first-year students

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Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than

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When I visit colleges to facilitate conversations on curricular reform, I always begin my presentations with a quotation from Jerry Gaff, the grandfather of contemporary thinking on general education:

A program for reforming general education should be designed around each institution’s character, the strengths and interests of its faculty, and the needs of its students. (Gaff 1980, 51)

I begin my talks this way because if I don’t, inevitably I’ll have someone ask about what Harvard or Stanford is doing with their gen eds. That question, as Gaff suggests, really isn’t the right one to ask when a campus is beginning their own reform. Context matters. Culture matters. Student needs matter a lot.

Despite my insistence on this point, occasionally someone will ask, “Well, what would you do if you were designing a new curriculum?” Because gen ed can be a contentious issue and I’m a generally affable guy who’s strangely desperate to be liked, I’ve always dodged the question.

Until now.

What follows is my dream gen ed program, based on 20-plus years of writing, talking, and thinking about gen ed with hundreds of faculty and staff members at dozens of universities on multiple continents.

My gen ed begins during orientation: as students arrive on campus, they’re met by an alum who offers them a challenge. This alum—a CFO or director of or principal lead conductor for some business or NGO or other organization—will present the students with a persistent, intractable problem with which their organization is concerned. Working in their orientation groups, students will spend the next three days trying to solve that problem. They’ll pick and choose from a series of mini-lectures; they’ll gather in maker spaces; they’ll track down resources that can help them solve this problem. At the end of the allotted time, each group will present their solution in poster form, with the alum serving as judge to choose a winner. Or not. It really doesn’t matter, as long as the various proposals are presented publicly, with students allowed the opportunity to wander from poster to poster, asking questions, borrowing ideas, mingling—all the while learning how different people in collaboration with each other can approach the same problem very differently.

Or perhaps this doesn’t happen over orientation; perhaps it occurs during the fall semester, in the context of first-year seminars taught by professors and staff from different fields. Here again, though, the problem all the classes are seeking to address is drawn from life beyond the campus walls and is fluid and dynamic, resistant to easy answers. The students don’t know the problem ahead of time. Neither do the professors. Consequently, student assumptions about how education “works”—the teacher knows and deposits knowledge in students who don’t know—are undermined: instructor and student work side by side to grow their expertise, sifting through sources—academic and otherwise—to determine accuracy, relevance, credibility, quality. Together they ideate multiple possible solutions, brainstorm possible flaws, develop patches, suffer setbacks, step back, reconsider, reimagine, reexplore, reattempt. The instructor demonstrates how someone shifts from a position of expertise to that of novice, reinterpreting and translating their learning in and to different settings. Again, the process ends with a campus-wide poster (or PowerPoint, or film, or oral) presentation where ideas are shared and compared and revised and synthesized.

As my dream gen ed continues, sophomores and juniors dive into any number of George Kuh’s list of high-impact practices (HIPs): learning communities, undergraduate research, internships, study abroad, community-based learning. Key here is that we push our thinking beyond the usual approaches. At most institutions, for instance, students do undergraduate research and internships only in their own fields. While there’s a logic to this that makes sense, there’s equal value to students not in a field having the opportunity to move beyond the confines of traditional classrooms and academic structures (read: classes attempting to skim an entire field in 14 weeks) and experience how another field really works. Physics in the abstract and physics in the field, for instance, are two very different things. And while some love the former from childhood onward, others will discover their love of science only when engaging in the latter. Similarly, there are many who are turned off by history as an idea who would be charmed, stunned, and invigorated had they the chance to collect oral histories from war veterans, immigrant families, or local public officials.

The beauty of my dream approach is that, though my unicorn curriculum is being driven by HIPs, distribution is still occurring. After all, distribution—the exploration of a variety of fields and disciplines—isn’t the problem. That old chestnut, “You’re gonna need this some day!” is true. The world is a complex place. Students need to be able to draw from a variety of fields in order to solve problems small and large. In my model, though, distribution requirements are met in the context of high-impact experiences: students might do an internship in social work, do undergraduate research in geology, and explore Vietnamese literature while studying for a semester in Hanoi. Sure, every once in a while students might have to take one of those “101” courses to fill out distribution opportunities, but that would be the exception rather than the rule.

The added beauty of high-impact practices is that students understand why they are so important: any student can look at an internship and see how it might change their lives. Same with a course dense with collaborative opportunities. Same with study abroad. HIP-driven models offer a distinct contrast to traditional distribution models; while valuable, the idea of being “well-rounded” is hardly self-explanatory or particularly motivating. HIP-driven models are, as Ellen Crowell of St. Louis University puts it, self-articulating. They speak to students. Powerfully.

Rounding off my gen ed castle in the sky is a lovely project-based capstone course in which students work in groups and draw from their learning in all their previous classes to propose a solution to a contemporary question. This course could be designed around a particular broad topic of the instructor’s choosing—civil discourse, for instance, or contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s comedies. Or perhaps each group of students chooses their own topic, challenges, or questions, and the role of the instructor is less to serve as a content resource than to coach students through the doubly challenging process of (a) solving a complex problem and (b) doing so in a genuinely collaborative manner.

Holding all these gen ed courses and experiences together are e-portfolios curated by each student and shared publicly throughout their four years at university. Early on, the portfolio serves as a compass of sorts: prompted by their first-year instructors, students will shape an initial set of goals for both their time at university and their lives after graduation. Students will be encouraged to make both these goals and the e-portfolio more broadly a reflection of who they are and who they want to be: they should be encouraged to customize their pages and include images and media that are meaningful to them. Over the coming years, as they accumulate papers and posters and other assignments that demonstrate their sense of their learning, students will be asked to upload and reflect on these items. As they move toward graduation, the nature of these portfolios will change, shifting from inwardly facing toward a more public face: some students might reshape them to appeal to potential employers; others might construct them as a showcase of their best work over the course of their college careers. As in the first year, students will be required to share their thinking with their peers and their instructors; doing so helps raise the quality of their work, sharpening student thinking and ensuring that the e-portfolios are more transformative than transactional.

In the end, of course, what I’m describing here isn’t really that much of a dream. Lots of universities—Clemson, for instance, and Plymouth State—are giving meaning and purpose to their first-year courses by building them around complex, real-world problems that need answers. Several colleges—Hendrix, for example, and Wagner on Staten Island—build high-impact experiences into their core curricula. Nearly all the Dutch universities have university colleges that require project-based courses every year, culminating in highly independent, collaborative projects. LaGuardia Community College and Castleton University in Vermont are not the only schools that have developed smart e-portfolio programs to help students make sense out of varied and sometimes fragmented learning experiences.

Sure, none of these things happen all in one place. Not yet, anyway. But soon, I promise you, they will.


Gaff, Jerry G. 1980. “Avoiding the Potholes: Strategies for Reforming General Education.” Educational Record 61, no. 4 (Fall): 50–59.

Hanstedt, Paul. 2012. General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World