NIU PLUS: Ideas needed to create better undergraduate experience

NIU Plus logoby Michael Kolb

In the 21st century, it is critical for NIU’s graduates to be prepared to work in a dynamic, global environment. Both students and parents want a college education to lead to meaningful jobs.

Unfortunately, the perception of graduate employability differs between educators and employers.

While colleges and universities believe they are adequately preparing students for the future work force, only 16 percent of employers viewed graduates to be properly trained in the skills needed for employment, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace.

One of the most important experiences of a college curriculum is the General Education program, a set of courses meant to aid students in developing the basic real-world skills such as problem-solving, thinking creatively and communicating effectively.

Photo of a plug in a wall outletYet students generally sense incoherence within their general education curriculum and view their experience as being disconnected from their studies in the major. Only 8 percent of 729 NIU students surveyed in Fall of 2013 expressed positive feedback about their general education experience, and the most common words they used to describe their classes were “waste,” “boring” and “pointless.”

More telling evidence of this incoherence is the fact that general education course enrollments have dropped 17 percent from 2008-2012, compared to just an 11 percent drop in overall undergraduate enrollment.

Our existing general education program has existed in its present configuration of five distributional categories since 1983, originally requiring a minimum of 29 semester hours, but increasing to 39 semester hours in the early 1990s because of the Illinois Articulation Initiative that mandated transferring courses between state institutions.

Our program currently offers 144 various courses; most of them lower-division and most of them taught in the traditional fields of liberal arts and sciences. Few integrate well together or with major studies programs.

It is because of these reasons that NIU PLUS was instituted. PLUS stands for Progressive Learning in Undergraduate Studies, and its goal is to create a better integrated undergraduate experience. It is the endeavor of the PLUS Task Force – a committee of faculty, staff and students – to complete a progressive undergraduate curricular revision plan by September.

Photo of a hand putting in the final piece of a jigsaw puzzleThe task force has benchmarked other successful institutions and sought input from the NIU community since January of 2013. It has identified five specific goals for improvement:

  • Employ the university-wide student learning goals and outcomes at the baccalaureate level;
  • Enhance writing expectations;
  • Improve cross-disciplinary synergy in general education course content exposure;
  • Increase curricular flexibility and general education course choices; and
  • Formalize student participation in high impact practices and engaged learning opportunities.

NIU Today is discussing these curricular changes through a series of brief articles over the next few days in conjunction with the release of potential curricular reforms by the PLUS Task Force. The task force seeks your input by Thursday, May 1, to make the proposed curricular changes stronger.

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