General Education as a Gateway for Establishing Self-Directedness

The framework for General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs), a project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), includes five principles and guidelines for educators to prepare our twenty-first-century graduates with a sound foundation for an ever-changing and dynamic way of life. This paper explores the agency and self-direction GEMs principle and examines how university students may be transformed in their journey to becoming independent with a positive self-conception as they prepare for multiple complex situations at work and in life. This means students are given a voice as they plan for their interests, work toward becoming self-directed learners, and learn how they can achieve their goals.

Our Institute Experience

General education is a core component of the four-year undergraduate curriculum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Not only does it lay a foundation to prepare students for success in their academic study, but it also serves as a gateway to building transferrable competencies and proficiencies for their future careers in the increasingly connected world.

In 2006, CUHK adopted a strategic plan that emphasized student-centered learning and learning outcomes ( As a result, campus leadership encouraged faculty to use outcomes-based approaches (OBA) in their teaching. OBA requires grade assignment to be criterion-referenced, and grade descriptors should yield a grade distribution consistent with university guidelines. ( Despite the recommendation for OBA, grading at CUHK continued to be more distribution-driven (i.e., norm-referenced or bell-shape-referenced) rather than criterion-referenced.

In 2016, the authors of this article attended the 2016 Institute on General Education and Assessment (IGEA) as a campus team with the goal of learning more about criterion-referenced grading and creating a strategy for its implementation at CUHK. By the end of the institute we had created an action plan that uses criterion-referenced grading, which we planned to promote through talks and workshops on our campus. In December 2016, about six months after the 2016 IGEA, we organized a full-day teachers’ retreat. Teachers from various departments and administrators who oversaw general education participated in the event. During the retreat, the campus team shared what we learned from the institute and our experience in developing grading rubrics. We also suggested ways to map the grading rubrics to grade descriptors. In 2017–18, the Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research conducted several more seminars on criterion-referenced grading that were open to all CUHK teachers. Now, most of our undergraduate courses (not only general education courses) have adopted criterion-referenced grading.

General Education: From Grading to Student Well-Being

The university’s mission statement describes the “educated world citizen of today and tomorrow” as a person who has been trained in “specialized subjects as well as inculcated with critical powers and cultural sensitivity.” The idea of global citizenship could be regarded as one iteration of the agency and self-direction GEMs principle, which says that “general education should play a critical role in helping all students understand, pursue, and develop the proficiencies needed for work, life, and responsible citizenship” (AAC&U 2015, 3). The general education program is offered university-wide and in individual colleges, complementing the formal curricula by delivering whole-person education and care.

Despite the vibrant nature of life in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported in 2017 that the suicide rates of youths between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four have risen slightly over the past five years (Abraham 2017). Several university students were among the deceased, which caused our university to take note of this alarming reality. During the first six months of the 2016−17 academic year, five suicides happened on the CUHK campus. It was also reported that many other university students showed signs of depression, anxiety, and pressure. In a recent survey of 3,543 CUHK students, 860 participants “demonstrated some degree of disturbance or needed help.” These incidents generated so much discussion on campus that the university took immediate action. Their first response was to provide mental health support, especially for the families and peers of the deceased. Long-term strategies included launching campaigns to promote positive thinking and peer support. As a direct response to the urgent need of foregrounding student well-being as a priority concern on campus, CUHK upgraded the Wellness and Counselling Centre and put more resources into promoting happiness and positive well-being by organizing campaigns and building a peer network. Training courses at the Wellness and Counselling Centre were provided for peer counsellors who want to help others and develop their personal potential and character strengths.

