General Education and Clusters Revisited

Back at the beginning of the semester, I wrote about the realization I had that President Birx’s Four Tools of Clusters mean that when we talk about “cluster curriculum,” we are talking about General Education.  In particular, I have said that from a student’s perspective, clusters are General Education. In the last week, I’ve had a couple of conversations about the relationship between General Education and the integrated cluster initiative and several people have pushed back against that idea. So I think I should explain what I actually mean when I say that clusters equals Gen Ed.

I would argue that we at PSU have always been good at creating programs that give a subset of our students amazing experiences. Students who are motivated to seek out “high impact” experiences such as engaging in undergraduate research or internships are able to find them and benefit greatly from having engaged in them. The thing that excites me about the integrated cluster initiative is that we are challenging ourselves to provide such experiences for all students. In fact, if we implement all of the tools of clusters that President Birx describes, all of our students will engage in multiple high impact experiences.

For example, the President’s first tool of clusters is a first year seminar (FYS) “that introduces [students] to cluster learning including a challenge question, an interdisciplinary project experience, an overview and exploration of learning and research methodologies and an understanding to theirs and other clusters.” I am teaching a first year seminar this semester that is trying to meet some of these goals. I have written about some of the ways in which I will change it significantly when I teach it next, my students have learned a lot about the wicked problem of fake news and how we might address it. And they have all engaged in an interdisciplinary project to try to address some aspect of the problem. The First Year Seminar Fellows are all working with their students to engage in interdisciplinary projects to address some aspect of a wicked problem. This is a high impact practice as identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as having “positive associations with student learning and retention.” And ALL of our students will engage in such an experience in the FYS.

We are currently working on developing a similar sort of program in the Integrative Connection (INCO) course in Gen Ed. A task force has been formed to figure out how we can use that course as a General Education capstone in which students engage in a project similar to what they worked on in the FYS. In other words, we are in the process of ensuring that ALL students get at least two high impact experiences in their time at PSU.

I’ve been thinking a lot about themed Gen Ed. The President envisions a situation in which “we could create linked course combinations that would lead to a certificate granted upon completion of the sequence.” I don’t think the “linked course combinations” by themselves are particularly valuable. We already create “linked course combinations” in the form of majors and minors and students see the “course combinations” as a checklist of courses that they need to complete in order to receive the “certificate” (their degree) at the end. The “linked course combinations” by themselves do not create any sort of high impact experience for the students. If, however, we ensured that each of the linked courses touched the world outside the classroom in some way, students may begin to see the value of those courses in a new way. In other words, if we ensured that students were doing “real” work, work that lived beyond the boundaries of the particular class, students would value that work more than they value the typical “throw-away” work that they do in their classes. Let me explain that further.

In a typical class, a student might be asked to write a research paper. The student writes the paper and submits it to a learning management system (or hands it in in hard copy form). The instructor of the course writes comments on it and gives it a grade. The student read the comments (or doesn’t). If the paper was handed in as a hard copy, the student is then likely to throw it away. If the paper was submitted to a learning management system, the instructor ensures that this is the only kind of information that is NOT imported into the course for the next offering. In other words, this paper has no life beyond the class, no audience beyond the instructor. It is “throw-away” work. Who gets excited about doing “throw-away” work? The thing that NSSE’s high impact experiences have in common is that none of them ask the students to engage in “throw-away” work. They are all about work that matters in some way to the world. If we change our pedagogy in our Gen Ed classes so that at least one assignment is not “throw-away,” we can now ensure that students have multiple significant high impact experiences. All of our students.

So when I have said that I think that cluster curriculum is General Education, some people have pushed back and said that some non-Gen Ed courses involve some sort of cluster project. I think that’s great. I think that should continue. But it doesn’t negate my point. It is through General Education that ALL of our students will experience cluster curriculum which is roughly synonymous with high impact experiences. At this point, students regularly engage with students from other disciplines in their Gen Ed courses. It is in these courses that students can engage in the kind of interdisciplinary work on projects that the Presidents describes in his post on the four tools of cluster. In other words, clusters equals General Education for the majority of our students.

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