Episode 85 - The Classes Everyone Loves to Hate: Fixing General Education

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith are joined by Beth McMurtrie, senior writer for The Chronicle for Higher Education. They discuss McMurtrie's article "Fixing the Courses that Everybody Loves to Hate" and how the student success movement has adjusted in light of Generation Z students flooding college campuses.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined in-studio, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you today?

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks. Thanks, Steve.

Meredith: So, as part of a series of podcasts, we like to ask reporters from The Chronicle for Higher Education to join us and to talk about issues related to, generally, to higher education. And we found an article that particularly struck our fancy, and it has to do with general education, which we, and I think nearly every university, struggles with. So, we wanted to invite that author to come and join us on the podcast today, and why don't you introduce her, Scott?

Wyatt: Thanks, Steve. We are delighted to welcome with us today Beth McMurtrie, a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Beth McMurtrie: Thank you so much, it's great to be here.

Wyatt: And I think that you're talking to us from your office in Washington, D.C.?

McMurtrie: That's right.

Wyatt: How is everything back in D.C. today?

McMurtrie: Right now is calm, which is probably unusual here in Washington. I'm sure there will be some sort of scandal or two break in the next day or so. [All laugh]

Meredith: Never stays calm for long. Especially in a world where people make money if it's not calm.

McMurtrie: Yes.

Meredith: It needs to…yeah. Gotta have something to report on, so…

McMurtrie: That's right.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's a beautiful place for us to visit. So many interesting things and activity going on back there, but it does seem to be a slightly more crisis-prone place lately than it has on average.

Meredith: Yeah.

McMurtrie: Yeah, I mean…well, I think any reporter can say this, the news cycle has just kind of spun out of control. Whether you're covering higher education and the latest free speech or enrollment crisis or covering Washington politics, it's just really kind of been on a break-neck speed.

Wyatt: Well, we sure appreciate you joining with us. You wrote this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that we feel like we should be entitled to some special privilege since we get about 500 of The Chronicles delivered to every office on campus. [All laugh]

Meredith: We have lots of subscriptions, that's right.

Wyatt: I don't actually know how many there are…

Meredith: A bunch.

Wyatt: But everybody's got one on their desk.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: It's such a valuable resource and we were fascinated with your discussion about fixing the courses everyone loves to hate. What led you into this little study and writing about…

Meredith: And how did you get, first, how did you get where you are there The Chronicle?

Wyatt: Oh, yeah.

Meredith: Tell us a little bit about that and then let's get into the article.

McMurtrie: Sure. Well, first of all, I've worked at The Chronicle for a very long time. I've been here 20 years, so, in those 20 years, I've covered all sorts of things in higher education. I started out covering the religious colleges and accreditation. For many years I was the international editor and I oversaw our international news coverage, and that was a great gig. I got to travel to China and India and a number of other countries to look at their higher education systems and how they were evolving and also got to reflect on kind of the increasing internationalization of American colleges and universities. When I went back to reporting, I think I started back in writing about research and then I've also written about diversity issues, diversity challenges in hiring. I've written about campus culture, you know, binge drinking, free speech issues, fraternities…but in all of those years, probably for 18 years or so, I never wrote about teaching. You know, one of the most central jobs of higher education. So, in the last couple of years, I've written…my focus has been on teaching and learning and what happens inside the classroom and adjacent to the classrooms. And I've written sort of a report that came out a couple years ago in The Future of Learning that included everything from the rise of educational technologies to the changes, the fundamental changes in the way some teaching and learning is happening, the move towards more active classrooms. I've written about reforms in general education, a lot of this ties in, as you can imagine, to the growing concerns around student success. Around the fact that we haven't really moved the needle too much in terms of graduation rate across the country and how that's increasingly problematic as the cost of college increases and as we see an increasingly diverse student body, particularly more students coming in who are first gen or from lower income families. So, that's a long line-up to say that this particular story that I did on what I called, "Fixing the Courses that Everybody Loves to Hate," those large gateway or foundational courses, and there was a particular reason, and that we can get into, that the University of Michigan has really taken this on in a big way, but the more general reason is these courses are central to the lives of so many college students. Maybe not sort of at the small, liberal arts colleges, but at these large, regional or large public institutions where students have to go through introduction to biology, introduction to economics, that math class that you have to take…they're funneled through these courses, and these courses are not necessarily particularly well designed or designed for student success. So, if that's your first encounter with college and it's not a good one, what responsibility does the college have to fix these courses? To make them better taught, to make…to include student outcomes, particularly among the more disadvantaged students. And that's kind of what prompted me to dive into that story.

