PSU and the National GE Conversation

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently attended the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ 2017 General Education and Assessment Conference. Nearly every session I attended was directly related to the General Education changes we’re discussing at PSU and made me think about those changes in new ways.

My time in Phoenix started at a pre-conference workshop entitled “Bringing the Big Ideas of General Education Reform to Faculty and Students.” The worykshop was facilitated by Dan McInerney, a Professor and Associate History Department Head at Utah State University. During this workshop, I realized that many of the things we’re talking about at PSU are already part of the national conversation about general education (GE). For example, McInerney talked about wanting the skills learned in GE courses to be able to be transferred to other courses as well as outside of the University.

McInerney talked about the need to help students understand the purpose of GE by providing them with “pathways” for completing GE requirements. His idea of pathways is that we can suggest to students that if they’re interested in particular topics or disciplines, there is a set of GE courses that they might take. We shouldn’t require a specific set of GE courses for specific majors but can instead provide guidance to help students choose the courses that might be most useful or interesting to them. This is very similar to President Birx’s idea of creating themes in GE. In developing these pathways, we should make sure that all members of the University community, from academic advisors to residential advisors to financial aid staff and everyone in between, are talking about GE in similar ways. If we want students to see GE as more than a checklist of requirements that they just have to get through, everyone on campus needs to be sending the same message about the importance of GE. We also discussed the need to find ways to incentivize the teaching of GE courses. We need to develop a culture within the faculty that sees the opportunity to teach GE courses as an honor that is given only to our best instructors. Only with a culture shift like this will we be able to get students to see the importance of GE. And only when they see GE as important will they be able to tell their educational story as one in which GE is integrated with their major. The language McInerney used to discuss this idea was a direct match to the language we’ve been using on the First Year Seminar Coordinating Council and the GE Working Group. He suggested that we need to move away from fragmented, disconnected coursework toward intentional curricula and pathways to completion. The pathways are kind of like markers for students to be able to make the connections between the various courses they’re taking. In our GE courses, we need to demystify the history, purpose, and goals of GE to helps students understand why they’re taking the courses they’re taking. We also need to make the transferable skills that students are learning in these classes visible so students can articulate for themselves what they’ve learned in their GE courses and how those skills relate to their major and their other interests.

McInerney also said that GE should prepare students to tackle “nonstandard, unscripted problems and questions using adaptive and inventive competencies.” The idea of ill-defined, unscripted problems came up numerous times during the conference. This idea is similar to what we’ve been talking about as “wicked problems.” I think of “wicked problems” as being large, societal issues. If we allow ourselves to focus instead on these unscripted problems, I think we open up the class of problems that we might work on. For example, some people have said that revising GE is a “wicked problem.” It is certainly an ill-defined, unscripted problem but it is more localized than what I usually think of as a wicked problem. In the workshop, we talked about using design thinking strategies (more about those later) to tackle these problems.

The next session I attended was a plenary presentation called “Design Thinking for Student Learning.” The co-presenters were Helen Chen from Stanford and Lisa Grocott from Monash University.

Design thinking, Grocott explained, is human-centered, speculation-driven, solution-focused, and involves learning through iterative making. Human-centered design starts with deep empathy for those you’re designing for. You need to truly understand the perspective of those you’re designing for so you should invite them into the design conversation early in the process. Speculation driven design asks “what if” questions and tries out as many solutions (imagining a “fix” to some part of the problem) as possible (which is what we mean by “solution-focused”) so that we can discuss the potentials of the solution. Finally, we quickly implement (“make”) some sort of solution and learn from that solution so that we might imagine another solution to try out. A design mindset, she said, allows us to make sense, make possible, make tangible, and make happen. We then did an exercise where we asked the question “What if our thinking about GE started with the idea of play?” She then gave each table a set of images of different kinds of playgrounds and asked us to articulate what the image suggested to us about the nature of GE. We then shared our images and our thoughts and in that fifteen minutes of discussion, I began to think about the possibilities for GE in new ways that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Chen then said that she wants to disrupt our traditional reward system in education by trying to get students to think about the things that happen between their getting of grades. She described her work on “speculative props” for making learning visible. With these props, she wants to shift our ways of recording learning (traditionally, we’ve done this in a transcript) away from what has been taught to what the student is contributing to their own learning and to the learning of others. She hopes that this work might help students to take risks and not be afraid of short term failure. She also hopes that this work will help students to articulate their own educational story. The “transcript” might then become a tool to help students visualize their educational journey as they are going through it rather than just a semester by semester list of the courses they have taken. She presented a variety of examples which I mentioned in my previous post. I was most interested in the very simple idea of flipping the transcript so that instead of listing courses semester by semester, it lists courses by learning outcome. Chen also discussed the importance of reflection on the part of the student in making a closer connection between the record of student learning and the student work created during that learning. She is a strong proponent of the use of ePortfolios as I describe in my previous post.

