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The Journal of General Education 52.4 (2003) 237-252

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A Framework for Assessing General Education Outcomes Within the Majors


The National Center for Postsecondary Improvement (NCPI) surveyed chief academic officers at approximately 1,400 institutions of higher education. The results revealed that an overwhelming majority of schools reported collecting student assessment data such as basic skills, progress to degree, and academic intentions. However, only about a third of the institutions assessed students' higher-order learning skills, affective development, or professional skills (Lazerson, Wagener, & Shumanis, 2000).

In this era of global competitiveness, it is not sufficient for colleges and universities to train students for mere technical competence. What is required for graduates' professional and personal success is additional attention to the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will support them throughout their lives. General education outcomes, as well as technical skills and knowledge developed through concentrated study in a major discipline, must be developed in every college or university graduate.

To better serve students and to address the heightened call for accountability inhigher education, institutions must engage in a comprehensive campus-wide discussion on the specific components of critical thinking, problem solving, writing, and the methods to assess these skills (Maki, 2001). This opening article provides aframework for assessing these types of general education outcomes within the major fields of study. [End Page 237]

Purposes of Higher Education

Higher education's purpose and its role in society have been a matter of scholarly and public debate since the founding of Harvard in 1636. Thomas Jefferson advocated public education as the means to enable citizens of the commonwealth to sustain their roles in self-government. He also acknowledged the value of literacy and numeracy for the business of everyday life (Onuf, 2000). When confronted with the relevancy of ancient languages and the liberal arts, the authors of The Yale Report of 1828 took the position that young people should be required to study a variety of topics so that all areas of their minds would be exercised (Cohen, 1998).

In more recent times, higher education has come under increasing scrutiny by politicians, regional and professional accreditation agencies, funders, the media, parents, students, alumni, and the general public. Business leaders assert that most college graduates are not prepared to enter into today's fast-paced global business environment. While some businesses are satisfied with the technical skills developed by graduates within their major disciplines, many business leaders report that recent graduates are deficient in several areas, including written and oral communication skills, teamwork, and the capacity for lifelong learning (Oblinger & Verville, 1998). Employed alumni also complain about poor preparation in a number of areas.

These criticisms from various stakeholders lead to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, goals for institutions of higher education. According to Jones (2002), "Employers are searching for graduates with strong abilities in problem solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership" (p. iii). Faculty members expect students to develop sophisticated intellectual and written communication skills to enable them to explore multiple fields and modes of inquiry and to acquire substantive knowledge within a specific discipline. Many students and parents view college as the "springboard to employment" and want "job-related courses that will prepare [the students] to enter... their chosen careers" (National Panel Report, 2002, pp. ix, 8).

A highly educated population is viewed as the key to economic growth and a stable society. It has been estimated that eighty percent of the jobs in the United States within the next twenty years will be [End Page 238] cerebral and only twenty percent manual - the exact opposite of the ratio in 1920 (Oblinger & Verville, 1998). Oblinger and Verville (1998) call for an educational environment that will develop successful intelligence, moving beyond analytical acumen to include creativity and practicality. As Chickering and Gamson (1991) explain, "the dramatic changes in social conditions and economic requirements make effective postsecondary education a critical requirement for effective citizenship, productive work, and global competitiveness" (p. 1). Institutions...


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