Meredith: So, do you mind if I quote some of your article back to you for just a second? Because I think it's just such great writing.

McMurtrie: Oh sure, go ahead.

Meredith: So, the opening paragraphs of this are, "Inside a squat, brick-and-concrete building here at the University of Michigan, about 300 freshmen gather on a gray Monday morning for their introductory biology class. Under fluorescent lights, Matthew Chapman, miked up and on his second class of the day, speaks quickly as slides flash on the screen behind him in rapid succession. He has a lot to cover today and most of his time is spent in a fast-paced lecture. Halfway through the hourlong class, some students start to tune out. They scroll through their phones, bounce their legs, stare blankly ahead. One opens a Google Doc to work on a cover letter. Large introductory courses like this are a staple of the undergraduate experience. They funnel thousands of students each year through biology, economics, math and psychology—serving as gateways to dozens of majors." And this is what you've just said, and that paints such a perfect and also gloomy picture of a 300-person lecture class. And having been in that situation myself, not with 300 but 100 students, you learn very quickly that you're all the sudden lecturing to the first two rows and the other ten rows are doing something else.

McMurtrie: Yeah, I have tremendous empathy for the faculty members who teach these courses, and I talked to a number of them when I went to Ann Arbor to focus in on this project that the University of Michigan has going. They know what the problems are in their courses. I mean, they can see the faces of the students tuning out. They're under tremendous pressure in some kinds of courses, particularly STEM courses, to get through a lot of content. And in other courses, ones that are more interdisciplinary, I think they struggle with this identity crisis of, "What exactly am I supposed to be teaching these students? Am I supposed to teach them a bunch of content? Am I supposed to teach them sort of potential career outcomes or career paths for them? Is this supposed to be an introduction to college? And so, a lot of these classes can be kind of disjointed as well. And sometimes you don't even know who your students are. I mean, when you have 300 students in the class, unless you have super-duper learning analytics and dashboards and things like that, you probably are guessing at where your students are in terms of the knowledge they come in with. And you certainly don't know their mindset, like, what they want to get out of the course. And so, I can imagine what must it be like to stand up in front of that audience and just have to kind of…not wing it, but make assumptions about who these students are and how best to reach them.

Wyatt: Yeah, the vision of biology flashes in my mind because I read recently, and I've asked our biology faculty members here, some of them anyway, this same question, and that is that there are more new terms introduced to a student in the first biology class than there are in the first French class.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: And if you're trying to get somebody excited about a subject, that doesn't seem to be the way to do it.

McMurtrie: Yeah, and I know the conversations that, say at a place like Michigan, they're having—and other campuses, too, certainly a lot of people are thinking about these gateway courses—is, "What do students actually need to know in that introductory class? How much biology do they need to lay the foundation for the next level?" And I don't know that they know the answer to that. I do think there's a lot of pressure to cover a lot of turf, again, particularly in these STEM courses, but if it's a content ton, then what are you giving up? How much time are you devoting to thinking like a scientist or problem-solving? Or taking this idea or concept for formula that you learned and then applying it in a new setting? So, one thing professors are thinking about is, "Well, if we reduce the content, we might have a little more time to focus on those other skills." And in some instances, professors are actually trying to shift to a more active learning classroom where there's very little lecturing going on and maybe the students are kind of watching videos in advance or reading in advance and then they're coming to the class and they're basically spending the majority of their time working through problems to develop those skills, to develop those muscles that will prepare them for the next level of these courses, which are only going to get more challenging, obviously, and not less. There's a lot at play, there's a lot to think about there when you're thinking about what are you wanting students to get out of these courses and how best can you teach them the skills that they need to succeed in college?

