Re-assessing General Education
In mid-January, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released key findings from its commissioned survey of member Chief Academic Officers on trends in General Education, learning outcomes, and teaching methods. The majority of members report that their institutions assess learning outcomes among all students across a broad range of knowledge and skill areas. The survey set out to measure 11 knowledge areas and 11 skill areas, and the responses were compared to the similar survey of 2008. Among those who have a common set of learning outcomes for all students, the survey found a majority say their learning outcomes address 18 of the 22 areas.
Strong common agreement (>90%) was found to exist on important general education outcomes such as writing skills, critical thinking and analytic reasoning, as well as knowledge of science, math, humanities, world cultures, and social sciences. Debra Humphreys, AAC&U Sr. Vice President for Academic Planning and Public Engagement, noted a most encouraging increase from 2008 to 2015 in the priority of research skills and projects (increasing from 65% to 75%). Not so encouraging were several areas where common agreement was not as strong and/or not increasing. For example, in both years a flat 75% of officers report measuring students' ethical reasoning skills, and 73% report that their students gain knowledge of diversity in the U.S. Neither ethical reasoning nor knowledge of diversity had grown more important since 2008. While both are important outcome measurements to most colleges and universities, neither are embraced as necessary by all.
With apologies to John Dewey's treatises on experiential learning, a declining 65% report measuring the application of learning beyond the classroom (down 1% since 2008), and only 63% report measuring outcomes of civic engagement and competence (down 5% since 2008). Both Peter Drucker and Tom Peters believed it's what gets measured that gets done. By this indicator, the role of general education to prepare students to learn beyond the classroom and to transition to lives of engaged citizenship beyond college are shrinking in importance and persist as important outcome indicators at slightly more than half of member institutions.
As a researcher of service learning and civic engagement, I find this particularly alarming. I strongly believe a college degree should be comprised of a broad education as opposed to simply job training. Nonetheless, the best general and disciplinary education must ultimately point a student to its practical application to life in the real world beyond the classroom. Service learning and community engagement should be a measurement of key importance to chief academic officers. When conducted properly, it is a proven pathway for applying education beyond the classroom, speaking to issues of social justice, and improving communities.
Find the AAC&U survey here: http://www.aacu.org/about/2015-membersurvey