in such an
easy course. Or they are not motivated to study because of the mindset that such a
gen-ed is not inherently important. There is clear evidence of this academic apathy
in that assignment and course grades in gen-eds tend to be bi-modal. This means that
grades are not normally-distributed (bell curve), but instead have two data points
that are most frequent. For example, in a bi-modal grade distribution, most students
have A's or B's AND D's and F's, while very few students have C's. I think this has
less to do with course difficulty and student knowledge and more to do with the fact
that all of the students are apathetic and approximately half of them are apathetic
about their apathy and the other approximate half are conscientious enough to look
over their notes once or twice before a test.

Even so, sometimes it is a nice break to have an easy course. However, gen-eds are
easy courses with hidden dangers. In addition to academic apathy, there is another
potential problem with easy courses.

Sometimes, easy courses are too easy and are therefore incredibly frustrating because
they are too easy to the point of being a genuine waste of time. This results in the
a phenomenon where the only motivation for going to class is to acquire attendance
and/or participation points and where the only motivation for completing homework
is to gain ten points. Such a waste of time is frustrating because the time devoted
to the course and sacrificed in going to class and completing assignments is far too
great when compared to the educational outcome.

There is too much time and not enough learning.

And, finally, this lack of academic investment leads us right back to the first
deeper issue of the mindset that gen-eds are not applicable or important to a student's
major field of study.

"I want to fix the world, but I can't."


1 comment:

Ginny Marston said...

I've always liked Gen Ed courses, but then again I've always been interested in so many different things. I think you have a point. It is attached to attitude. General education courses are key to the liberal arts experience. Gen Eds are a good way of maximizing your education and ensure you get a full liberal arts experience. Maybe people are more in college for the diploma then for the education though. I don't know. The key to doing well in general education courses, in my opinion, is embracing the idea of a liberal arts education.