Wyatt: Yeah, and one of the main issues here that we're talking about is that in these general education courses, this is the front door to higher education. So, if we're trying to bring in, as you've described, we're trying to bring in these first generation students, we're trying to bring in students who have never been to college and their parents haven't and they may or may not have good support at home, if the first classes that they attend are large auditorium classes where the teacher is just moving 100 miles an hour, that really doesn't bode well to keeping them in…

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: Helping them move to graduate. One of my…we're fortunate here at Southern Utah University because we really don't have auditoriums, so our general education classes are pretty small.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: I think that we have a few that may have 90 students in them, but most of them are pretty small.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: But it seems like possibly one of the breakdowns is, as you've alluded to, Beth, that if the faculty member feels like she has to prepare the students for the next class, maybe that's a course that should be required for a major but that's not general education.

McMurtrie: Yeah. Well, I think there's a lot going on in these gateway courses, and maybe one thing we could talk a little bit about is how there are different kinds of gateway courses, right? There's one that really does very much lead into the major. Like that introductory physics course, for example, the students in there aren't probably taking it to fill a gen ed requirement, they're taking it because they want to be engineers.

Wyatt: Yep, that's right.

McMurtrie: Or possibly physics majors. And then you have another type of gateway course which might be a little more interdisciplinary or have broader goals. Two of the ones that I looked at when I was at Michigan were an introduction to public health and then a couple of intro to business courses. And in both of those cases, these were kind of…they were introducing students to the major, but they were also trying to develop the skills that they would need to succeed. So, for example, in the business school, they just recently started offering a 100 level and a 200 level course to students. They used to come in their junior year, but they decided to kind of start it up a little bit earlier. And the business school there is pretty competitive and so, they wanted to introduce the concept of teamwork early one. So, one of the courses that went through this, what Michigan calls the Foundational Course Initiative, they radically changed the course. It used to be kind of a collection of topics and you might talk about accounting one week, finance the other week, production the third week, and it didn't really add up to anything. And instead, they switched to this way of teaching and learning in which the students had to come and do everything in teams and collaborate on projects and on ideas so they could kind of train them to think collaboratively as they moved more deeply into the business major. And in public health, they went through the same sort of process. Well, what are we doing? We're talking about tobacco one week, we're talking about obesity the next week, but what do these students really want? They don't want to just go take a deep dive onto a topic, they want to understand, "What is the role of somebody in public health to tackle these issues?" And so, they changed that course—or I should say they're changing because this is a work in progress at Michigan—they're changing that course around so there's more of a conversation around, "Why is it that there's an obesity crisis in the U.S. and what are the different roles the policy makers or a medical community might play in that?" Or if you're talking about smoking versus vaping, "What are the regulatory issues around that?" And so, students can start thinking across topics and start thinking more coherently and cohesively about the role of public health in the larger world as opposed to, "Oh, today we're going to talk about obesity and so I have to memorize a bunch of facts about why there's an obesity epidemic in the U.S." And that ties into, I think, this broader conversation that's happening in higher education around, "Is gen ed, again, just kind of a menu of courses? Like, 'Oh, you get a little taste of history and a little taste of political science?'" Or, "Do you really want to teach students how to think in different wants so they can understand how a historian might approach a problem versus a scientist?" And those are very different ways of thinking and how do you teach those habits of mind? How do you teach those different approaches to a problem in gen ed? I think it's a really interesting issue. I'd be curious to know if y'all have kind of tackled that on your campus and undergone a kind of fundamental structuring of gen ed in any of those sorts of ways?

