Work underway to ‘transform’ general education

Another key element of the UB 2020 strategic plan is moving
forward as the university works to restructure the general
education program “to foster learning for college and for
life.”

“The time for general education reform has come,”
says Andrew Stott, dean for undergraduate education and chair of
the General Education Committee, which is overseeing the effort, a
massive undertaking involving nearly 90 faculty and staff members
from across the university.

Provost Charles F. Zukoski says restructuring the gen ed program
“will have impact across our campus and fundamentally
transform education at UB.  A new gen ed curriculum will
enrich our students’ educational experience and help prepare
them to succeed in today’s world.”

A new gen ed curriculum is part of the “curricular
distinction” initiative, one of the two signature initiatives
—along with Communities of Excellence — to be launched
from Realizing UB 2020. Stott calls a revamped general education
program “one of the pillars of curricular
distinction.”

The effort to revise and reinvigorate UB’s gen ed program
began formally last May and builds upon a 2009 report on general
education produced by a task force assembled by then-Provost Satish
K. Tripathi. The group’s work is informing the current
effort, Stott explains.

A preliminary gen ed plan was completed in December, Stott says,
and the effort has been expanded from the original 26-member
General Education Committee to a steering committee overseeing nine
working groups, each focused on a specific component of the plan.
The working groups now are “putting the finer points on each
of these components,” Stott says, as well as addressing such
issues as transfer students’ needs and the resources required
for the institution to implement a new general education
program.

Ezra Zubrow, professor of anthropology and chair of the Faculty
Senate, notes that general education “is one of the core
functions of undergraduate education and an important aspect of any
first-rate research university.”

The proposed gen ed program will be reviewed and debated by
several Faculty Senate committees, Zubrow says, and “will come
before the full Faculty Senate for approval, most likely in the
fall.”

UB’s new general education program, which is expected to
take effect in fall 2016 with its first class graduating in 2020,
proposes several key elements:

  • Shared intellectual experiences for all students. “We
    want a program that all students will take and that won’t be
    modified depending on the major or school,” Stott says.
  • Strong foundation courses in communicative literacy, scientific
    inquiry and quantitative reasoning.
  • A first-year seminar, ideally taught by tenure-track faculty,
    that tackles conceptual problems from a disciplinary perspective
    while also developing critical thinking and ethical reasoning.
  • Themed clusters introducing students to themed learning built
    around the UB 2020 institutional themes of health, humanity,
    innovation, justice and environment. Students will look at
    different disciplines through “thematic lenses,”
    drawing information from different disciplinary fields and
    methodologies, Stott says. The idea is for students to see how
    those different methodologies “embrace and encapsulate the
    world, while retaining the flexibility of thought and critical
    thinking, and allowing them to take the best from each
    model.”
  • An integrative capstone. Throughout the program, students will
    be asked to reflect on their studies and draw its disparate parts
    together to make meaning from what they’ve taken. The aim,
    Stott says, is for students, irrespective of their discipline, to
    be able to “move across disciplinary boundaries and connect
    educational and experiential learning.”

One of the program’s mantras is “options, not
requirements,” Stott stresses. “At this level, we value
the metacognitive skills over insisting on ‘essential’
content. The old system says, you can’t be a
three-dimensional being if you haven’t taken an arts,
humanities, three history courses, a foreign language, math,
science, that kind of thing.

“We don’t question the value of a broad education in
liberal arts, but all too often the reality is that we insist on a
checklist of courses that have no relationship to one another.
Instead, we want students to be able to explore connections and see
how one field complements another or stands in tension with
it,” he says.

“We’re saying, what’s most important is
critical thinking, and your ability to integrate and articulate the
progress you make in your studies. Your major is there for depth,
mastery and technical competence; general education should
introduce you to the rich variety of disciplinary methods, while
also preparing you to make sense of complexity, diversity and
change as you move through your life,” he says.

Employers, Stott notes, are increasingly interested in students
with the ability to adapt to different settings, who are flexible
in their thinking and can pick up new skills easily — people
who have a kind of “cognitive fleetfootedness” when it
comes to adapting themselves to new situations.

But the most important attribute employers are seeking, he says,
is the ability to communicate: Can students write well, speak well
and engage their peers and other audiences?

Without some reform, Stott says, the current gen ed program
“is not really set up to answer those needs.”

“The majors change all the time — they revise their
offerings and move with the times. Gen ed should, too.”

Work on the plan continues, with the steering committee meeting
weekly and the working groups bi-weekly. All information —
meeting minutes, agendas and other documents — is shared via
a SharePoint website, Stott says, so everyone involved in the
process can have access to all the information.

“We’re trying to be as open and transparent as we
can. Not only is this a very large undertaking, but it’s a
very, very open one.”

A draft of the final plan is expected to be released to the
campus community for review and feedback in mid-May. A campus-wide,
town hall meeting on general education will be held in the
fall.

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