Cluster General Education

I apologize for my silence for the last several weeks. The start of the semester was a particularly busy time with multiple days dedicated to chair responsibilities and University Day activities, the welcoming of new students to campus, and, of course, the start of classes. During this time, however, the cluster guides continued to work on the various aspects of the initiative. I just hadn’t been able to find the time to write about that work until now.

The President recently posted a blog entry about the impact of the cluster initiative on various aspects of PSU’s functioning. I would highly recommend reading what he has to say. I’m particularly interested in his thoughts about the First Year Seminar (FYS) and General Education (GE). I’ve been working with a group of guides, members of the GE Committee, and the Dean of the First Year Experience to discuss possible revisions to the FYS. The President recently attended one of our meetings and talked with us extensively about his vision for the entire initiative and the role that he thinks FYS (and GE) can play in achieving the goals he has in mind. In particular, he says, “A cluster-based approach to general education suggests that students take enough coursework in an area to gain a competency at a certificated level (2-4 courses) and to understand the relationship between those courses and the discipline or area they are studying.” He is really interested in helping students make the connections among all of the classes they are taking so that they can articulate those connections and actually apply their major to areas related to their GE courses or vice versa. He goes on to say, “First year seminars could then be an introduction to this integrated and engaged approach to inquiry and understanding the world around us and incorporate interdisciplinary projects and an introduction to clusters and cluster-based learning.”

When our group discussed these ideas with the President, we talked specifically about students needing support to begin to understand and “own” their educational experience so that they’re choosing their GE courses in an intentional way. Too often, students seem to see their GE courses as a checklist that they simply have to complete rather than understanding the value of those courses. As we discussed the idea of students taking ownership of their educational experience, we discussed the importance of “choice” in giving the students a sense of agency and control and, therefore, engagement in that experience.

The idea that choice or decision-making creates engagement isn’t a new one. In fact, I’ve written about this before in relation to the gamification of my classes. For example, giving students meaningful choice in how they earn points in my Creating Games class has improved their grades, which I argue is one way of measuring engagement.

But when students come to PSU, they are given little, if any, choice about their classes. We pre-schedule students into their first semester of classes and discourage them from changing that schedule because there are few seats available in other classes. We appear to give them a single choice: the choice of which question they want to investigate in their FYS. But I would argue that even that choice is mostly an illusion. Oftentimes, the section investigating their chosen question is already full or conflicts with a class that they are already scheduled to take. In fact, many students choose their FYS based solely on the time that it is offered. Choosing a FYS based on the time that it is offered does nothing to help students begin to “own” their educational experience.

I understand why we pre-schedule students into their first semester of classes. It’s easier to administrate when we plug students into the slots that we’ve created. In addition, it allows our orientation session with them to go quickly and be completed in the allotted time. But these reasons put our administrative processes at the center of first semester scheduling. These reasons also tell students that our administrative processes are more important than the choices that they might make in planning their educational experiences. I think an institution that prides itself on being “student-centered” can do better than this. Again, I understand why we’ve made the choices that we’ve made regarding first semester scheduling. But I think the cluster initiative is a chance to rethink the messages we are sending, often unintentionally.

So how can we put student experience at the center of first semester scheduling? I’m not sure what all of the administrative changes to first semester scheduling would need to be nor how we would accomplish all of those changes. But here are some ideas about how we could begin to meet the President’s goal of getting students “to understand the relationship between [their GE] courses and the discipline or area they are studying.” None of these ideas have to do with changing the content of FYS or GE (although I think we should do that too). Instead, we can make some immediate changes in our administrative processes.

First, I think we need to give students some true choice for their FYS. Since that course is supposed to be about inquiry, perhaps we could start by telling faculty who teach the course that we don’t yet know the question that they will be teaching. Instead, the faculty sign up to teach FYS, give some times that they would be available to teach, and give some suggestions about possible questions. We then could give students the list of possible questions when they come to orientation and they pick their top choice. Our job would be to then provide enough seats for each question so that every student gets their top choice. This might mean that some questions have multiple sections because students are very interested in those questions while other questions don’t get taught at all because students have shown no interest. We also would need to be sure that each question is offered at a time when the students interested can take it. We then assign faculty to teach particular questions based on need and time of offering. Although I don’t really know how we would implement this system, it would put student interest (and choice) at the center of FYS scheduling and that’s worth investigating.

Second, I think we should stop pre-scheduling students into GE classes in their first semester until we know what their interests are. We might simply stop pre-scheduling and let the students build their schedules during orientation. Or we might have them fill out an interest questionnaire and use that to schedule them into classes that fit their interests. As the President suggests, we could “theme” these GE courses so that students take a set of them during their first semester and then can begin to understand the relationship between the content of those courses and their chosen major. Again, I’m not sure how we would implement this but I do think it’s worth investigating the possibilities.

For me, the most important (and exciting) part of the cluster initiative is the renewed focus on the students’ experiences. Those experiences don’t just involve things like working on projects or completing internships. Student experience also involves the way they experience our administrative structures, policies, and processes. Putting the student experience truly at the center of everything we do will require a transformation of the University. And such a transformation is ultimately the goal of the cluster initiative.



  1. When my son registered at Macalester College, he chose his first year seminar before any other classes. This choice determined his writing class, his first-year advisor, and his dormitory assignment. The FYS choices centered on robust questions and the classes involved significant community involvement. He chose something on public health and as part of the class they did some work at a public health clinic– I don’t remember the exact details. After signing up for a first year seminar, he was then able to choose other courses in general education for his first semester. This was all done on line and well ahead of time. This might be a model to consider that would be manageable for the university, yet still preserve student choice. It had the added benefit of connecting first-year students to a community based on academic interests.

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