Wyatt: So, we've been experimenting with general ed and one of our favorite experiments, at least from my perspective, is taking every general education class and creating a theme and then having those classes feed into that theme. So, we're…we happen to be surrounded by national parks, and so one of them was the national parks. And we taught geology as it related to these national parks and American government as it related to…how the processes for creating a park and wilderness areas and public lands generally and water and all of those kinds of things, so that every class kind of fed into that topic and it because what kind of looked like one class. The challenge…it's a fabulous class and students love it and the teachers love it, but you end up with a large number of teachers teaching kind of this…

Meredith: A very small number of classes—or, students.

Wyatt: Very small number, yeah. And a lot of our students show up with some of their general education learned and they don't want to have to take a class over again and this is really a cohort of the whole process. So, that's one of the things we've done. But we've…we need to take this more seriously. We need to find ways to help. My favorite story about general ed, and I've said this probably too many times, but my…one of my daughters came home from school and she was assigned a certain topic in her research writing general education class. The topic was very interesting to me, it wasn't interesting to her at all, and I just said, "This will be a lot of fun for you and I to do this together. I'd be so happy to help you." And she said, "No, I'm not interested in it and so I'm not going to put any effort into it."

McMurtrie: Huh.

Meredith: "Thanks dad, but no thanks."

Wyatt: Yeah. We have to make it seem relevant and important to them, and if we do, they'll put in more effort and they'll do a better job and they'll learn more.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: That's got to be the first step is finding a way, and I think your description of what's happening at Michigan, is a great description of that. We're not just giving them knowledge about something, we're talking to them about how this works, you know?

Meredith: And I have…here's another story I have related too many times, so, apologies I'm going to follow up Scott's often-told story with my own, so, my experience is as a music professor. Because I was a music undergraduate major, musicians always have gen ed to do in their last semester of their senior year because we've been so busy taking all of the music classes. So, my advisor said, "Hey, there's a class taught by this crazy guy over in physics called, "The Physics of Hi-Fi"—that tells you how old I am, that's when people still referred to stereo, the equipment, as hi-fi—but anyway, "You should go take this class. Other music majors have succeeded in this class." And so, I went and took this physics class and it was my science distribution class, I guess. And it changed my life. I had never prior to that time thought of music as a science ever. And in many ways, despite the fact that I went on to get a master's degree and a doctorate in very traditional choral music and conducting, in many ways, that class continues to inform what I do on a daily basis, and I started a master's degree program here in music technology. I would never have imagined music technology being of any interest to me until I took that class and within a couple of weeks, I'd gone out and bought an old four-track tape recorder back in the days when we had tape recorders, and it has done, that one general ed class, has done as much to inform what my future job life has been as all of my other training at a very, very high and narrow level has at graduate school. And so, that one class really piqued my interest in a way that I think we're all looking for in general ed classes. To…I became a lifelong devote of thinking about music in alternate ways. Despite the fact that the class really was a physics class, it got me thinking differently about the way I interact with the world.

McMurtrie: And I'm guessing that that professor started out, or got y'all interested in that topic by thinking big and broad.

Meredith: Of course.

McMurtrie: Like not immediately diving into the technical details of the discipline.

Meredith: And he really was crazy. I mean, he would blow stuff up with sound waves and it was that fun kind of class to, "Let's go see what he's going to do today" sort of a thing. A full professor, very gifted teacher, long time on the faculty who just loved music, he was himself an amateur musician and loved the intersection of physics and music. And so, I read with some interest, your article about that. Those types of courses that are interdisciplinary, that are not the traditional maybe gateway courses but are, "Hey, let's do anatomy for dancers" or "Let's do something that will get students from one area thinking about what they're going to do with their lives in a different way."

McMurtrie: Well, I think there's a lot of interesting stuff here to kind of unpack. I think one of them is attention between, "Oh, should an introductory course start out with the big questions to get people interested in that discipline in the first place?"

Wyatt: Yep, that's right.