As these were top-down student well-being initiatives, campus community members also initiated a bottom-up effort. For example, in Chinese courses offered by the Department of Chinese Language and Literature, students can reflect on personal values and traditional culture through reading Chinese classics. Since the courses are taught in small groups, students’ needs and difficulties can be identified and addressed through in-class personal contact with students and their written assignments. A similar effort was initiated through the general education program. In 2015−16, as part of a first-year general education course, Chung Chi College introduced an assessment task, the Truth-Goodness-Beauty assignment, which allows students to engage in experiential activities beyond their study in their major. The Truth-Goodness-Beauty theme highlighted whole-person development and prompted students to contemplate the various possibilities they might pursue in life. Working in groups, students chose a cocurricular activity and created a poster to show how participation impacted their learning experiences. The activities took a variety of formats (e.g., volunteering on campus or in the community, attending a guest talk, participating in an open forum, visiting a gallery, appreciating a music performance, or exploring college history and heritage). The common goal of this activity was to discover positive values in these actions. For some students, that goal might be the reconstruction of the truth that scholars, visionary leaders, philosophers, outstanding youths, or the ancestors of the college have worked toward. For others, it might be to identify goodness that they saw in a monumental moment in the history of the college and consider ways for moving the same spirit forward. It could be participating in or organizing a community service activity, or the appreciation of the beauty in the harmony between nature and historical architecture. Students welcomed this special assignment and gave valuable suggestions for further improvement. For instance, web pages and annotated poems were later accepted as an alternative form of student work, and short videos were accepted the following year.

Chung Chi College offers three elective study schemes as capstone projects. The three schemes focus on different areas: (1) an analysis-oriented senior seminar, (2) service learning, and (3) an integrated study combining international exposure and analysis-oriented study. The senior seminar option is a long-established course in which students have to self-select an interdisciplinary topic on contemporary social issues or perennial issues of life. The service-learning option provides opportunities for students to engage in service activities with collaborative service organizations; students must formulate a service plan, interact with a service organization, and reflect critically on their experiences with personal development and social issues. The third option, an integrated study combining international exposure and analysis-oriented study, is a new initiative commenced in summer 2018. Students participating in a designated college summer program will apply both their international experience and the results from the program’s learning activities in their senior seminar project. The three schemes complement each other in formal academic study, social responsibilities, community service, international exposure, and global citizenship. Inquiry-based study, experiential learning, and active learning are offered as electives.

University students are commonly concerned about working in groups (Gällstedt 2003), but all students must conduct their study in an interdisciplinary group and work with an academic supervisor. Students attending the general education course are from different majors, so they have a good opportunity to communicate with others, like multidisciplinary professionals working in the real world. This enables them to raise their awareness of differences in ways of thinking, ways of doing, and ways of working with one another, providing them with the innovative capabilities and global awareness cited in Kristina J. Kaufman’s list of twenty-one ways to foster twenty-first-century skills (2013).

In working with the Office of University General Education as part of the overarching project on student well-being, some teachers were inspired to explore a small project on student anxiety about taking science-related general education courses. Wing-Hung Wong, one of this article’s authors and a project coinvestigator, played an active role in studying cognitive and affective influences on students’ anxiety about science. Research shows that there is an optimal level of anxiety that can best motivate students (Desai 2001). Garritz (2010) believes that teaching and learning should embrace the affective domain which entails “motivational beliefs, goal orientation beliefs, interest and value beliefs, self concept, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and control beliefs” (4). This is why we should investigate how students tackle problems and how the affective domain might affect the processes and outcomes of mental fluidity and flexibility. The intended outcome of this project was to assist teachers in making informed decisions about adjusting course content and pedagogy so that their critical reflection and renewed approaches might make a difference to those students. Subsequently, their work could enable other teachers to build an evidence-based understanding of anxiety and performance and how to promote students’ well-being while unbundling the complexity of learning tasks and fostering confidence and mastery through systematic and logical thinking about science.

