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The Journal of General Education 52.4 (2003) 304-316

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Assessing General Education Learning Outcomes Achieved in the Inquiry-Guided, Self-Designed Major at North Carolina State University

Institutional Context

North Carolina State University (NCSU) is a Research Intensive (Research I) university located in Raleigh, the state capital. A land-grant institution, it currently has a faculty of 1685 and a student body of 29,637. Established in 1887 as an agricultural and engineering college, it is now a comprehensive university offering bachelor's degrees in 92 fields in nine colleges: Agriculture and Life Sciences, Design, Education, Engineering, Humanities and Social Sciences, Management, Natural Resources, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and Textiles.

Inquiry-Guided Learning

Increasingly over the past ten years, NCSU faculty interested in issues of teaching and learning have used the term "inquiry-guided learning" (IGL) to describe the kind of learning they are trying to promote. The term suggests classroom practices that help students to raise, sharpen, and follow through on their own questions, to respond to questions posed by the faculty member by asking further questions and seeking answers to them, and to develop a habitual sense of inquiry that will transcend the boundaries of the course. The assumption, and it is being continuously and self-consciously questioned in the IGL classroom, is that students retain information and concepts much better if they have internalized the related questions, and they learn better how to do research and evaluate evidence if they have made these questions their own. A further assumption is [End Page 304] that students are more ready to apply the standards of critical thinking, such as accuracy, precision, clarity, breadth, depth, relevance and logic, to their work and thereby improve their critical thinking skills, if the work is propelled and guided by questions of importance to the students.

Inquiry-Guided Learning and General Education Outcomes

Proponents of inquiry-guided learning believe, based on some evidence, that classes designed to promote this kind of learning enable students to learn more and retain it longer than classes in which students hear lectures and memorize facts, concepts and procedures. What is more important for purposes of this paper is that this process of learning also promotes achieving goals associated with general education. The preamble to the North Carolina State University general education program defines its goal in terms of "intellectual discovery, versatility of mind, motivation for learning, intellectual discipline, and self-reliance," all of which, it says, are needed for responsible participation in a democratic society. These are precisely the skills and mental habits for which inquiry-guided classes are proving themselves to be important. Thus, while IGL and general education are distinct programs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to think of one without thinking of the other.

Inquiry-Guided Learning, General Education, and the Self-Designed Major

Many departments in the university have one or two IGL courses for their majors, particularly as capstone courses, and three departments (Microbiology, Wood and Paper Science, and Multidisciplinary Studies) have designed a sequence of several IGL courses for their majors. This article reports on the self-designed major sponsored by the Division of Multidisciplinary Studies and procedures for assessing it. Since the entire program is inquiry-guided, and the outcomes of this learning coincide with general education learning outcomes, assessing the program amounts to assessing the extent to which general education objectives are achieved through the major. This article focuses on two specific outcomes, which are equally the desired outcomes of the [End Page 305] major, of IGL, and of general education. The two are so interrelated that they could be considered a single outcome: developing a commitment to inquiry and being able to apply the standards of critical thinking to one's written and verbal presentations of an inquiry.

Multidisciplinary Studies

The Division of Multidisciplinary Studies (MDS) was established in 1970 and the self-designed major in 1976. The Division has 14 faculty members who direct 3 interdisciplinary degree programs, oversee 7 interdisciplinary minors...


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