McMurtrie: So, it could be like an environmental class that focuses on climate change. Or, should they be, as has been traditionally thought, laying the groundwork? So, doing kind of the grunt work of the major, you know, you need the building blocks? And I think too many of these introductory courses do kind of go in deep too quickly and then students don't understand how their…what they're learning relates to kind of these bigger questions that might have gotten them interested in the major in the first place and you end up losing a lot of people. So, what I'm seeing now, too, is what you're talking about Scott, is people rethinking gen ed courses to focus on those big questions. To get students excited, get them excited first, and then once you've got them hooked and wanting to pursue the answers to these big questions, these broad challenges, they have a reason for sticking with this, and then they're willing to kind of dive into the nitty-gritty of the discipline. Because you have to teach that foundational stuff at some point, but maybe you kind of flip the order a little bit so you're not diving into it right away before you have even hooked the students and why would they want to study stuff in the first place.

Wyatt: Right. If we started every elementary school kid out with art history before they could start drawing pictures, nobody would be drawing pictures.

McMurtrie: Yeah.


Wyatt: I mean, what we do is we give them a pencil and a crayon and finger paints and they just explore and have fun and it gets them excited about art and that leads them on. My dream of a biology class would be that the students show up the first day and the teacher says, "OK, let's go for a walk" and they go outside and find some water and grab some of it and bring it back in and start looking at it. And then you go from there.

McMurtrie: So, it also seems to me though for that to work, you need to get your best teachers in front of the youngest students, right? They need to understand the value of teaching introductory courses. I don't know if that's been a challenge for you, but I do certainly hear from people at different campuses that not everybody wants to do that, right?

Wyatt: Right.

McMurtrie: If you've been there a long time, maybe you'd prefer to teach the juniors and seniors and the grad students, you'd prefer to teach your small seminar course, but you don't really want to stand in front of 200-300 students and teach that intro course. But for some colleges where they've made that commitment, it seems to be paying off, or at least the early signs are good that they're drawing…maybe they're not drawing more students into say, a history major or an English major, but they're getting them to take another course, another couple of courses, getting them at least a little bit excited to learn more in that discipline.

Wyatt: Yeah, I think most…I think a lot of, I don't know if I should use the word "most," but there are certainly a lot of faculty members who prefer to teach the upper division courses because everybody in the class is in love with the subject from the beginning. And sometimes, they end up saying for the newest, least experienced faculty members, "You have to teach the general education courses." But we also find a lot of faculty who say, "No, those general education courses are our best opportunity to recruit students into the major, so we want the very best to teach these general education classes." So, it's mixed, I think it's quite mixed. But you're absolutely right. I remember I had a student working in my office as an intern and he finished his bachelor's degree and got an internship or fellowship or whatever it specifically was for him, but was admitted into a graduate program at a research university and part of it was that he would be teaching the general education class. And I remember thinking, "There's no way that this guy is prepared to teach a general education class at a highly respected research university."

Meredith: Right, an R1 university.

Wyatt: "He's just barely finished his bachelor's degree." [Laughs]

McMurtrie: One thing, too, that I am curious to track that's kind of related to all of this is this concept of kind of collaborative course design. And by that, I mean making courses communal property. Like, making them the property and responsibility of an entire department. Because people tell me that when they can get departments to think this way, that it's everybody's responsibility that these introductory courses are well designed and well taught and they can understand the reasons why a well-designed course or a poorly designed course is going to have the outcomes that it has, you get more faculty buy in because they start to connect the dots, right? They start to understand why students aren't coming into their 200 and 300 level courses better prepared. It's because that intro course wasn't very well designed, or they might be missing an opportunity to talk about career paths to those first semester freshmen, or study skills or any number of things if they just thought more deeply about the connections between these things and how they are so deeply connected and the success of your 200 or 300 level course really rests on how well you did in that foundational course. When I was at Michigan, I talked to some folks who were…had redesigned kind of an introduction to engineering course that had been taught for years. It was intended to be a broad survey course for those students who weren't sure if they wanted to do mechanical or civil or electrical and it had been very poorly designed and taught to the point where, "Oh, it's your turn, you go talk about the mechanical engineering major." And you'd have a professor come in and just basically list the degree requirements. And if you're 17, 18, that's not what you want to know. You want to know, "What does a mechanical engineer do?" Right?