While the general education curriculum has been well-established in the university and small design modifications to assessment activities have made a difference, others on campus have made efforts outside the general education curriculum. The Student Activity Fund was established in 2016 under the Office of University General Education. It was intended to encourage student-proposed activities for reading classic literature, which can help students acquire basic understandings of both Chinese and western civilizations while fostering academic ability and nourishing creativity. Hong Kong was a colony under British sovereignty for more than 150 years. Knowing oneself and identity have been and still are controversial phenomena among many Hong Kong people, even though this region has been under China’s sovereignty for more than twenty years. University students are adjusting from classical teacher-centered teaching in schools to a learning-centered approach in which the foci are on the learning processes (Kember and Kwan 2000). Inevitably, they will develop a strong quest for self-directedness. These students’ reading habits will serve as an essential academic success factor because critical evaluation and reflection of the classics can lead to the understanding of identity, a relationship with society and civic responsibility, and engagement with communities at large. Subsequently, these students become agents to spread and promote their experiences reading the classics. In the past two years, supported activities included reading camps, exhibitions, book talks, and reading groups. Topics included Chinese philosophies, political theories, and human issues such as happiness, suffering, sexuality, hope, love, and faith. Students who organized these activities had to collaborate with peers and be creative when sharing their interpretations of classics with a public audience. By organizing these activities, students have gained both a sense of achievement and a more in-depth understanding of making meaning of human values.

In recent years, CUHK has explored the role of general education in promoting students’ well-being in the context of global citizenship. This exploration is still in the preliminary stage. In June, CUHK held the 2017 Institute on General Education cum Teacher and Student Conference. Among topics like course design, pedagogy, and general education course and program assessment, students’ well-being was also a focus through a lecture and in-depth discussion in a workshop. In December 2018, there will be another Institute on General Education cum Teacher and Student Conference. Global citizenship and well-being will be the central discussion topics for that meeting.

We understand global citizenship and well-being as two faces of the same coin. Understanding oneself as a member of a diverse and changing global community and understanding one’s inner world are both important, and both may present challenges for students. Our task is to assist students as they find and sustain their own well-being. Well-being is a matter of feeling educationally valuable, and this outcome will remain with us for a long time.


General education, which typically encompasses one-quarter of students’ study at CUHK, has played a significant role in preparing students for unmet challenges in life. Through the systematic design and delivery of teaching, students can become self-directed learners skilled at collaborative problem-solving by making plans, developing creative solutions, and embracing the diversity and creativity of individuals in different majors. Students in Hong Kong can further gain proficiency in reading Chinese and Western classics while deepening their identity as self-directed learners, and cocurricular activities can help them prepare for the professional knowledge and proficiencies necessary for lifelong learning. This takes determination and active, continuous inquiry on the part of teachers to communicate with students about the benefits of various activities in the general education program. Our collaboration for more innovation has only just begun.


Abraham, Anisha. 2017. “It’s Time to Talk Openly with Hong Kong’s Youth about Suicide and Stress.” South China Morning Post, March 4.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2015. General Education Maps and Markers: Designing Meaningful Pathways to Student Achievement. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Desai, Mayur S. 2001. “Computer Anxiety and Performance: An Application of a Change Model in a Pedagogical Setting.” Journal of Instructional Psychology 28 (3): 141.

Gällstedt, Margareta. 2003. “Working Conditions in Projects: Perceptions of Stress and Motivation Among Project Team Members and Project Managers.” International Journal of Project Management 21 (6): 449−55.

Garritz, Andoni. 2010. “Personal Reflection: Pedagogical Content Knowledge and the Affective Domain of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 4 (2).

Kaufman, Kristina J. 2013. “21 Ways to 21st Century Skills: Why Students Need Them and Ideas for Practical Implementation.” Kappa Delta Pi Record 49 (2): 78−83.

Kember, David, and Kam-Por Kwan. 2000. “Lecturers' Approaches to Teaching and Their Relationship to Conceptions of Good Teaching.” Instructional Science 28 (5): 469-490.

Ian C. Chow, General Education Programme Manager, Chung Chi College; Paula Hodgson, Professional Consultant, Centre for Learning Enhancement and Research; Sze-Wing Tang, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature; Wing-Hung Wong, Associate Programme Director, Office of University General Education; and Yang Yeung, Lecturer, Office of University General Education—all of The Chinese University of Hong Kong


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