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May 5 / Thomas Fischer

Engaging GenEd

Engaging GenEd (verb): To become involved

Engaging GenEd (adjective): Attractive, drawing favorable attention or interest

One of the early discussions in the General Education Reform Committee (GERC) was how we might succinctly capture the work of our committee to help identify our website and other communications. This turned out to be an interesting discussion, since it compelled us to boil down the essence of what we are trying to achieve into a simple phrase. In the end, we decided on “EngagingGenEd”. We were attracted to the double meaning of this conjugation of words, which we felt reflected both our process and our goals: we want to engage the campus community in a vibrant discussion, and we want to ensure our curriculum is engaging for both our current and future students.

The GERC is charged with examining our current general education curriculum and making recommendations for any possible changes. Our goal is to ensure that general education reflects the mission of Wayne State University and the values and goals of its faculty, staff, and students. To this end, we strive to actively and continuously engage the WSU community in this process. Our new web site “EngagingGenEd” ( provides a central hub for our activities. Here you can learn about the “roadmap” we are following, and examine the variety of information that will help to shape our work. Importantly, the website provides a means for you to join the conversation, from commenting on blog posts, submitting position papers, or communicating directly with committee members. The website is just one way we are reaching out to and updating the community. We are holding a series of focus groups with university stakeholders; a schedule of these meetings can be found on our website. In the coming months, we are also administering campus-wide surveys, meeting with other university committees, and planning a series of Town Hall meetings with the university community.

An engaging curriculum can and should mean more than coursework that holds interest for students. It can mean a curriculum in which a student is actively engaged in their learning. It can mean a curriculum that supports students in becoming active members of the university community, engaged with faculty, staff, and their fellow students. It can mean a curriculum that faculty feel excited about and eager to manifest. It can also mean engagement that reflects the mission and identity of the university, both in our scholarly and creative work as well as in our contributions to Detroit and surrounding communities. How can this best be achieved? This is the discussion we wish to have with you!

We invite you to join the conversation at, and we look forward to hearing your views.

Tom Fischer, Associate Professor of Psychology
Committee co-chair


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  1. Karen Myhr / May 16 2016

    I was not present at the prior conversation on our general education requirements, but I disagree that critical thinking needs to be a separate course, and I strongly believe critical thinking should be included in all courses, although some more than others and in different ways in different settings. In fact, Critical Thinking standardized tests are often used to evaluate curricula, not single courses.

    A major difference between math and critical thinking is that much of math is highly sequenced. You cannot do algebra if you do not understand numbers, then arithmetic. The need for sequencing varies across disciplines, from “flat” disciplines which have many entry points to more hierarchical disciplines, like math. Therefore, the analogy to math as a competency is not valid for all fields.

    Evidence that it is not necessary to have a critical thinking course before teaching critical thinking in a content course is abundant. In just one introductory biology course, I teach critical thinking many ways. It is predominantly a first-semester course, so I cannot count on students coming in with college-level critical thinking skills, even if the students are taking a critical thinking course at the same time.

    My students think critically about experimental design and interpretation. They answer questions such as “given [a brief description of an experiment] which of the following results supports [or refutes] the hypothesis that…” and “If you want to test the hypothesis that… which of the following would be the best experiment?” and “If you wanted to cure cancer [or diabetes] what part of the biological system would you test, and how?” I do not ask them to define whether they are using inductive or deductive reasoning. I ask them to reason about biology.

    My students think critically about personal choices and ethical issues in biology. They debate the benefits of eating GMO foods versus organic foods. During the debates they distinguish facts, scientific predictions and personal values. They also learn about and discuss using animals and stem cells in research. They learn about cancer and diabetes. They think about how their knowledge will (or often immediately does) change how they talk about these diseases with family members who are affected by them.

    My students think logically about the order of the steps of many biological processes. They do not just memorize the order of the steps. They understand why one step leads to or must precede another. They discuss and answer questions like “Of the following biological events, which happens next during mitosis (or cellular respiration, or photosynthesis, or cell signalling, etc.).” and “Given a particular cell signaling pathway and a high concentration of [one molecule], what would you predict about the concentration of [another molecule].

    Those are my introductory students. My students in the writing intensive for seniors read and critically evaluate the primary literature; interpret complicated data presented in multiple formats; design the next experiments that should be done; and design, execute, analyze and write up their own experiments in the lab.

    The problem that “not everyone who teaches classes that involve the use of the ability to think critically, has knowledge of that subject and the ability to teach that subject” does not lead to the conclusion that critical thinking should only be taught in critical thinking classes. It leads to the conclusion that an effective general education program will explicitly 1. require critical thinking in many courses, 2. that the critical thinking teaching and learning will be periodically assessed, and 3. that there will be professional development support for willing faculty in all departments to develop and practice these skills to help our students learn to practice critical thinking in their personal and professional lives. These three elements are all part of the new general education plan. I thank the committee for acknowledging and supporting the teaching of critical teaching throughout the curriculum.

    The educational benefit of dropping some of the required courses is to free up more credits for students to pursue minors. For example, the Philosophy Department has designed a minor in medical ethics, and many students minor in a foreign language. These are excellent ways to get students to broaden their education. The new general education system should include ways to make students aware of these opportunities. Perhaps faculty from departments that have minors that they want to promote can shift some of their resources to running the student communities, which will need faculty involvement and may be a great place to promote attractive minors and student exploration of majors that they did not consider at orientation.

