General Education Classes are derailing learning


“D’s get degrees,” is the mantra that so many college students are telling themselves today.
There is truth in it, after all. If a university gave out degrees for passing courses with the minimum required grades, then why would students strive for anything higher? This way of thinking is a problem, and it is the immediate byproduct of a single flaw in the higher education system — general education courses, or “gen-eds.”

At this point, it is important to make two disclaimers. The first is that we are looking at gen-eds in the average four-year, public university. Private and technical schools handle gen-ed courses in a different manner. Secondly, this message is not a blanket statement over all gen-eds.

Many professionals argue that students should take a theater course, a business course, a computer programming course, etc., because it is the knowledge gained from all of those courses that makes a student “well-rounded.”

With these two statements in mind, we can properly criticize the present negatives of gen-ed courses.

The fundamental difference between attending a four-year or two-year institution is being able to take gen-ed courses. As many professionals will tell you, taking gen-ed courses helps you become a well-rounded individual — one who is verbose in a diverse array of subjects including history, math, science, religion, etc.

It is evident that, in many fields today, it is important to know a little bit of everything.
The inherent motivation for attending a four-year school, then, is being ignored by administrations. Instead, the structure of gen-ed courses is outdated, a good chunk of material is irrelevant to our future careers and students are coming out with huge debt when the same education could have been achieved at a two-year institution.

Nearly every student dreads the lecture-style class. It is intimidating to ask questions in front of, sometimes, hundreds of other students, if you are even given the chance, and there is a low probability that your professor will even remember your name.

Unfortunately, this class structure is instituted for many gen-ed classes. One might argue that someone could simply choose a smaller-sized school. However, it does not make the lecture format any less dated where it is used.

Bandiera, Larcinese and Rasul discovered in their 2010 study that students in big classes perform worse than students in smaller classes.

It is also important to note that they analyzed data exclusively from universities in the United Kingdom, which ranks as the world leader in education. The issue they argue is that in larger classes, attentiveness and participation decrease, as well as access to resources such as office hours.

Speaking of professors, the instructors teaching said gen-ed courses are not always certified. This is especially evident when one compares the number of certified instructors in gen-ed courses to major courses. This is an issue.

Ultimately, a teacher’s goal should be to be a good teacher. Decades of research have uncovered an unprecedented amount of information on how to be a good teacher.
Not requiring the instructors of gen-ed classes to have teaching certificates is ignoring the point of educating in the first place. It does not matter if a professor is an expert in his or her field or not. If someone cannot be a professional teacher as well as an expert in their field, they are wasting our time and money by making us take their courses.

Another reason the structure of certain gen-ed classes is flawed is that students are not always able to make the course pass/fail. Each university determines which courses can be made pass/fail, if at all, but perhaps they should not have that ability. Students should be in complete control of their education.

If students want to take the course pass/fail in efforts to exert more time and effort in the classes they prioritize, then they should have that option. After all, what is the difference between making a course pass/fail or going for the minimum required grade? “D’s get degrees,” no?
On the topic of prioritizing classes, general education courses fail once again due to the fact that if students want to receive a good score, they have to exert more work in their general education courses than their major courses.

Again, this is not being said to undervalue gen-ed classes, but this on top of all of my previous points summates to the fact that gen-ed courses are not being instituted properly in the four-year, public school system.

If gen-ed courses were instituted properly, students should have no problem putting in as much work in those courses as their majors’ courses.

The point must be made that the general education courses that are required by universities are not always relevant to our futures. Why do I need to take a chemistry or physics course when I took them in high school and I want to be a journalist in the future?

To this point, many argue that “you do not realize it now, but these courses will help you in the future.”

Those people are right. But think about it critically for a moment. An adult recently shared with me that his work requires him to take surveys, and because he took a required statistics course in college, he is aware that if the population of survey-takers changed, it would ultimately affect the results of the survey. This is a good connection — the result of a four-year education. But does it represent an efficient education?

Were all of the lectures, homework assignments, quizzes, late nights, and stresses worth knowing that one piece of information? Was that one piece of information worth the $1,000 you paid for the class? The answer: no. Classes cover too much fluff and not enough of the bigger ideas.

Lastly, gen-ed courses need to be criticized as a business model, because, clearly, that is how they are treated by universities. One could argue that a school’s motivation for requiring all of these superfluous courses is that it requires students to stay enrolled for the full four-years. That means more green for the university. Is that a bad thing? No. The more money a school has, the more it can give back to its students. However, the fact that schools are unwilling to address the irrelevance and flawed structure of general education courses suggests, to me, that the school does not have my best interests at heart. It suggests to me that the school wants my money more than it wants to make me a well-rounded individual. I am not okay with that, and you should not be, either.

I am completely an advocate for gen-ed classes, but there exist too many flaws for their institution in the four-year, public system for me to recommend choosing a four-year school over a two-year school with conviction. Gen-ed classes, themselves, are flawed in structure, the content is not relevant to our futures, and the courses are spitting out students with an unbearable amount of debt. These issues need to be addressed, but until then, I will keep reminding myself that “D’s get degrees.”

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