"When am I going to use algebra?" Making General Education Relevant

In student affairs, we are great at taking complex things and breaking them into tasty little chunks that students can work with, magically answering questions they didn’t even know they had. We’re awesome in that way. But one nugget we just can’t seem to find a way to get students to swallow is why they need general education classes. Conversations around gen ed too often look like this:

Student: Why do I need another writing class? How much writing is a physical therapist really going to need?

Student Affairs Professional: It’s important that you become a well-rounded learner.

Student: I get that, but I already took one writing class. I don’t feel like I need another one, and my parents don’t want to pay for classes I don’t need…

SA Professional: Completing the general education core tells employers you have a diverse skill set.

Student: Doesn’t the first writing class I took show that?

SA Professional: Sighs. It’s required. You can’t graduate without a second level English class.

This conversation may get the student to sign up for English Comp 2, but it doesn’t answer the real question being asked: what future benefit will I get from taking this class?

By feeding in to the perception that general education courses are just another hoop to jump through, we miss an opportunity to change the culture of higher ed. To encourage meaningful, transformative learning experiences, we have to get better at articulating why gen ed matters.

One of the assumptions of adult learning theory is that adult learners are “problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge” (Merriam, 2001). When students understand how their learning applies to their specific goals, they learn more effectively and feel more like they’re getting their money’s worth.

The trouble is, they’re not wrong. You’re probably not going to use what you learned in History of Film as a nurse or Calculus as a kindergarten teacher, yet somehow we have to show students clearly why every class matters. There are three reasons why general education courses are just as important, if not more, to your students’ success as their major courses.

1. You’ve gotta crawl before you can walk.

When students come from high school, they have no clue how to be successful in college classes. Jumping into a schedule loaded with major-related courses in semester one would be a student success disaster. Learning to craft a written argument, speak in front of a group, use math in real world contexts, identify reputable sources, adapt to unfamiliar situations, and understand viewpoints different from your own are not skills students are bringing out of high school. Nontraditional students face a deficit as well; just like their traditional counterparts, they're incredibly driven and bright, but many of them have already lived lives that were harder than necessary because they didn't have any structured, intentional opportunities to learn those hidden success skills. Not job skills or equations. Interpersonal and research skills. Finding the right words. Asking the right questions.

Experience is the most effective teacher, but you don't know what you don't know.

College puts faculty, staff, and classmates who DO know what you don't know at your fingertips. That's a pretty big advantage. Gen ed helps you learn how to learn as an adult, and if you're smart about it, you can usually translate those classes into the language of the major pretty easily, too.


2. Practice makes perfect.

Knowledge is perishable- unless you use it again and again, it spoils. Education takes new information and spins it, flips it, and makes it real. Once it's real, you get to keep it. But you have to earn it. How to calculate a tip at dinner, identifying the parallels between a local policy decision and a historical flub, or writing a coherent paragraph for a cover letter are all simple sounding tasks that are easy to do poorly, unless you’ve had a chance to practice them. Professors aren't spending all this time teaching APA format because it’s fun. They're doing it because many people will have to write a document using a specific format at some point, and it would be nice to have written around rigid rules a few times before there are pressing consequences for getting it wrong.

3. It’s all connected.

Global warming has been a major contributing factor to the snowstorms that hit the northeast United States last winter.

Intuitively, that doesn’t make any sense, but our world is full of factors that don’t seem to relate…until they do.

Jo Johnson (a colleague, friend, and all around gen ed master at Ivy Tech Community College) once told me, “Students need to learn and understand the world beyond their majors, to see how ideas and people work together and affect one another. Knowledge, however it is obtained, is valuable. Without it, we become a society of followers who cannot think beyond what we are told because we are lacking the skills to do so.” I’ve used my degree like crazy, but the class that I still draw from the most is one I wouldn’t have guessed I’d ever use again: public speaking. At the heart of general education requirements is the assumption that the world is vastly more complex and multifaceted than we give it credit for. We never know what we’re going to use later, so general education is a failsafe for those times when we need a little more context to make the pieces click together. General education starts the process of filling in the gaps between how we understand the world and how the world really is, in a safe environment where we’re free to explore and make mistakes. A college major is a starting point, the skeleton of what a career will be. The rest happens when we go out and do something with the knowledge we’ve gained, and a good general framework allows us to do more, faster.


All of this is kind of hard to break into those bite sized nuggets that students love so much, but I promise you, it’s a conversation worth having. Tell them that college success is a learning curve in itself, and gen ed helps them to be ready to conquer it. Tell them that general courses will give them practice time on skills they’ll need as a college student and beyond. Tell them that their major courses help them work like a doctor/architect/social worker, but gen ed helps them think like one. Just don’t tell them that the main reason they need them is that they’re required.

References Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New Directions For Adult & Continuing Education, 2001(89), 3.