UWO transforms General Education

Eager students from across the region and around the world arrive on the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus each September full of curiosity and ready to find answers.

Beginning in fall 2013, however, new first-year students will discover that simply collecting answers to their questions about college, their future and the world isn’t the point at all.

Instead, this first crop of UW Oshkosh students to experience the University’s dramatic and unprecedented general education reform will discover that it’s the quest or search for answers that matters most.

The new, student-centered University Studies Program (USP)—the result of years of dedicated work by UW Oshkosh’s teaching community—combines the ideals of a liberal education with successful national models at similar institutions and data-tested, high-impact teaching and learning practices.

The result: A complete transformation of the general education (Gen Ed) curriculum and, indeed, the entire campus culture that provides students with a more “intentional and integrated course of study,” said UW Oshkosh Provost Lane Earns.

No longer will students trudge through their first two years, checking classes off a well-worn list of requirements before getting down to business in their majors in their junior and senior years.

“We hope to provide our students with a higher-quality educational experience that will better prepare them for the challenges of an increasingly competitive global economy,” Earns said.

UW Oshkosh administrators are optimistic sweeping reform will lead to increased recruitment, improved retention and graduation rates and, perhaps, even reduce the time it takes to get a degree.

“We want to do all we can to help our students succeed,” said Lori Carrell, communication studies professor and USP director. “For nearly a decade, there has been increasing momentum within the teaching community for implementing research-based, high-impact practices.”

With the USP, students will have the opportunity to search for answers through a process of questioning, exploring and connecting.

In small learning communities, students will work with both peer and alumni mentors and engage in active learning in the classroom and meaningful service activities in the greater community. They will be responsible for tracking their own educational progress by maintaining electronic learning or ePortfolios.

“The USP is not just a reform but a true transformational change,” Chancellor Richard H. Wells said. “It’s a huge tribute to our faculty and academic administrators.”

The curriculum, which for decades revolved around a cafeteria-style menu of often disconnected courses, now incorporates higher-level goals known as essential learning outcomes, such as creative thinking, ethical reasoning and civic engagement.

Wells said the changes will have a substantial impact on the entire educational experience, forming a solid foundation as students move on to the courses required in their major and minor degree programs.

With its innovative and best-practice-driven program, UW Oshkosh now finds itself at the forefront of higher education reform, earning praise from national leaders in the industry, such as Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement with Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Colleges & Universities.

“Many universities around the country are working to revise general education requirements in light of the changing nature of our society and the global economy, but few have done so as comprehensively and thoughtfully as UW Oshkosh,” Humphreys said. “What is so impressive about what Oshkosh has done is that the curriculum is calibrated to the changing demands of the 21st century and built on the latest research on effective teaching and learning.”

AAC&U recently selected UW Oshkosh as one of five campuses across the country to be profiled in a spring 2013 publication.

“We at AAC&U and others around the country will continue to watch with interest how this program develops because of how thoughtfully it was launched and the leadership team that created it,” Humphreys said.

The USP also will be featured in an upcoming book by Robert Zemsky, Learning Alliance for Higher Education chair and the Institute for Research on Higher Education founding director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

Ultimately, the new curriculum will help produce the workplace-ready graduates for which employers across the nation have been clamoring, said Mark Bradley, Wausau attorney and UW System Board of Regents member.

“Leaders of companies from around the country told the AAC&U that they are not necessarily interested in graduates who have specific job skills,” Bradley said. “Rapid changes in technology can quickly make those skills obsolete. Of far greater importance is that graduates have the ability to think critically, work in diverse groups, adapt to changing circumstances and communicate effectively.”

To become such nimble employees, students first must learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and have the ability to ask questions that are not easily answered.

The prudent question is one half of wisdom. —Sir Francis Bacon

The process of questioning itself holds tremendous value, said UWO philosophy professor Laurence Carlin. “It forces one to embrace multiple perspectives, evaluate one’s own beliefs in light of the evidence and appreciate the complexity of the issues we face,” he said.

Great thinkers like Isaac Newton and Immanuel Kant have long pondered life’s big questions from the behavior of objects in the universe to the behavior of human beings in society. “The questions these thinkers asked have furthered our understanding of the world in dramatic ways,” Carlin said.

The new and efficient 41-credit University Studies Program introduces students to the opportunities of University life and the goals of a liberal education structured around three signature questions at the heart of UW Oshkosh’s distinctiveness:

  • How do people understand and create a more sustainable world?
  • How do people understand and engage in community life?
  • How do people understand and bridge cultural differences?

“The idea for building the USP around the Quest concept came out of questions the teaching community asked ourselves: What is most important to us on campus? How can we work together to enhance student learning? Which high-impact practices are feasible? Our collaborative answers led to this creative reform,” Carrell said.