Meredith: Right.


McMurtrie: And, "What kinds of outside internships or research or study abroad might be available to me if I want to get a career in X or Y or Z?" And it wasn't until they kind of surveyed not just the students in these courses to see how dissatisfied they were but also talked to the faculty members throughout the college about what do they want? What do they…how do they want the progression to go for students in the college? And they began to see how they needed to all buy into a better designed and better taught course and how they needed to start talking to their students—even if they weren't teaching that one particular course—they needed to start talking to their students earlier on to build those bridges to the next level of the major. In other words, everybody is happier when everybody is kind of paying attention to this stuff as opposed to saying, "Oh, that's somebody else's problem."

Wyatt: The more collaborative we are, the better everything is. It's amazing how much quality we can improve something by just bringing in different people that have a different view of it. [Laughs] Makes a massive difference.

Meredith: I had a…

McMurtrie: I wonder…

Meredith: Sorry, go ahead.

McMurtrie: Oh, I'm just curious if you have a sense that faculty are starting to think differently about that? I mean, historically, the classroom was seen as the professor's turf, nobody could really come in and tell them how to teach that course or what to teach or whatever. Are you seeing more openness to thinking collectively about these issues that we're talking about?

Wyatt: I think if the suggestions are coming from colleagues, yes. If they are coming from administrators, no.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: That's an over-generalization, but I think that we've got lots of examples…I would say here, the most happy faculty that we've got, or at least they're the happiest with what they're doing, are those that are collaborating with other faculty members on putting together these kinds of courses.

McMurtrie: Hmm, that's interesting.

Wyatt: Yeah. Everybody that…

McMurtrie: And then they can go out and evangelize to others potentially.

Wyatt: Yeah. Everybody that I've talked to that's been involved in a course that involves different disciplines coming together to address one of these big questions, they've said it's been one of the best experiences of their teaching careers. It's so interesting for them. It's interesting for them.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: It's not the same old thing that they're just repeating over and over and over again. They get to think and engage and the more interesting it is to the faculty members, the more interesting it is to everybody else.

Meredith: You mention in your article that some general ed classes serve the purpose of "weeding out" those that are not going to make it in the major.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Meredith: And I used to teach a music theory class that was very much like that. And I found, though, that if I did as you suggest, if i…I used to call it, "Talk to the Pros." So, on every other Friday, I would try to make it so that someone would join us by skype who used music theory every day in what they did, and these were film composers and other people that i just knew from my years in the business, and I found that not only did attendance go up on those Fridays, they just were more present, but that students actually began to imagine that music theory might have some application to their lives and they began to take it just a little bit more seriously. And I…we had data that showed that when we were doing that, we had fewer students drop out of music as a major because, even though the class was hard for them and they may have been weeded out in previous iterations of that class, that in fact if they could be shown why this was—it was hard for them—but why it was worthwhile because, "You're going to use this for the rest of your life" that that applicability factor was a big indicator as to whether or not they would stay in the major or continue to be interested in the major.

McMurtrie: Yes, this whole idea I think is self-directed learning. If the student sees the reason for studying hard, they will. And I find that fascinating. I think there is this kind of false base between this idea that college should be teaching you tactical skills versus college should be teaching you how to think and give you a broad-based education. I mean, I think what students really are asking for aren't so much, "Teach me how to code" but, "Teach me why this matters." Right? "Teach me why this is relevant." And some of the teaching evangelists I've heard speak at various conferences and things really encourage professors to think about students in this way. They're not really asking, "What's on the test so I can get an 'A?'" I mean, certainly some students are, but they're really asking the bigger, broader questions about, "Why should I care? Where is this all headed? How does this all connect together? And so, if you can make that explicit, if you can sort of explain to students, "We're going to be talking about this one week and that the other week and I'm going to be asking you to write about this other thing or we're going to be asking you to do this kind of open-ended project and this is the direction we're headed in," I think it just gives students a story or a sense of coherence and then that can be kind of the motivator to do the hard work or to do kind of the scary work or the uncertain work. They have faith that it's going to lead somewhere. So, it's not necessarily, "Oh, just teach me a bunch of skills so I can get a job," right? It's understanding that there's a reason that you're in that course and that that learning matters.

