The Journal of General Education 52.4 (2003) 283-303
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A Principle-Based Approach to Assessing General Education Through the Majors
Sharon J. Hamilton
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) is an urban public research-extensive institution located in downtown Indianapolis. Combining both Indiana University and Purdue University programs, it houses twenty-two academic and professional schools, with more than 1600 faculty. A majority of its more than 29,000 students come from the city and surrounding counties; several of its professional and graduate programs, however, such as Medicine, Dentistry, and Engineering, attract international students. Since 1996, more than 50% of our undergraduates attend full time. While more of our students attend full time than ever before, they also work, on average, more than 20 hours a week, creating challenges for time management and extended intellectual engagement.
Three years ago, the state of Indiana instituted a community college system, a move that enabled IUPUI to redefine its mission, establish higher admission standards, and expand its honors program. It is consequently in the process of transition from a "default choice" for students who could not get into their first choice of college into a first choice for many students in area high schools. As a result, our retention figures have begun to improve over the past two years, although they are still below the norm for our peer institutions.
The institution and general education
Prior to 1992, the overall campus-wide approach to general education at IUPUI can best be summarized as haphazard. In 1991, in preparation for the 1992 NCA accreditation visit, a newly-formed [End Page 283] Council on Undergraduate Learning at IUPUI and the Academic Affairs Committee of the Faculty Council established a Commission on General Education to oversee development of a centrally coordinated approach to general education for undergraduates at IUPUI. At the time, general education was the responsibility of each school, and followed, primarily, a distributive model, wherein each school defined required areas, such as humanities, sciences, and social sciences, and then specified particular requirements within those defined areas. The 1992 NCA Accreditation team noted a need within this distributive approach to identify "desired outcomes for general education... amenable to meaningful assessment." Bearing in mind both their initial charge to develop a centrally coordinated approach to general education and the NCA mandate to develop specific learning outcomes within our approach to general education, several members of the Commission on General Education attended the 1993 Lilly Endowment Workshop on the Liberal Arts. Out of that workshop, and in conjunction with several other campus committee conversations, the Commission initiated "a process approach" to general education. They set up a series of multi-disciplinary committees, day-long retreats, and town halls to explore fundamental values associated with general education. This process culminated in the IUPUI Principles of Undergraduate Learning (PULs).
Contentious turf-related negotiations, passionate disagreements, and entrenched attitudes continually threatened the process. With twenty-two different academic and professional schools carefully guarding their tuition dollars in a responsibility-centered budgeting system, consensus was not just elusive; it appeared at many times to be unattainable. Yet more than 200 faculty persevered in trying first to come to some agreement and second to convince their colleagues that a set of common learning outcomes would provide not only a shared intellectual foundation but also a coherent path for IUPUI students through the morass of school-specific and program-specific requirements.
These PULs are significant not in their uniqueness - they are very similar to the undergraduate learning values in almost any institution of learning - but rather in the fact that they are intended to permeate the undergraduate curriculum instead of being a set of courses or skills concentrated in a student's first two years of [End Page 284] college. Students are expected not only to improve their level of competence in each of the PULs during their first and second years, but also to continue to improve their level of competence throughout their undergraduate learning experiences.
Identification of Learning Outcomes to be Assessed