During the 2001-02 academic year, a new Outcomes Assessment Plan was approved by the College’s governance bodies. LaGuardia’s outcomes assessment plan is designed to assess institutional effectiveness in terms of learning and teaching - and using the resultant data to improve our pedagogies and academic programs. The plan is designed to assess overall student achievement of the College’s general education core competencies as well as each major’s programmatic competencies. In line with our commitment to the academic, career, and personal growth and development of every student, the assessment system will use a variety of assessment tools to evaluate the effectiveness of learning and teaching. A central feature of the assessment plan is an emphasis on inter-disciplinary skills development, in that required core competencies are to be developed and assessed across all disciplines.
At LaGuardia, we first reconsidered the definition of general education as it applies to the community college. While it is the community college “Liberal Arts” degree programs (our AA in Liberal Arts: Humanities and Social Sciences and AS in Liberal Arts: Mathematics and Science) that correspond most closely to what has been traditionally defined as general education at the senior colleges, we did not want to equate “general education” with only these Liberal Arts majors. Rather we wanted a model that would provide each and every major with a common general education experience. Could we achieve this goal through uniform general education course requirements across all majors? Although such a distributional system is the norm at 90 percent of senior colleges,1 it is difficult to accomplish at a community college. Associate degrees (at least at CUNY) are generally capped at 60 credits, and each major needs to include general education courses appropriate for the discipline and these often vary by major. In fact, designating general education courses on a program-by-program basis is a typical pattern among community colleges;2 as a result, if we try to define general education at a community college as a set of specific courses that all students have to take across all majors, the number of such courses tends to be small indeed. With this difficulty in mind, we began thinking it would make more sense for us to design a comprehensive general education program around a series of competencies or proficiencies required across all majors, rather than around such a limited number of required courses – but what would be key was developing those competencies tightly linked to discipline-area content, as the last thing we wanted was to work on competencies in isolation.
At the same time, other issues, demands, and projects were coming into play. We were grappling with designing and implementing an outcomes assessment plan as mandated by our accrediting agency; a major Title V grant enabled us to adopt electronic portfolios (ePortfolios) as the basis for the plan. A Task Force was re-examining our developmental education programs with the goal of improving student learning outcomes; simultaneously, we were designing a comprehensive first-year experience program as a collaboration between the divisions of Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management & Student Development. And we were selected as one of ten colleges nationally to participate in the “Integrative Learning: Opportunities to Connect” project sponsored by AAC&U and the Carnegie Foundation. As work on these initiatives progressed, the pieces of our general education and assessment programs began coming together. Conceiving of general education as competencies across the curriculum would allow for a relatively uniform outcomes assessment process in each major: each and every program would take responsibility for graduating students proficient in those competencies. Perhaps more importantly, an across-the-curriculum approach would support broad-based faculty exploration of how competency development could at the same time facilitate discipline-area learning, for example, through such pedagogies as “writing to learn.” Aspects of our definition of “integrative learning” thus began to emerge: writing, we told our students, was not something just done in English class, nor was making oral presentations just for speech class, but rather these skills also needed to be developed in the context of the disciplines: as LaGuardia graduates, students should be well on the path toward writing and speaking as members of their chosen field did. By the same token, faculty teaching business or computer courses, for example, would not leave writing instruction solely to the English faculty, nor speaking solely to the speech faculty. We wanted this kind of integration to extend to developmental education as well. With the majority of students at LaGuardia - and most community colleges - needing developmental education, we felt that linking skills and the disciplines should become a key element in our general education program. …
LaGuardia’s recent efforts [in general education] have thus been in the domain of “common aims” (core competencies) and “experiences” (learning communities, ePortfolio, Academies and first-year activities). And we have developed a perhaps somewhat unorthodox definition of general education by including and integrating basic skills. We are striving to create common intellectual experiences for all students – acquiring basic skills and core competencies in the context of a discipline, engaging with a common reading, taking an urban studies and capstone writing intensive course, as well as becoming more self-reflective and taking ownership of the learning process through building an ePortfolio. …
But what about the “what” of general education? We’ve also questioned if our approach was giving short shrift to knowledge and content – the actual courses students take. Certainly we continue to review and update our curricula - recently adding for example, a more rigorous mathematics course to several programs – but should we be spending more time trying to create a common set of courses for all students? We want to consider the answer in light of a few points. First, Adleman’s recent data show “nearly 60 percent of undergraduates attending more than one institution;” 3 thus, even if a set of general education distribution requirements is agreed upon, how many students are actually completing the entire package? Second, while Adelman states that the best indicator of college degree attainment is the “academic intensity” of the student’s high school curriculum, arguing that “the principal story line leading to degrees is that of content,” he also acknowledges that “counting Carnegie units in English or science is not the same as describing and validating what students have learned.”4 Our contention is that “academic intensity” does not necessarily equate with specific content courses (even if one wants to grant that some subjects may be inherently more difficult than others), but has as much to do with the degree to which students are challenged and engaged in those courses. It is this kind of active learning and engagement with content that we have been most interested in stimulating through our general education and assessment efforts – agreeing with the principle that “the primary cause of genuine learning is the activity of the learner’s own mind.”5
Finally, it is sobering to keep in mind that even the best-constructed core curriculum or set of distribution requirements is subject to what Lee Schulman calls the “problem of amnesia,” observing that “in liberal learning, one of the ubiquitous problems we face is the fragility of what is learned… Students seldom remember much of what they’ve read or heard beyond their last high-stakes exam on the material.”6 The answer, he posits, is to promote active learning, writing, dialogue, reflection, integration, and opportunities for students to “go meta” about their learning and connect it to their goals. …. These are the aims of general education at LaGuardia – and in fact end up focusing us on content in the most important way: keeping us engaged in the hard work of empowering our students as learners, helping them to understand more deeply whatever academic content they encounter and to connect it more meaningfully to their lives.