  2. Lawrence Lombard / May 8 2016

    Comments on the University Core Curriculum

    1. The Breadth Requirement

    The proposed Breadth Requirement in the Humanities and the Arts would require students to take two courses from different departments. While this is good, the proposal collapses the category of Visual and Performing Arts and the category of Philosophy and Letters. And this is not good, because it, in part, defeats the purpose of achieving breadth. The purpose of a “breadth” requirement in the Humanities, is, I presume, to expose students to a broader array of courses in the humanistic disciplines that students might otherwise not be exposed to.

    However, in collapsing the Visual and Performing Arts and Philosophy and Letters categories, the proposal implies that a student who, for example, takes one class in the history of art and one class in the history of music is not less exposed to the variety of humanistic disciplines than a student who takes one course in the history of art and one course in literature (or philosophy). But this seems to be a mistake.

    The dividing of the category of the Visual and Performing Arts and the category of Philosophy and Letters was done when the original General Education program was introduced; and the categories were separated precisely because it was believed then that those categories were sufficiently different in their learning outcomes, aims, and methodologies that, in order to ensure a broad exposure to the humanistic disciples, students should take a course from each of those categories. And there is no reason for thinking that the facts about the differences between those categories have changed. And so there is no good reason to collapse them into one category. In addition, keeping the separation as it currently is does not increase the number of courses or credit hours students must take and it helps to ensure the breadth that the new Core Curriculum claims to be striving for.

    2. Critical Thinking

    Despite the fact that the proposal clearly suggests the importance of Critical Thinking to students’ making the most of their undergraduate education, the Critical Thinking Competency Requirement, a requirement in the current General Education program, has been dropped.

    The apparent reason for this is that Signature “courses will be required to address Critical Thinking as a key learning outcome” (p. 2 of the proposal). This suggests that Critical Thinking can and should be taught “across the curriculum”. This very idea was discussed extensively when the Critical Thinking Requirement was included in the current system of General Education; and the idea was rejected. The fact is that there actually is a subject called Critical Thinking, a subject in which there is expertise, and to suppose that it can be taught across the curriculum is simply to deny that fact. [Indeed, there is an examination, The California Critical Thinking Skills Test, that tests for knowledge of that subject.] Supposing that critical thinking is taught across the curriculum is like supposing that mathematics is taught across the (natural and social science) curriculum. Now, while it is obvious that Physics, for example, uses mathematics, it is not obvious that such subjects teach it or that the faculty in such an area have the competence to teach it.

    The situation with critical thinking is very much the same. Indeed, it is even worse. During the discussion of the Critical Thinking Requirement that took place over thirty years ago, it was pointed out, in support of the idea that critical thinking is indeed taught across the curriculum, that, in fact, the English Department did teach critical thinking; at least, the texts that were used in beginning composition classes had a chapter on that subject. The problem was that those texts got it wrong!

    [For example, every one of those texts insisted that deductive arguments “go from the general to the specific, while inductive arguments go from the specific to the general”. Now the fact is that that is simply mistaken. “If today is Monday, May 9, 2016, there will be a quiz; today is Monday, May 9, 2016; therefore, there will be a quiz” is a deductive argument, and it does not go from the general to the specific. And “All swans that have been observed are white; therefore, all swans are white’ is an inductive argument, and it does not go from the specific to the general. Moreover, the standard example of a deductive argument used in texts that make that false claim about the distinction between the two sorts of argument (and which is known to be false by all those who have expertise in the subject of critical thinking) is this: All humans are mortal; Socrates is human; therefore, Socrates is mortal. But this argument is deductive and does not go from the general to the specific – unless one ignores the second premise of the argument.]

    There is such a thing as expertise in the subject of critical thinking, a subject knowledge of which is, and was thought to be by the original committees that formulated the current General Education Requirements, and is admitted to be by the proposal, important to students’ making the most of their undergraduate education. And not everyone who thinks critically, and not everyone who teaches classes that involve the use of the ability to think critically, has knowledge of that subject and the ability to teach that subject.

    I am, therefore, at a loss to explain the educational benefit of dropping the Critical Thinking Requirement. [And I am at a loss to explain why a course that is designed to improve the ability of students, regardless of their particular academic interests, to reason from evidence to conclusion, to evaluate such reasoning, and to recognize fallacious modes of thinking, is deemed to be less educationally valuable to Wayne State’s students than a course in Oral Communication.]

  3. Mark Ferguson / Jul 15 2015

    I’ve been following the recent 5-year review of Gen Ed at Harvard, and I believe there are some valuable takeaway questions from that exercise from which WSU can benefit:

    1) What place will Gen Ed have in WSU’s identity? (What does it ultimatley mean to have earned an undergraduate degree from WSU?)

    2) Are faculty and students aware that there is a difference between a Gen Ed requirement and a distribution requirement? How will WSU address this distinction as it revisits Gen Ed?

    3) How will WSU convey to students and faculty what Gen Ed is and what role it plays in undergraduate education at WSU? (this involves more than simply a website blurb)

    4) If students and faculty are unable to clearly articulate the principles of Gen Ed at WSU, it will not meet with favor among either students, faculty, or university stakeholders.

    5) Since Gen Ed courses will be requirements that students can take at any point during their undergraduate education, how can/should these courses be designed so that students at all levels (from first year students to majors in their junior or senior year) who are sitting in the same classroom will see them as useful, meaningful, and worth their time and money?

    ok, all for now

    Mark Ferguson
    Senior Lecturer in German
    Program Director of the Junior Year in Munich
    Secretary of CLAS Faculty Council

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