Education: Generally Speaking
At the heart of Penn State University’s academics, the general education system is the basis for scholarship and teaching. Or is it? According the Undergraduate Blue Book, “general education, in essence, augments and rounds out the specialized training students receive in their majors and aims to cultivate a knowledgeable, informed, literate human being” (Gen-ed Curriculum 3). I, being a representative of the Undergraduate Student Government speaking on behalf of the student body, believe the current state of the general education system does not fulfill the intentions proposed by the University. Moreover, the student perception, or image, of the system has also been tarnished because of gen-ed’s shortcomings. Flawed in both implementation and image, I believe the existing gen-ed system should be reformed, as it is the foundation for producing well-rounded, educated individuals. Because the University’s mission suggests, “Academic quality… is [the] highest priority,” Penn State should be dedicated to providing the best pedagogical experience for the students. In the following argument, I will show why a general education system is vital for students, how PSU’s system has failed, and how it can be improved to achieve its goals.
The general education system, in its ideal state, is a necessary element of the University because it gives students knowledge that can supplement their major oriented instruction. Besides developing quantitative and communication skills, the gen-ed requirement enforces studies in the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences. In addition, the gen-ed system stresses intercultural and international competence. With broad yet strong grasps in each of these areas, students today benefit greatly from the gen-ed requirement. For example, a student majoring in business must have a strong understanding of cultures and customs in an ever-increasing worldwide market. Similarly, an Information Sciences and Technology student must not only understand computers, but they also must have developed leadership skills and intercultural competence. Students with a wealth of knowledge outside of their specific focus of study have a superior advantage over those who do not. The General Education Bluebook notes that employers “specifically target… ‘well rounded’ individuals” (Gen-ed Curriculum 3). In addition, students with supplemental knowledge have more career freedom. Because students can apply a variety of skills and knowledge, they are more adaptable and have flexibility to take many career paths.
The general education system is also important because it gives students the opportunity to explore various areas of study. Penn State students can choose among thousands of gen-ed classes, ideally to explore their interests or supplement their major knowledge. A result of requiring general education classes is that students who may be ignorant of a certain subject may learn to appreciate, or even like, the subject. Heidi Tseu, a PSU student, had this to say about the gen-ed requirements:
Because of the general education requirements, I ended up taking economics, a course I would have avoided under any circumstances. It turns out that I actually enjoy the class and am now considering a minor in economics (Gen-ed Students).
This is all part of the intended “augmentation and rounding” the University hopes it students will experience. As an added benefit, the opportunity to experience other areas of study helps first or second year students decide what path they will take in their college careers. According to the Division of Undergraduate Studies, “at least 50% [of students] change their goals as they progress through college” (Academic Advising). Obviously, exploration is necessary for a large number of students at PSU.
It is also important to note that general education is the defining feature that distinguishes university graduates from technical school graduates. A student of Penn State should understand that he or she is receiving a “university” education, which intends to develop critical thinkers as opposed to mold technical workers. However, many PSU students feel that gen-ed requirements waste their time and money, preventing them from obtaining a job as quickly as their technical counterparts do. While it may be true that technical graduates have advantages over university graduates in the short run, technical grads are only a temporary solution to the current demand. As I have stated before, employers today seek individuals with a broad range of skills and interests with the ability to think critically.
In short, because of its importance to the Penn State community as a whole, general education should remain a requirement not only for the students, but also for the University. However, Penn State’s system is by no means perfect. I will now focus my argument on the flaws of the general education system originating from its implementation and image and how they could be corrected.
The General Education Bluebook states that the goals of every gen-ed course are to develop critical thinking, to offer opportunities to formulate informed judgments, and to show how the course relates to other fields or courses. (Gen-ed Curriculum 4) However, does every gen-ed class meet the expectations set forth by the University? The courses may be designed with these goals in mind, but is there any assurance that these goals will be carried through in the everyday class setting? In my experience, no. For instance, my First-Year Seminar class designed to “engage students in learning” and “expected to be taught by full time, regular Penn State faculty,” was a far cry from the goals proposed for seminar classes (7). Not only did a full time faculty member not teach the course, but also the teacher failed to engage the class in any worthwhile learning or discussion activities. From what I have heard from my peers, I suspect that classes, which fall short of the gen-ed goals and purposes, are not uncommon. Because PSU holds academic quality as the “highest priority,” it is imperative that the University takes notice of these shortcomings and deals with them in a manner that is beneficial to the students’ learning environment.
