Are Gen Ed Courses the Toughest Courses to Teach?
Some courses are more difficult to teach than others, and I think we’d all agree that general education courses are among the hardest courses to teach. For one thing, most students don’t want to take them. They don’t think they need to know the content, aren’t curious about it, and don’t hesitate to tell us how much they don’t like it, even though they know little about it. And if the content turns out to be difficult, their negativity grows in proportion. Then there are the classes themselves, often large and sometimes numbering in the hundreds. Meanwhile the faculty tasked with teaching these challenging courses tend to be those with the least experience.
A recent article in Pedagogy recounts the experiences of two English faculty members each teaching a required course; one on Shakespeare and the other a multicultural/women’s lit course. It’s an excellent piece that explores the problems teaching required courses, most of which are not content-specific. For example, students aren’t motivated in these courses. Teachers find that vexing because it feels like there’s so little that can be done when the motivation is missing, and here’s where this article is helpful.
Authors Kaplan and Neill point out that required general education courses are part of a much larger set of requirements. Both professional and degree programs lay out curricular experiences that leave students few choices. The trek through an academic program becomes a matter of checking off boxes with general education courses just one of many requirements students are obligated to complete.
Now, we require general education courses for good reasons. An educated person is broadly knowledgeable with more than expertise in a selected field. Nonetheless, if those weren’t required, it’s absolutely certain that most students wouldn’t take them, even though, some students report after the fact that they’re glad they did. They discover interests they didn’t know they had, and if even they don’t fall in love with the content, they start to understand the value of broad knowledge and a diversity of learning experiences
On the other hand, being required to do something without knowing the reason why visibly dampens motivation. Students drape themselves across their desks. They sleep. They text. They skip class. They exercise what little control they have. They avoid early morning classes, shop for the easy courses, and/or put off taking these required courses until they end up with a whole semester full of them.
Kaplan and Neill believe that giving students some control increases motivation and research stands behind what they report happening in their courses. They do point out that, “A class oriented toward autonomy does not cede pedagogical authority over learning major content or skills ….” (p. 35). Rather it creates a learning environment that gives students agency and respects their ability to make at least some of the decisions about what and how they’re learning. For example, the authors describe deadline windows that let students submit work any time during a designated time period. They lower the grading stakes with a policy that allows students to revise any assignment so long as the student meets to discuss revisions first. The higher grade is recorded. Kaplan gives up some control over content by designating a set of potential readings and letting students make the case for which ones the class will read.
They also make the point that course policies can calcify over time; their rationale is no longer clear to students. The policies look like another form of arbitrary control, something else that’s decided for them. Take page requirements for written work. If not specified exactly, students want to know and believe themselves incapable of deciding. What’s gotten lost is how page length indicates the amount of depth and detail the assignment merits. Kaplan now talks to students about how much content is needed given what the assignment is proposing that students do. She offers page length as a guideline but does not penalize students for going under or over. She does, however, deduct points if the writing is excessively wordy or provides insufficient detail or evidence to illustrate or support the student’s claims.
Lots of factors make general education courses hard to teach but students’ lack of motivation creates unique challenges for those who teach these courses. Does giving students a bit more control change their attitudes and how they approach the course? How much control does it take to make a difference? What’s your experience?
Reference: Kaplan, R. and Neill, K. (2018). Teaching required courses: Pedagogy under duress. Pedagogy, 18 (1), 25-50.