Meredith: And, "Here's why it matters, here's how you might be able to apply it later."

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Meredith: I've learned as a parent that the, "Because I said so" method is one of the least effective methods of motivating children. And we often teach the, "Because I said so" method.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Meredith: Without making it clear why we're doing what we're doing.

McMurtrie: And this generation, Gen Z they call it, is an interesting one. They're quite practical, they're kind of skeptical, they're very comfortable with being self-taught, they learn a lot of stuff from YouTube and other means, they don't necessarily assume the teacher has all of the answers. So, they kind of…they're challenging them in a way saying, "Explain to me why I should care." And I think a good teacher should be able to do that, right? They should be able to stop and say, "This stuff does matter. It might not give you a concrete skill to get a job right out of college, but it's going to matter in the long run that you understand American history or that you understand basic scientific principles or that you're good at kind of figuring your way through a problem." I don't think there's anything wrong or transactional about that kind of approach, but I do think…I see these tensions, I'm sure you all see these as well and they're in these national debates about, "What is college for?" I think there's a way to bridge those two, if there are in fact two camps about, "What is college for?" I think there's a way to bridge that in a way that doesn't have to be so adversarial between skills and critical thinking.

Wyatt: [Laughs] That's right. Well, it's got to be about all those things. It's got to be about the practical skills and the big thinking. It's got to include them both.

McMurtrie: Yeah. But it takes a lot of work. I mean, you have to really think carefully about what you're teaching and how you're teaching and that's a whole other conversation about how much colleges actually invest in teaching and curriculum design. You talk to a lot of faculty members and they say, "I'd like to teach better; I'd like to think about redesigning my course but I don't have the time or when I'm coming up for promotion and tenure, it's not what they look at. They look at my research." Or maybe a college doesn't really have the budget to invest in…you know, Michigan is spending 5 million dollars on this project to redesign 30 courses. How many colleges have that kind of money to invest in instructional design or data analytics and educational technology and things like that? But, I'm not sure how…I think you can do it on a shoestring, but you just have to kind of prioritize teaching in a way that maybe a lot of colleges don't quite.

Wyatt: Yeah. And once we remember, we've said this before, but once we remember that maybe the most important year of college is the first year, because once a student gets it and understands how it's going and builds their relationships and they get to know the faculty and other students and everything. That first year is the most important year and so, it's worth spending the effort to make that first year spectacular. And that's all those foundational courses, general education courses, that ought to be the heart of where we go. Once a student gets to become a junior and senior, hopefully they've figured out the why of everything.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: And the student knows exactly the goals. "I want to get to medical school, I want to do this, I want to be an engineer." By that time, they're self-motivation will help carry them through to the day. It's that first year when they're not sure what their motivation is.

McMurtrie: Right.

Wyatt: That is one of…

McMurtrie: And I wonder…

Wyatt: I think that's one of our biggest failings in higher education. I'm convinced that this first year, the survey courses, I think that's our biggest failing.

McMurtrie: Do you see any movement when you talk to your college, when you talk to other college leaders, do you feel like they get it? They get how important that gen ed is? Those foundational courses are? How important excellent teaching is to later success?

Wyatt: I think some feel exactly the same way and some…I think it's all over the spectrum. Everybody's got their own point of view about it. But, as we see across the country the enrollment changes and the financial pressures that institutions face, I think we're going to continue to see more and more schools find ways to cut costs and the first ways to cut costs for most of them are these survey courses.

McMurtrie: I know, and it's so kind of regressive

Wyatt: It's backwards.

