September 13, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 1

An Academic Rock Star: New GE Pathways Program

The GE Pathways program, under construction for the last four years (two in creation and two in implementation), is newly launched this semester. New students are being offered a general education program that provides them with a minor, if they choose. It is a solution to problems that plague GE programs everywhere: students who don’t see the point of GE classes when they are pressed to move through school quickly and, too often, a lack of coherence in the program itself.

The new program, with 10 pathways and a designed-in minor that was created through an open process that included students, faculty, and staff, is unique to the CSU system. And according to Bill Loker, dean for undergraduate education, it may be unique to the entire country.

Photo by Beiron Andersson

Photo by Beiron Andersson

Kate McCarthy, professor of Religious Studies, is chair of the curriculum advisory board and was on the implementation team. “The GE Pathways Program is the first of its kind in the system," she says. "We are a little like rock stars when we go to systemwide GE conferences. Everyone is interested in the program and its design. Most impressive to me, however, is the process that got us there—how inclusive and how intellectually authentic it was.”

The need to reform the GE program came from the perceived need for a program that made intellectual sense to both faculty and students and that would engage students. Up until the reinvention of Chico’s GE program, students had a certain number of undergraduate GE classes to take and then had to choose an upper-division theme to complete their requirements. In evaluations, students indicated that it felt random, didn’t make sense to them, and didn’t seem like their GE classes were necessary for their degree.

On the other hand, said Loker, students often identified a GE class as a favorite class. “So the classes were often excellent; they just didn’t make sense as a program.”

During the design phase, a student first asked the question, “Why don’t you offer a minor?” The design team saw the value in the idea and asked themselves, “Why don’t we?”

The primary goals of the design team were to make GE more coherent and the value of it more transparent to students. This was accomplished by extending the idea of “theme,” which became “pathway,” to include lower division courses; and by designing a minor into the program. Students will have a choice to opt for the minor, which they can receive by completing 18 units within a pathway.

The program was designed with a set of values and a set of learning outcomes that would characterize the program as a whole and guide the creation of pathways and of courses within the pathways. They overlap and reinforce each other. The learning outcomes also provide measurable objectives, an important aspect of the program.

The values to be fostered by the GE program include active inquiry, personal and social responsibility, sustainability, diversity, creativity, and global engagement. The student learning outcomes include these values and along with oral and written communication, critical thinking, and mathematical reasoning.

Students, faculty, and staff were asked to respond to a list of about 20 possible pathways. Sometimes faculty liked a pathway and students weren’t that interested. And sometimes, it was the other way around. For example, faculty liked “Great Books and Ideas” more than students did, and students were very excited about “Food Studies,” but faculty were not.

Some of the original suggestions for pathways merged, and a new pathway was born. Sometimes classes that were in one pathway became part of another pathway. Most departments were highly motivated to work with others to create successful and appealing pathways.

One of the risks of trying something so completely new is that it is impossible to predict which pathways students will enroll in. A pathway needs to have adequate enrollment to justify its existence, and it is possible, said Loker, that some pathways may go away. It makes it difficult for departments and colleges to plan long term when they must commit to particular courses at particular times and, occasionally, to support one class at the cost of another.

Photo by Beiron Andersson

Photo by Beiron Andersson

The 10 pathways include

Each pathway has a coordinator, and one challenge that faced the development of the program, said McCarthy, was finding those coordinators. Each coordinator receives one course release time per semester.

“If you are going to say that we take GE seriously, then you have to do it by telling faculty that their GE work is important. Course release for coordinators is a vital way in which that is being communicated,” said McCarthy. “Another way that the design demonstrates the importance of GE is keeping the enrollment cap low in writing proficiency classes." Writing courses add a significant amount of time to both preparation and grading for the instructor; for the student, the smaller class size means more peer interaction and one-on-one time with the teacher.

The end product of the four years of overhauling general education is that now there is a cohesive program, which more and more people are calling the Pathway Program, said Loker. And that program is measurable (another reason for the redesign). “To assess a program you have to have a program,” he added. "Before, the GE courses were like bricks lying around. Now, we have a building made out of the bricks."

Why was Chico so good at this? “Two main reasons,” said Loker. “The process was open and participatory and happened over two years time. And, our faculty rose to the occasion; they saw the potential, were inspired to act, and were willing to invest their talent and a great deal of time in an important and cooperative project.”

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications