Committing to Proficiency Through Our Liberal Education Program

For decades, St. Cloud State University’s attempts to operationalize our meaningful learning outcomes and assessment practices left faculty, staff, and administrators frustrated, structures ineffective, and successful implementation elusive. Furthermore, to ease transfer pathways within our state system, we took part in an alignment exercise for general education. This compliance exercise engendered similar frustrations and left our Liberal Education Program (LEP) in a state that evokes images of a buffet line at our campus dining hall.

Not long after, we were facing our periodic regional accreditation report and site visit and knew that there were some areas in our academic program in which the Higher Learning Commission would take keen interest. Institutional learning outcomes and assessment were the two most pressing areas of concern. After some reflection, we decided to throw caution to the wind and tackle these issues together, all at once.

Our Husky Compact

Our efforts resulted in what we call “Our Husky Compact,” a shared promise that faculty and staff make to our students and that students make to their education. There are six dimensions to Our Husky Compact:

  • Communicate effectively: relationship building, conflict resolution, proficiency in teamwork—all require effective communication.
  • Engage as a member of a diverse and multicultural world: we are members of a global society impacted by a global economy.
  • Think creatively and critically: the ability to think creatively and critically is core to overcoming challenges.
  • Act with personal integrity and civic responsibility: nurturing ethical and productive difference-makers.
  • Seek and apply knowledge: encouraging independence, informed decision making, open-mindedness, and motivation.
  • Integrate existing and evolving technologies: technology is used every day to improve efficiency, better balance work/life, and access information.

These dimensions came from more than two thousand different program outcomes, as well as from work at the national level through the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Degree Qualifications Profile from Lumina Foundation.

We purposely drafted the dimensions as an extension of our LEP, where students gain a foundational skill set in their introductory courses that is intended to be refined in their upperlevel coursework. Our Husky Compact is a holistic, comprehensive attempt to align a liberal education skill set across the institution, in both curricular and cocurricular contexts. The six dimensions are by nature intended to permeate the silos created by major/minor programs, challenge the compartmentalization of the LEP, and grow ownership of Our Husky Compact as an institutional imperative.

One of the most significant and persistent challenges is the perception of the value of general education coursework and its connections across a four-year experience. We survey our graduating seniors each semester, and part of the survey includes the following item for response: The general education courses I took at St. Cloud prepared me for my major coursework.

We asked students to answer on a sliding scale: strongly disagree, disagree, don’t know, agree, strongly agree. Since 2014, about half of our students answered that they “agree” or “strongly agree” with that statement (a high of 57 percent and low of 47 percent). This is problematic, as we not only want our students to understand the value of a liberal education, but Our Husky Compact is intended to align our LEP with our program outcomes.

However, when we first tried to overhaul our LEP, Our Husky Compact did not yet exist. Our existing state-mandated general education outcomes weren’t yet in intentional alignment, and so it wasn’t surprising that both students (and faculty) had difficulty seeing the alignment between their general education coursework and upper-level courses for their majors.

It was in this context that a team of faculty and administrators attended the 2015 AAC&U Institute on General Education and Assessment (IGEA). There, we had the opportunity to discuss and develop a meaningful plan that would allow for increased connection between the LEP and the yet-to-be-finalized outcomes of Our Husky Compact, and for their infusion throughout our programs.

The team—faculty who were deeply engaged in making courses available in the LEP as well as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, where 70 percent of LEP seats are offered—immediately identified alignment as a critical component of what became our institutional report and plan. While we always intended Our Husky Compact to encompass the learning outcomes of the Liberal Education Program, no formal alignment process had been designed or implemented up to that point.

Ideally, articulating alignment between the LEP and Our Husky Compact would eventually help us decontextualize the ten discreet goal areas of the Minnesota State Transfer Curriculum (the structure that organizes St. Cloud State’s Liberal Education Program) and translate these outcomes into the six dimensions of Our Husky Compact. The team imagined programs offering seminars and courses in the LEP that were interdisciplinary, reflecting a broad, integrative approach to learning. These courses would provide students with the kinds of skills that major and minor programs would continue building, culminating in capstone experiences. This integration of the LEP into programs as well as upper-level coursework could better prepare students for life, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century—our mission.

The team also considered an assessment structure, and again, embracing Our Husky Compact was a critical component of the plan. By more closely aligning LEP outcomes with the dimensions of Our Husky Compact, we’d be able to engage in a meaningful, holistic approach that simultaneously touched upon and assessed the LEP and major and minor programs, and reflected the integration of Our Husky Compact.

Ultimately, the IGEA team recommended viewing the Liberal Education Program as a cohesive collection of courses and experiences that was well integrated into each major and minor program offered. This perspective emphasizes integration and collaboration and provides a clearer mission to the curriculum process, which had been focused on LEP courses to comply with state expectations, rather than the LEP as a cohesive curriculum.

We left the institute energized and ready to tackle the plan’s implementation, but without a clear path forward. How could a small group of us begin to effect change? To move the needle toward the vision articulated in the plan?

Drafting the Compact

Our university’s Strategic Planning Committee led this effort. The committee consists of members of each bargaining unit on our unionized campus, a large faculty contingent, administrators, and a pair of student leaders. In total, membership can be as high as forty members, and while the committee tackles critical issues that face our campus, it plays no formal role in the decision-making process, only acting as a recommending body to the upper administration.