Assistant sociology professor Paul Van Auken, who coordinates the civic learning signature question, said the questions provide students with a greater purpose during their initial coursework. “The new curriculum is steeped in nationally recognized best practices in liberal arts education but tailored to what is important on our campus,” he said.

In their first semester, first-year students take paired Quest I courses—a discipline course linked with a writing or a speaking course that focus on the same signature question.

And these courses—pardon the cliché—are not your grandmother’s or even your mother’s Gen Ed offerings. With intriguing names like The Geography of Coffee and theatre’s The Creative Process, UWO political science professor Tracy Slagter is hoping the first-year curriculum will serve as an invitation to students to “come along on an educational journey.”

“Students come to college because they have a whole lot of questions and they don’t have the answers,” said Slagter, who serves as the USP First-Year Experience director.

In the next semester, freshmen focus on a second signature question in their Quest II paired courses, which begin to incorporate ethical reasoning. UWO professor Norlisha Crawford said her Intro to African American Studies course has a built-in ethical question: In a democracy created on the idea that “all men are created equal,” how could slavery have occurred?

Crawford follows no textbook but rather assigns students real-life artifacts to study, such as essays, court documents, music lyrics and movies.

“This class prepares students for the job market in a multicultural world. They learn that our differences are not that big of a deal, except if they are ignored,” Crawford said. “The USP will help our students shine based on their individual strengths not on falsely constructed differences.”

Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit. —Frank Borman

While they continue to question, students also will expand the breadth of their knowledge by exploring nature, culture and society in a variety of courses. In their final Quest III courses, sophomores take part in a community experience connected to exploring their final signature question.

When that first wave of 900 or so sophomores (imagine the entire population of the Village of Rosendale heading out to volunteer) takes their enthusiasm and talents into the surrounding community, the considerable impact is sure to create positive change.

“Research shows that students who engage in high-impact learning experiences like community service do better in school and feel more connected to other students and faculty,” explained Michael Lueder, USP Community Experience coordinator. Civic responsibility of college-educated citizens is so important to UWO that the teaching community included “civic knowledge and engagement” as one of its essential learning outcomes.

A women’s studies course may partner with Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services or a course focusing on recycling may work with Goodwill Industries International. Such projects provide students with real-life examples and context to participate in classroom discussions.

“The engagement component offers students a sense of what’s happening in their communities,” Lueder said. “The hope is that they will want to get involved further—to dive right in and make a difference.”

Senior political science major Jeci Casperson, of Oshkosh, said she would never have made it to her junior year at UWO if she hadn’t gotten involved outside the classroom. An alternative spring break trip to Washington, D.C., during her freshman year made all the difference.

She signed up for the trip because it was an inexpensive way to travel but returned home from volunteering at homeless shelters and soup kitchens with a new sense of direction. Since then, Casperson, who serves as the Oshkosh Student Association president, has had internships with the American Democracy Project, the Wisconsin State Senate and the U.S. Senate.

“I’ve learned time management and how to communicate with people … that is a constant learning experience for me,” she said.

A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one. —Heraclitus of Ephesus

Finally, students will have the opportunity to integrate their learning in a Connect or advanced writing course, in which they synthesize all three signature questions. Students will use their ePortfolios to track their progress, connect ideas across courses and even demonstrate their learning to employers and graduate schools.

In addition, as juniors or seniors, students will take a capstone class that retraces their progress, reflects on their educational journey and makes connections between their USP courses and those in their major.

Along the entire journey, students will have plenty of opportunity to make human connections as well as academic ones.

“We’re welcoming others in, such as alumni, peers and community leaders, to help with the teaching and learning process,” Wells said.

Peer mentors will be assigned to small groups of 25 students each in the first Quest classes, serving as role models and providing a student perspective on campus life, said Debbie Gray Patton, First-Year Experience assistant director.

“We want to give them a better opportunity to be engaged from the beginning and to feel like they matter here,” she said.

Mollie Merrill, a sophomore nursing major from Oshkosh, serves as the lead student ambassador advocating for the USP on campus. She’ll also work as a peer mentor in fall 2014. “We’ll help freshmen make the adjustment to campus life,” she said. “We’ll explain how the University works in ways that are reassuring and relatable to students.”

Earns is especially inspired by the reaction of UWO graduates to serving as alumni mentors for USP’s civic engagement component, beginning in fall 2014. “I’m absolutely delighted by the alumni response,” he said. “So many have stepped forward already; we want as many involved as possible.”

UWO Alumni Association Board member Scott Barr ’86, of Appleton, is helping to organize the alumni mentors.

“We’ll be available to assist professors in identifying civic engagement opportunities, providing a little horsepower in the community and offering some guidance and perspective to students,” he said.

“Alumni have a vested interest in our University’s success, and it’s vital that we remain active in our communities. UW Oshkosh will be a model across the country, so we want to help our students on this quest as they gain practical skills they can take into the workforce.”