Thus, as LaGuardia’s outcomes assessment plan was being thought out, a number of goals emerged. We wanted a plan that would first and foremost help us improve student learning and that would designate common outcomes that we would strive to achieve across all programs so that all of our students would benefit. We wanted to capture the student learning and development that in our heart of hearts we knew was occurring, but that was not always well captured by measures such as graduation rates and standardized tests. We felt that the best way to “describe and validate what students have learned” and to measure the “academic intensity” of our courses was to look systematically at actual student work. And we wondered if we could design, in Lee Knefelkamp’s words, assessment that would be “transformative” –
…assessment is transformative, and whether or not we’re comfortable with it, assessment is about revolution. If we really listen to students and take them seriously, then our teaching and learning methodologies will change… Finely tuned assessment efforts help keep us from being self-satisfied or complacent about the workplace we love… Through assessment we challenge ourselves to rethink our ways of teaching, structuring the curriculum, working together, and even knowing itself. It provides a means for self-correcting action and for the continual expansion of our thinking about the idea and purpose of higher education.7
We began by deciding with the department chairpersons upon a list of general education core competencies required in each and every major: 1) written communication, 2) critical thinking, 3) critical reading, 4) quantitative reasoning, 5) oral communication, 6) research and information literacy, and 7) technological literacy. In establishing these general education core competencies, and app roving them through college governance [after an extensive series of faculty forums], the faculty have taken responsibility for reinforcing these competencies within each particular discipline as part of an across-the-curriculum approach. For each competency, faculty would be supported through professional development seminars offered by our Center for Teaching and Learning. It is precisely this sort of experimenting and assessing on the part of faculty – engaging students in the kinds of writing, speaking, quantitative reasoning, or research skills necessary in their respective disciplines and exploring pedagogies that might better promote these skills – that can refine and deepen our thinking about teaching and curricula. In addition, the “productive” nature of many of these core competencies meant that faculty in all the disciplines would end up designing many more opportunities for students to actively (re-)produce knowledge whether through writing, speaking, or project-based work – potentially transformative given the so-called “generation effect,” namely, that “having to produce information leads to better learning than being presented with information.” 8
Using ePortfolios for assessment would allow us to achieve another of our goals – that of capturing a rich, longitudinal picture of student development and learning through systematic examination of student work. As faculty worked to enhance learning through assignments calling for more extensive writing, critical reading, quantitative reasoning and discipline-based research, we would collect and evaluate this work through electronic portfolios. We therefore specified a minimum number of “ePortfolio courses” in all curricula where student work would be put into their ePortfolios: basic skills and introductory courses to capture baseline data; the urban studies course (a requirement in all majors) as a mid-point; and a capstone course as the end-point. These ePortfolio courses require that students’ assignments be deposited in their portfolios; this work is used to assess student mastery of competencies required in the major, as well as selected general education core competencies. Thus, the urban studies ePortfolio course has been designated as an official point in the curricula where writing, critical thinking, and critical reading (we ultimately combined these into one “critical literacy” competency) is to be reinforced and assessed; all urban studies courses are therefore now running as “writing intensive” courses. The capstone ePortfolio course includes at least one assignment or project designed to reinforce and assess the critical literacy and the research and information literacy competencies (again serving as a designated writing intensive course). … As a major comes up for program review, faculty will be able to collect a sample of student work from their portfolios, affording a record of student learning from the first semester through graduation. Assessing an actual body of student work against the faculty-developed rubrics for each core competency tells a program whether or not students are achieving the required levels and if not, where improvement is needed. Recommendations from these program reviews can then become part of a program’s strategic plan goals.
From: Arcario, Paul and James Wilson. “Putting It Together: General Education at LaGuardia Community College.” In Reclaiming the Public University: Conversations on General and Liberal Education. Eds. Summerfield, J. and C. Benedicks. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.