According to a Penn State Pulse survey conducted in 2001, general education classes were 10% more likely to be chosen as a student’s “worst” class than any other class (“Active Learning” 2). A few of the comments students made about their worst class included: “Didn’t learn anything,” “Didn’t engage students,” or “No chance to discuss” (4). Most likely, these problems stem from the large lecture format of most gen-ed classes, which are usually associated with hundreds of students and a lack of effective student-teacher interaction. The survey found that 73% of the “worst” classes were conducted in a lecture type format (2). In addition, students consistently earned lower grades in their ‘worst’ classes (3). In general, as the class size grows at Penn State, the student satisfaction, and thus learning, decreases. To increase the satisfaction of gen-ed classes, a solution may be to decrease the amount of lecture and add more recitation sessions with TA’s. For example, instead of students attending two lectures and one recitation each week, the students should have one lecture and two recitations. Although this would place more pressure on the TA’s shoulders, the class interaction would increase creating a better learning environment.
Not only should the implementation of the general education system be improved, but also the image, or student perception, of the requirement should be enhanced. Currently, a large number of students view the gen-ed system as “something to get out of the way” or “something to take before the ‘real’ classes begin.” Consequently, a number of students choose their gen-eds for the wrong reasons and take the classes less seriously. Often, classes are chosen based on difficulty, time, or the chance that it may “double count” for both major and gen-ed requirements. While some situations necessitate these decision criteria, selection should ideally be based on interest, complimenting your major, or for the sake of “expanding one’s horizons.” Basing course selection on these criteria would more likely enhance a student’s educational experience. However, today’s students rarely choose gen-ed classes for these reasons. Why? Scott Paterno of the Collegian muses that this a greater societal problem, as students today are afraid to challenge themselves academically and possess no passion for learning (Paterno). A solution to this problem is obviously beyond the bounds of my argument; however, I will offer suggestions as to how the image of the gen-ed classes can be improved.
First, general education classes should be regularly evaluated to ensure that quality learning takes place and all expectations of the gen-ed curriculum are met. According to the same Pulse Survey as mentioned before, classes that included “active learning” such as instructor interaction, class discussions, and problem-based projects were more often chosen as a student’s “best” class (“Active Learning” 2). Ensuring that these kinds of elements exist in the classes would improve the student perception of the gen-ed curriculum. In addition to enhancing the learning environment, it is necessary that instructors convey the relevancy of the class to students in their teaching. If students have an understanding of the importance and significance of the subject, they would be more apt to appreciate the class and learn. Lastly, I suggest the University take a stronger position regarding attendance for gen-ed classes. As you probably already know, it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between attendance and grades. Because classes for gen-eds are usually very large and attendance is seldom taken, students often miss class in favor of sleep or work. If attendance policies were more rigorous for these classes, students would probably take a more serious approach to attendance. I admit that such a policy would be hard to enforce; however, I believe an adequate solution could be developed if the University put forth the effort.
As with a number of universities, the general education system at Penn State is the cornerstone from which all knowledge is built. In an ideal world, the gen-ed system offers students opportunities that they otherwise might not take and prepares students for the ever-changing world. However, the failure of Penn State’s current gen-ed system is double-fold. Not only do gen-ed classes fail to meet the expectations of the University, but also their image has prevented students from taken them seriously. Therefore, it is imperative to reform the current gen-ed system so that the Penn State community may provide the highest of academic standards and produce world-ready individuals.
Academic Advising and the First Year of College. 24 Aug. 2000. Division of Undergraduate Studies. 21 Feb. 2002 <http://www.psu.edu/dus/firstyer.htm>.
"Active Learning." Penn State Pulse ns(2001): 1-4.
General Education in the Curriculum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2001.
General Education: What are students saying? Division of Undergraduate Studies. 21 Feb. 2002 <http://www.psu.edu/dus/ge/students.htm>.
Paterno, Scott. "Renaissance education is a lost art at universities." The Digital Collegian 11 Sept. 1996. 21 Feb. 2002 <http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/1996_jan-dec/1996_sept/1996-09-11_the_daily_collegian/1996-09-11d07-002.htm>.