The plenary session on Friday morning was also thought-provoking. Peter Doolittle of Virginia Tech talked about “Using the Learning Sciences to Enhance Student Proficiency, Agency, and Equity.” This was the most engaging of a series of engaging presentations at the conference. Doolittle presented a TED talk in 2013 on working memory that I think will give you an introduction to some of what he talked to us about. He did a simple exercise with us that was eye-opening to me in terms of creating empathy with our students who might be trying to remember information being presented to them and to process that information at the same time. This exercise is part of his research on working memory. First, he had us try to remember a series of numbers that was presented in a very short period of time. Not surprisingly, I could remember the first 8 numbers in the list. I say “not surprisingly” because it’s a well-known fact that our short term memory allows us to remember 7 things and then we struggle. He then had us try to remember a series of words, each of which came at the end of an equation that we had to say whether it was true or false. So, for example, he had us read aloud: “5+5-2=8 ? caterpillar” where we replaced the ? with either true or false depending on whether the preceding equation was true or false. He went through about 7 or 8 of these (the typical number identified as being what we can hold in our short term memory) and then asked us to repeat the words. I could only remember 3 of them which is pretty typical. It was a highly effective exercise because I understood deeply the challenge I present to my students in my classes when I engage in certain pedagogical practices.

The rest of Doolittle’s presentation focused on the idea that “what we process, we learn.” He talked about what he means by “process”: the need for students to practice retrieval of information and to engage in a variety tasks and purposes with the same information. He talked about the problems with the idea that we need to “cover” a particular body of disciplinary content without engaging these processing activities if we want deep learning. He talked about students needing to learn things at the principle level because we generally only remember the “gist” of things. He talked about the fact that learning occurs in response to developmental feedback (rather than “right” or “wrong” feedback) in which we suggest to students what they need to do in order to improve. But students need the opportunity to respond to that developmental feedback. He also talked about the idea that learning can only occur when it’s embedded in prior knowledge and experience so we need to meet students where they currently are and not where we think they ought to be. When we design learning experiences, we need to keep all of these ideas about how we process information in mind. Finally, he talked about the need to focus on the principles of how working memory functions as we design learning experiences for our students. We need to segment our instruction, scaffold our instruction, lower the cognitive demand and information density we place on students as they’re learning, provides example after example to illustrate broad principles, and allow students to practice, get feedback, and practice again.

The plenary session on Friday afternoon was called “Bringing It All Together for Enhanced Student Learning” and was presented by Natasha Jankowski of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at the University of Illinois. Much of what she said was similar to what we heard in the other plenary sessions and in the concurrent session presentations. She said that students experience education disjointedly because we organize that education disjointedly. We need to help students integrate their major with their GE courses but we also need to integrate academic affairs with student affairs. How do we weave all of the conversations we’re having together? She said that any curricular design needs to include the people we’re designing for in the conversation. For example, we need to talk to our students about their first year experience (FYE) so that we can design a FYE that actually meets the goals we set out for it. We need to articulate for students the things they need to pay attention to. We need to make visible to them 3 things: the purpose of the educational experience we’re providing, the tasks that we want the students to engage in, and the criteria we are going to use to evaluate their learning via those tasks. We should make a shift from mostly summative assessments to more formative assessment. And when we give feedback on those formative assessments, we need to provide opportunities for students to respond to that feedback. This might mean that we need to design learning experiences that cross our artificial semester boundaries. Jankowski suggested that students need to be able to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways and asked whether we can give them a choice in how they think they can best demonstrate their learning.

I also attended multiple sessions during the concurrent session times. There were lots of great ideas in these sessions, many of which were related to the ideas in the workshop and plenary sessions. Rather than summarize each of the concurrent sessions separately, here’s an outline of the major ideas I got from the conference:

  • Design Thinking
    • Using it in the curriculum to teach students a new way of engaging with the world
    • Using it to inform our gen ed revision process
      • Always starts with creating empathy which means we need to include the people we are designing for in all aspects of the design (that is, student voice is critical!)
  • Focus on “ill-defined, unscripted problems”
    • This is similar to “wicked problems” but without the focus on societal ill
  • Gen Ed Pathways
    • Similar to our idea of “theming”
    • These provide sign posts for how students can make their way through gen ed but are not required of all students
  • Gen Ed Capstone
    • A capstone is critical for helping students to pull their gen ed program together in a meaningful way
    • We need to focus on using our INCO as an actual gen ed capstone
  • GE Outcomes
    • We MUST have outcomes
    • Might use AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics as a starting point
    • Think about assessment of the program as a whole rather than assessing all the individual pieces
      • Might assess the first year experience separately
  • Tools for making learning visible
    • Think about flipping our current record keeping around so that it is focused on learning outcomes
    • For example, list courses in DegreeWorks as courses that fulfill certain outcomes and/or change the transcript so that it is organized by outcome rather than by semester
    • When these tools are used repeatedly, students get a sense of the purpose of the different pieces of their educational program and can start telling their educational story
  • Importance of Assessment
  • Support for GE
    • Need to invest resources
      • Someone in charge
      • Incentives for faculty to teach GE
      • Professional development support for faculty to engage in students in GE

I look forward to discussing these ideas as we move forward with our changes to GE to support the cluster initiative.

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