Few students or faculty like gen ed. Harvard and Duke are trying to change that.

Students and faculty have expressed little interest in general education courses

Harvard University and Duke University have revamped their general education models to make courses more interesting and meaningful to students and faculty, Colleen Flaherty reports for Inside Higher Ed.

At both universities, leaders are concerned that students do not understand the point of general education, a problem also seen at other institutions nationwide.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently conducted a survey of provosts that found that while many institutions were designing their general education curriculums to include more than just basic distribution requirements, only 9% of respondents said they believed all students understood their intended learning outcomes.

Harvard fuses teaching styles

A five-year review and interviews with hundreds of faculty members and students revealed little interest in Harvard's general education program. Sean Kelly, a professor of philosophy and the program review committee chair, says undergraduate students in general education courses often sought out "easy-A" courses to fulfill distribution requirements.

Faculty members also disagreed on the goals of a general education program. Kelly says professors were split between three models of teaching:

  • An ars vivendi model, in which students take courses that teach them how to live a meaningful life;
  • A medieval model, in which students take a broad range of liberal arts courses; and
  • A Romantic model, emphasizing student choice and self-cultivation.

The committee decided to compromise by incorporating all three teaching styles into one "4+3+1" general education model.

Under this configuration, the first four courses would come from the following categories:

  • Aesthetics, culture, and interpretation;
  • Histories, societies, and individuals;
  • Science and technology in society; and
  • Ethics and civics.

For the three remaining required courses, students must choose one course each in:

  • Arts and humanities;
  • Social sciences; and
  • Natural sciences or engineering.

Kelly predicts that the new program will not be adopted until after next year at the earliest.

Duke emphasizes shared learning experiences

Duke's general education program for most undergraduates, Curriculum 2000, was also met with little enthusiasm: Two-thirds of professors have left the program since it was adopted.

Now a new program, Experience Duke, Deliberately, seeks to:

  • Cement Duke's reputation for general education;
  • Foreground the liberal arts; and
  • Streamline requirements.

The proposed shift includes several new elements—most notably the Duke Experience, a multidisciplinary, flipped-format course focused on a shared educational experience.

Under the proposed curriculum, all first-year students would take a common, 10-month course led by five faculty members from different disciplines, with possible topics including:

  • Climate change;
  • Mind and body; and
  • Race and inequality.

Students would also be held to five learning expectations:

  • Compelling communication;
  • Evaluating, managing, and interpreting information;
  • Identifying creative outcomes;
  • Understanding different forms of scientific thought and evidence; and
  • Understanding different languages, cultures, and civilizations (Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 3/10).

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