General Education reform seems to visit colleges periodically and regularly—much like strategic plans, fund-raising campaigns, and external departmental reviews. And much like these other initiatives, it is often met with similar enthusiasm, even cynicism. While General Education curricula are found at all types of institutions of higher education, we at small residential liberal arts colleges would like to believe that these requirements focus students’ attention uniquely on the critical thinking and integrative, interdisciplinary skills we claim are the hallmarks of our institutions. It is true, General Education programs in liberal arts colleges are much more interesting on average than they were a half century ago, but it is not clear whether they are significantly distinguished from the requirements at the large state university or the local community college. How can we answer those prospective students and their families who say: “Yes, we believe in a liberal arts education, but we can get that at South Central University of X at half the cost”? While we believe we do a better job, how substantial are the differences?
At Ursinus, we are about to launch a new core curriculum that we believe contains some genuinely innovative elements—and it has taken us the better part of a decade to get to this launch. Even more importantly, the framework of the new core has helped us think differently about our own work as faculty and staff within a residential liberal arts institution, and therefore we are confident that it will change our students’ experiences as well. Our “Open Questions” curriculum requires students to engage in repeated reflection on their college experience through the lens of four essential, open, ethical questions:
- What should matter to me?
- How should we live together?
- How can we understand the world?
- What will I do?
As suggested above, there are some interesting curricular elements: a long-standing, two-semester first-year seminar; linked interdisciplinary courses; an experiential element; and a senior interdisciplinary core capstone seminar. But the open questions framework invites students to view these questions as open, and to view themselves as those who can open those questions. This process has encouraged us, as faculty and staff at Ursinus, to open those questions for ourselves, and has suddenly changed how we view our work. This transition has taken us by surprise and we are just beginning to feel its full effects.
Rather than a summative evaluation confined to the senior year, the reflection process should be a developmental one, both documenting change and stimulating it. To build this iterative process, we are using a four-year e-portfolio in which we require students to record their reflections on their experiences and how those experiences affect their personal thoughts on the four open questions, starting from new student orientation.
The unexpected results of the new core are coming from a deliberate focus on the four open questions, rather than on competencies such as global awareness or scientific inquiry. An early discovery was the strong overlap of the four questions with the coaching role of a career office—calling for reflection on one’s college experience to bring life goals into focus and build a compelling résumé. Our office of Career and Professional Development has latched onto this concept, and already they have become an essential partner in our new core curriculum, instead of a corporate identity on the edge of campus that only seniors visit. They will be working with students from their first days on campus to help them make sense of their experience—and, in the process, partnering with faculty in advancing the goal of continued reflection on the Ursinus experience.
The Ursinus experience—not the Ursinus curriculum. We in the liberal arts business believe that the “residential” part of a residential liberal arts college experience is important. But too often we, as faculty and staff, don’t recognize, appreciate, and celebrate those connections. It is not surprising that a coach, or a residence life Dean, feels isolated from the curriculum and its mission. But we are rapidly realizing how the four open questions allow us not only to find that common ground, but also to expand its importance. We now have a way to call upon students to recognize the connections among their basketball team experiences, their role as a Resident Assistant, their theater production, and their laboratory team as they think about the question “How should we live together?” Equally important, we as faculty and staff now have a common vocabulary and mission to enable us to join together in conversations about how to advance our mission.
Naturally, faculty will worry about who will ensure that the reflections really happen on a regular basis, and how. While some of this will happen in key courses (first-year seminar, linked course requirement, core capstone seminar), we want to make sure this reflection happens with much greater regularity than those several touchstones would afford. In addition, we want students to see the value of these reflections; the natural way to do that is to make those reflections explicitly valuable. To do this, the college will find ways to use student e-portfolio reflections as required elements (ideally substituting for equivalent materials previously required) as students apply for desirable opportunities. When students apply for an internship, or to study abroad, they will need to supply their e-portfolio. When students apply to be a tour guide, or a resident advisor, or for a summer research position, we will ask them to submit their e-portfolio. And on the other end, as a final report for these experiences, we will expect some material added to their e-portfolio, with the four open questions and connections, among other experiences, highlighted.
We believe that these repeated reflections will help students draw and reinforce the connections among their various college experiences. We know these sorts of experiences happen on their own for some of our students, but we expect that now we can help all of our students have those connections among academic and co-curricular life on our campus. But the question arises: “How will we know?” Here again, we believe the e-portfolios will aid us in assessment, just as we expect it will in reinforcing the reflections. Graduating seniors’ e-portfolios will contain records of the paths that these students have followed through their academic careers, and faculty and staff assessment teams will be able to examine these portfolios post-graduation to gain insight into the growth processes we are attempting to foster. We will be able to ascertain whether or not students do develop in sophistication in their analysis of our open questions and help us verify that we are helping students connect their college years to life after graduation. But much more helpfully, through their identification of particular experiences that were most meaningful to them, we will better understand what is working well, what isn’t, and gain clues on how to make our full residential experience more valuable.
Finally, we have already found that the four open questions have been useful organizing tools for how we think about what we do as college employees. Student Affairs has used them as training tools for residence life staff. Enrollment staff have talked about them during retreats. We have asked the Trustees to consider and discuss them. We ask job candidates to respond to them. We have asked firms applying to facilitate our campus master planning process to consider the questions, and how their planning might help us develop facilities that will help students in their reflections. And we invite alumni and guest speakers to consider sharing with the campus how and what they have come to think related to these four questions.
We have affirmed the use of these particular questions for just over a year, but already they are helping us think much more holistically about what we do. They highlight the value in interdisciplinary, liberal education as well as the value of the residential experience. They provide common ground and shared mission for many parts of the college that used to see themselves as, at best, unrelated and at times even at odds with one another. And the opportunity the e-portfolios provide as key primary artifacts in assessment of what we hope our students will achieve is making even those deep skeptics of assessment in higher education think differently. Most importantly, this simple framework shows promise of truly refining and distinguishing what a small residential liberal education can provide from the rest of the higher education community.