Meanwhile, faculty and staff are especially busy this year as they work collaboratively to have the USP adventure ready for fall 2013. With the help of an implementation team, instructors are creating courses; advisers and admissions counselors are crafting new materials; and classroom renovations to support active learning are in progress.

“It’s incredibly invigorating that nearly every facet of the campus community is focused on this unprecedented opportunity to dramatically enhance student learning,” Carrell said.

Learn more about USP.
Exploring ‘The Prudent Question’



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  1. Herb Numrich says:

    What about the students that wish to pursue non-liberal arts degrees? Where are the math and science and non-political options in this new “transformation”? To be brutally honest, the questions posed as examples in this article would not have helped prepare me for the career I was able to obtain as a graduate from the University. To be fair, I do agree with the comment about falsely constructed differences but the examples I see appear to perpetuate them versus exposing them as false choices. I will say that this article makes me question whether my children should select UW-O as their University of choice when they graduate.

  2. Lori Carrell says:

    The University Studies Program approach to general education includes math, science, history, literature, and a wide-range of courses that assist students in developing core knowledge and skills. A nation-wide study of employers just released (April 2013) affirms that the learning outcomes of the University Studies Program courses are right in line with job market expectations. While the article focused attention on three specific outcomes (civic knowledge, intercultural knowledge, and sustainability), the entire list of Essential Learning Outcomes includes the knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that are critical to college and career success. This new program is designed to enhance learning among as many students as possible – with peer mentors, alumni mentors, community experiences, and connections across classes. Those enhancements will be integrated into the core subjects as students make progress in essential skills and advance their knowledge. I encourage you to check the USP website for a complete list of courses (under “Explore”), the “Essential Learning Outcomes” (to see the full list including writing, speaking, critical thinking, problem solving, and more), the news section for the employer survey information I reference, and other specifics. I am so glad that your UW Oshkosh education has served you well. Given the research that supports these changes, I believe that your children also would be very well served by this program. Their success – and the success of all our students – is our number one priority. Hundreds of UW Oshkosh faculty and staff members have been working to enhance teaching and learning to create the USP, so that more students can succeed and be as well-prepared as possible for careers and challenges in the 21st century. I welcome you to learn more and to contact me personally if you have further questions or concerns.

  3. Katie Gruber says:

    I am excited to see the changes happening in the general education curriculum, and I really wish the University Studies Program had been there when I was starting at UWO. As a (somewhat) recent alum (’10), I still remember a lot of my general education courses. I remember a lot of students lamenting that they had to take the courses, “Why do I have to learn this? I’m never going to need it again. It’s not going to help me in my career!” which was strangely reminiscent of the complaining heard in high school. Sometimes, when there was a lack of focus or importance placed on the information in the course by both the students and professors, it did seem that some gen-eds were generally considered “jokes” and a waste of time and money. This always frustrated me, because I had such great experiences with other general education courses.

    I was very fortunate to have several general education courses that were very valuable to me, including a lot of classes that revolved around the three questions of the USP. Classes that from the outset I was disinterested in: Intro to African American Studies, Economic Statistics, Philosophy – Ethics, Intro to Philosophy, Geology 110, Biology 108, Religious Studies – Ethics, Speech 111, Poli Sci – American Government and Politics. I left these classes wanting to get a major in the discipline. Unfortunately I had to only pick two majors, otherwise I’d still be there working on my Economic Statistics and Philosophy majors. In each of these classes, the professor knew that they had something valuable to teach me, and they were excited to share it. These general education classes weren’t a waste of time, fillers, or designed to weed out students. They were designed by passionate professors who wanted to help students become prepared for both their professional careers and their place in society.

    Although I cannot say I specifically thought of Religious Studies or Intro to African American Studies any time while going about my day at work today, my education gained in these classes and classes like it did prepare me for my career. Every day, I use skills such as critical-thinking, evaluation of sources, research, advanced writing, ability to read and understand highly research orientated technical reports and studies, effectively communicating with a wide range of people who all have different goals. These skills can be developed by investigating the USP’s three questions, and these skills are applicable to most professional careers. The cohesiveness of the USP program will greatly increase the ability of these skills being further developed. fter gaining the building blocks in these 41 credits, the students will be better prepared to move on to their majors and apply the general skills emphasized in the USP, specifically to their specific discipline, and eventual career.

    One last thought: I took classes from three of the professors cited in the article who developed the program. I can attest to their dedication to the success of students in all fields. Based on my knowledge of them and the article, I am confident that the development of this program was exhaustive, comprehensive, and research-based. This stands in stark contrast with traditional, anecdotal/experience-based approach often used to develop policy. This approach is a breath of fresh air and should be a model for policy-making of all types.

    (You’ll have to excuse the length. Obviously, my concision and editing skills are rusty.)

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