In-Depth

Educators, students discuss value of general education courses

Students across majors gather together in classrooms to learn required material. 

Students across majors gather together in classrooms to learn required material. 

Image By: Zoe Bendoff

Students, professors debate the benefits of breadth requirements

By Elea Levin

At the beginning of each semester, UW-Madison students search through the course catalog, browse the Rate My Professors’ website and talk to their friends to find the easiest courses that fulfill breadth and general education requirements in subject areas outside of their major. 

While some tend to complain that these classes are annoying or a waste of their time, many students and professors see the benefits of having these requirements in place.

“In my personal opinion, the university is looking out for what skills are most important for college grads to have in order to be functional, productive members of society,” Professor Beth Meyerand, associate chair of graduate advising in the College of Engineering, said. 

UW-Madison students must take a variety of general education classes, including those in communications, quantitative reasoning, ethnic studies and “breadth.” Breadth requirements are 13-15 credits of coursework intended to provide students with experience in a variety of intellectual fields — natural science, social science, humanities and literature.

These courses aim to help students understand how fields outside their major think about the world, and to give students a chance to explore subjects they may not have otherwise had the opportunity to, possibly sparking their interest in a new area of study. 

Professor John Hawks teaches an introductory biological anthropology course. He believes that although some students may take his course to fulfill their biological science breadth, they often end up gaining a lot of knowledge and finding at least part of the class interesting and helpful.

“I have an audience of students that know what’s important about biology that applies to them and gives them more context for the world around them,” he said. “Most breadth courses do that really well for different students.”

While schools across the country have a wide range of requirements, the breadth requirements across the UW System and other Big 10 schools are fairly similar, Meyerand said.

“The faculty and all the institutions talk to each other when coming up with these requirements,” she explained.

Breadth requirements came into existence in the 1960s when there was a push to be more inclusive of minorities and other cultures in higher education.  

Matthew Hora, an assistant professor of adult and higher education, believes that without breadth requirements, especially in ethnic studies, students would miss out on important skills that might not be taught in major-specific classes.

“We need people who understand how to talk across race, culture and gender lines, it’s in demand in the workplace,” Hora said. “Many of people arguing for cutting it tends to be aggravated white males who feel the pendulum has swung too far.” 

Students may be exempt from some of these courses depending on their placement test scores and advanced level classes in high school. Still, most will need to take at least a few courses throughout their time at UW-Madison. 

“Clearly at big universities, some students find it hard to find the thing that matches with them,” Hawks said. 

While some students claim they take “joke” classes to fulfill general education and breadth requirements, UW-Madison tries to offer a variety of classes to make it easier for students to find at least one class per breadth requirement that is somewhat interesting to them. 

“I think [breadth requirements] can be a good incentive for people to take classes they otherwise wouldn’t,” sophomore Noah Brown said. “But the effect of having such focused breadth requirements is students picking classes more off what boxes they can check.”

Some students find the requirements frustrating and feel they take up time that could be better used for classes more directly related to their field of study.

“Having the school make me take a certain number of credits for math or science defeats the purpose of me wanting to focus on what I want to focus on,” sophomore Izzy Steir said. “I took math and science in high school — I don’t need to take it in college where I’m paying to get an education.” 

Despite the controversy, many people acknowledge these classes have value both in preparing students for future careers and providing a holistic education. 

“The positives vastly outweigh the negatives,” Hora said. “Many grad programs are looking for students who have a specialization, but the expectation is that a student is going to be able to come in and write and communicate well.”


Possible alternatives to the system: reforming general education

By Will Husted

Students often feel the pressure to start turning red boxes green in the Degree Audit Reporting System early in their campus career.

Since 2012, students have been advised to take the ethnic studies requirement in their first 60 credits. In a 2017 ethnic studies report, the number of freshmen taking an ethnic studies course rose from 58 percent in Fall 2013 to 71 percent in Fall 2015. This rise was attributed to advisors’ outreach to new students.

However, the quality and structure of general education on campuses increasingly comes under scrutiny. 

Before 1994, a UW-Madison student’s general education would look much different than it does today — that same year, the university decided to fix what they saw as a lackluster multi-subject educational experience. 

“Moreover, from one school/college to another, considerable variation exists regarding requirements for basic composition and mathematics instruction, as well as for other required subjects, including natural science, humanities, literature, and social studies,” an updated version of the 2017 report said.  

Thus, the modern general education system for UW-Madison was born. 

Before graduating from UW-Madison, students are expected to take courses in the following fields: Communication A, Communication B, Quantitative Reasoning A, Quantitative Reasoning B and Ethnic Studies.

UW-Madison’s General Education Committee outlined what they believe students ought to receive via these requirements. The committee describes a particular set of skills they hope graduates gain. 

“This core establishes a foundation for living a productive life, being a citizen of the world, appreciating aesthetic values, and engaging in lifelong learning in a continually changing world,” according to their website.

There is a question, however, in exactly the quality of gen ed students receive and if that education aligns with the stated goals of the university. This question has prompted some to think of alternatives to the system, especially with technological advances. 

Philosophy professor Harry Brighouse noted the flaws in defining a broad, knowledge-enhancing education often used when faculty construct gen ed requirements. In partnership with the Mellon Foundation, a group working to advocate for humanities education, Brighouse outlined what a typical breadth experience looks like at universities. 

“It is implausible that the aims of the liberal education are always fulfilled by the kinds of

institution and/or courses of study we have described and equally implausible that those are the only ways through which those aims could be fulfilled,” Brighouse said

Brighouse is specifically critical of the decoupled incentive structures between faculty and students. 

Some teachers, Brighouse claims, see young students in their gen ed classes as potential future enrollees in the instructor’s field. With this mindset, instructors tailor lessons to spark student interest rather than give a wide swath of knowledge. 

“The actual behavior of the institution and the people within it is not necessarily aligned with the stated educational aims of the institution,” Brighouse said. 

Faculty sat down to discuss and recommend alternatives to this issue in a way that might better achieve institutional goals of offering students core knowledge that would help them post-graduation. 

University of Illinois at Chicago faculty proposed various solutions to a problem they see partially based on student incentives for coming to their university in April 2019. 

“Many UIC students want to know that all the courses they take for their degree are helping them develop the skills and experiences they need to successfully enter and compete in the workplace,” their report said. The report also noted the university’s obligation to expose students to new ideas that will help them turn into good citizens and people able to contribute to the world. 

With this relationship in mind the commission recommended various solutions to the varying incentives between students, faculty and administrators. 

Among them was to make all gen ed courses problem-oriented and taught by a team of cross-college faculty. In this model, students from all majors would tackle big issues such as climate change and persistent poverty, according to the report. 

“Courses would aim to teach students how to work collaboratively to be able to make progress on such seemingly impossible or complex problems,” the report said. The report also offered a value to the Chicago community in its ability to problem-solve nearby.

Building off the problem-based gen ed experience, the authors of the report recommended a gen ed capstone which students from different majors would work in teams to solve a big problem — possibly in the community.

One way UW-Madison is attempting to bridge student and instructor incentives is through a program called Redesigning for active learning in high-enrollment courses through the Office of the Provost’s Teaching and Learning initiative. 

“The REACH Initiative aims to transform large, introductory, lecture-based courses into sustainable, active learning environments that increase students’ engagement in their own learning,” according to their website.

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