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NIU PLUS: Three general education models served up for taste testing

April 9, 2014

A photo of three ice cream conesby Michael Kolb

The NIU PLUS force has released a variety of potential curricular reforms in response to the declining enrollment and student disinterest of our existing general education program. It is important for the entire NIU community to seriously consider these changes for us to make NIU a competitive destination of choice for both first-year and transfer students .

But what specific changes are proposed?

Three potential general education models have been offered by the PLUS Task Force to better integrate the curriculum: a clusters model, a core model and a pathways model.

All three models vary in terms of their delivery options, but address the five specific curricular areas that the Task Force has identified for improving student success – learning outcomes, writing, content exposure, flexibility and high impact practices – in different ways.

The Clusters Model would require students to take 11 different courses from eight different distributional areas. These areas are meant to assure content exposure in to both traditional disciplines such as fine arts and social sciences, but also in a new category called technology that would include a variety of subjects such as computer, library, medical laboratory and engineering sciences.

The Clusters Model also requires that students take five or six courses as two interdisciplinary thematic course-groups that address contemporary and relevant topics. These groupings, or clusters, would offer a set of courses as alternatives. Sample cluster topics would include “Responding to the Past,” ”Cultivating Creative Expression,” “Experiencing America” or “Evolving Life and Culture.”

The Core Model would require students to take 13 different courses from different categories, and doubles the existing general education writing requirements from two to four courses. This includes a first-year, a second-year and one additional writing intensive course.

Photo of an NIU student studying in Founders Memorial LibraryThe Core Model also includes the creation of a one-credit seminar course that focuses on writing about specific problem issues. Like the Clusters Model, this Core Model also requires students to take a single three-course thematic cluster.

The Pathways Model would require incoming students to take 11 different courses from three broad domains of knowledge: human aesthetics and experience; society and culture; and nature and technology. Writing courses must be taken in all three domains.

Rather than using clusters to integrate the curriculum, the Pathways Models organizes all general education courses into a set of thematic “pathway” subject areas that students might find particularly relevant, such as diversity studies; health and wellness; or sustainability studies. Students can take courses from any of the pathways, but if they concentrate six courses within any single pathway, they would earn integrated and interdisciplinary “Pathway” minor degrees.

One option which could be employed in any model is the creation of PLUS courses – a new style of general education course that emphasizes the process of research and investigation in real-world problems – thus taking advantage of NIU’s strength as a research institution and infusing investigation and discovery into the general education curriculum. One example might be replacing a course called “General Biology” with one called “Defeating Malaria” or replacing a course called “Social Problems” with one called “Violence in Modern Society.”

NIU Plus logoAll three models increase the flexibility of the general education program by:

  • reducing the requirements for a native student by one to two courses.
  • allowing more upper-division courses to count for general education credit.
  • permitting some general education courses to also count for a major studies degree.

All three models also aim to make general education more interdisciplinary by grouping courses into clusters or pathways, by considering more courses from different areas to be included into general education and by utilizing our strongest asset – the faculty – to think and educate in creative and synergistic ways.

The task force seeks your input on these models by Thursday, May 1.

Michael Kolb is general education coordinator and professor of anthropology at NIU.