While this structure may seem needlessly bureaucratic, the committee provided important feedback and guidance to the administration through several recent challenges, including reorganization and fiscal instability. With broad campus representation, the committee encouraged units with different needs and agendas to work together to find consensus. In fact, the committee’s motions were only forwarded if fewer than five objections were made.

Our president at the time, Earl H. Potter III, recommended that a faculty member attend a one-day workshop at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana to learn more about a proposed national framework for authentic assessment using AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, following a model originally deployed in Massachusetts. As the faculty cochair of our university Strategic Planning Committee, Kristian Twombly attended the institute. Workshop participants learned about the rubric (in this case, the Critical Thinking VALUE Rubric), and then small groups at each table examined assignments and adjusted them to better express the outcomes defined by the rubric.

Twombly left this workshop energized and convinced that, combined with AAC&U’s LEAP initiative, this was the approach that St. Cloud State should pursue as we wrote our own institutional outcomes and developed a system of assessment of these outcomes.

Our timeline was tight. We adopted this project as our Quality Initiative for the upcoming accreditation cycle, and the drafting of our Institutional Learning Outcomes was to be completed in the upcoming year, with assessment beginning the following academic year. Lisa Foss, administrative cochair of the Strategic Planning Committee and vice president of planning and effectiveness, recommended that we send a team to two different AAC&U summer institutes: the Institute on General Education and Assessment and the Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success. Our Husky Compact—in name and conceptualization—came out of the work done by the teams at these two institutes.

Our participation at these institutes helped clarify the moral imperative at the heart of this project—that our work ultimately had to reflect our shared values as a campus if the project were to have any chance of success. What began as an effort to write institutional learning outcomes and develop a robust system of assessment had become a set of values that reflected the bonds shared among faculty, staff, and students and the commitment that we make to our students’ education.

Implementation and Assessment

We elected to follow a very transparent and iterative process as we drafted the dimensions of Our Husky Compact and the ensuing implementation. Following the initial presentation during our fall convocation in the week prior to classes, the Strategic Planning Committee went through three additional revisions, with feedback and consultation achieved via meetings, workshops, presentations, and online surveys. Ultimately, we had just over 50 percent participation from all campus constituencies, including students, and sixty presentations. That’s over six thousand different members of the campus community that provided some sort of feedback.

Once Our Husky Compact was finalized, we needed to draft and implement an assessment protocol. The Ivy Tech workshop led to our participation in the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Quality Student Learning, where papers and assignments generated by students in the classroom are scored against the VALUE rubrics. This method served as the model for our approach to assessment: we collect no more than ten artifacts from a single course and a group of faculty score them after grades have been submitted. We make every attempt to collect artifacts from across all academic units so that no one unit or program is overrepresented in the sample.

We also sample from both upper-level courses—mainly capstone courses, where mastery is demonstrated—and lower level courses, particularly in the Liberal Education Program. This allows us to set a baseline for results as well as provide critical data in terms of student learning in the LEP.

Addressing assessment in this manner served multiple purposes and institutional needs. Our assessment protocol had become stagnant and required refreshing before our imminent accreditation visit. The IGEA team noted the severe disconnect between our LEP and program-specific courses and that students were having difficulty seeing the value of these courses and experiences. And while our curriculum committee oversaw the LEP curriculum, all institutional LEP assessment efforts were halted and no committees were formed to assess student learning in the LEP. By integrating some LEP assessment with Our Husky Compact assessment, we have been able to show skeptical faculty that this work can be nonintrusive and valuable.

Advancing Through Continued Collaboration

Further integration continues to occur. Our University College, home to many of our first-year interventions and academic initiatives, has launched first-year seminars that are aligned with Our Husky Compact and still meet the state requirements for courses offered in the LEP. Our School of the Arts has created a course rubric that will allow the programs within the school to offer multidisciplinary courses, much like our School of Business and School of Health and Human Services already do.

When we began this project, the institutional perspective tended to be one of mere compliance. When our campus was required to align with the statewide requirements, we chose not to innovate, but to shoehorn our existing courses into the new system with little actual change. Similarly, since the state requirements are intended to facilitate transfer between two- and four-year institutions, we defaulted to a framework in which all LEP courses are lower-level, further exacerbating the rift between the LEP and major coursework.

And even though the report and plan that the IGEA team submitted was not immediately realized and implemented, the result has been no less effective or dramatic. Why? Because from that five-person team grew a set of champions and leaders. We had started the conversation and other stakeholders—including within the administration—had to participate.

We have made these advances through continued collaboration. The structure that oversees these initiatives is multifaceted, consisting of the Strategic Planning Committee, the Our Husky Compact Oversight Committee, the Assessment Steering Committee, and the Liberal Education Committee—not to mention a variety of less organized groups of faculty and staff—working together to bring Our Husky Compact to life and institutionalize these initiatives in a way that maximizes buy-in and participation without negatively impacting workload and being too intrusive.

We still have significant hurdles to overcome. Students who transfer their general education courses into St. Cloud State may not gain the same advantages of Our Husky Compact as those who started here and completed the LEP. However, by continuing to integrate the broad approach to student learning that is exemplified by Our Husky Compact, we hope to continue the conversation and collaboration.

Kristian M. Twombly, Professor and Chair, Music; Mark Springer, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts; James R. Heiman, Associate Professor of English; Kevin W. Sharpe, Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy; and R. Jeffrey Ringer, Professor and Chair, Communication Studies—all of St. Cloud State University

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