McMurtrie: Somebody called it…somebody called what happens in the classroom a donut hole in the student success movement. People talk about nudges, they talk about Chatbots, they talk about all sorts of things outside of the classroom that might keep students in college, but they don't really talk about the core of their experience which is what happens in the classroom day in and day out. What are you learning? Do you feel engaged? Do you feel connected? Do you feel like you belong? Do you feel like you're learning how to do college? Do you feel like you understand why you're there beyond just getting a degree? And I'm not sure those answers are so positive. Or at least they're not particularly positive for a significant chunk of students, often the most vulnerable students.

Wyatt: We've spent a lot of effort in retention at Southern Utah University. Our retention rate has increased 16% over the last four years, really proud of what we've done and all these systems, you know? Mental health counseling and peer mentoring and improving advising, having advisors see their job as being outcome based rather than just answering questions. Huge. Super proud of all of the employees that have worked so hard on that, but the more of retention is what's happening in the classroom.

McMurtrie: Mhmm.

Wyatt: That's the core, that's the most important part. So, that's where we should be spending most of our effort.

McMurtrie: Yeah. Well, and that stages another question of, "Are colleges bringing faculty members into the conversations around student success and student retention? Or are they…do they just see that being a job of the advisors, right?

Wyatt: Right.

McMurtrie: You know, the Student Affairs Office. You know, chances are…I know sometimes when I'll talk to folks like you who are making an intentional institutional effort to create retention and graduation rates, one of the real eye opening things is if they have the capacity to look at kind of the data on different classrooms and they can show faculty members who's not succeeding in your class or who may be underperforming in your class and the likelihood that they dropped out after the next semester or the next year or they drop the major. Sometimes that data is really eye opening, and the reason is faculty members get…kind of have this very narrow view of just what happens in that course, in that semester, and they don't always see the sequence of what happens once that student leaves their class. They don't know that because they struggled in this class, maybe they went on and switched majors or just left college all together. It's not to say that's specifically a cause and effect, but certainly that could potentially be a contributor to student success. And sometimes, that's all it takes to see that your role in this ecosystem that can make a convert of some professors to get involved in this discussion.

Wyatt: Yeah. We're really gratified when we come across a faculty member—and there's a lot of them, a lot of them—who recognize that they have a responsibility about the outcomes of their class.

McMurtrie: Yeah.

Wyatt: Not just to stand up and deliver the information, but to recognize that a good teacher is a teacher that leads to good learning. [Laughs]

Meredith: Yeah, that's right.

McMurtrie: And then they can be the evangelizers for the…

Wyatt: For everybody.

McMurtrie: For that to other faculty members. And at Michigan, there's a physics professor, Tim McKay, who has been doing these kinds of teaching and learning experiments and reforms in physics and he was one of the advocates to turn that kind of effort into a campus-wide effort. He was the driver for the Foundational Course Initiative. That's an example of how one person can help magnify that kind of work and then encourage others to buy into it. I mean, the Michigan approach is an, "It takes a village" approach, right? That these courses are too complex for a single person or a single department to go it alone. That you actually need a group of people, professors, sometimes students—you know, they've got students involved in this, graduate students—and then you've got…they have a slew of specialists and it's in the Teaching and Learning Center to help work with them. They have a three year time process because it is so complicated and it takes time to try things and see if they work or crunch the data or survey students or test interventions. And then, in that three year process, you're thinking collectively, you're thinking collaboratively about, "What do I want to teach? What do I want students to get out of this?" I mean, faculty members don't always have…or, they usually don't have the luxury of time, right? I know I've talked to a number of professors and they say when they get together in a department to talk about next semester's intro course, they're usually just asking questions like, "Oh, what textbook are we going to use?" They just don't have the time to think about this. So, the Michigan approach, and there are others. There's something that the Gardner Institute is doing called the "Gateways to Completion" as a national effort. They're getting people together to kind of clear their desk and to make time for this stuff. And if you have the time and you have the support, you can do some pretty significant things to increase the quality of these courses and increase student success.

Wyatt: Well, Beth, I think that's a great challenge for me and other administrators to make sure that we create the time and the opportunities and to promote that and to include that in advancement and tenure documents and policies so that everybody realizes that it is a high priority and we're going to value it that way. This has been a delightful conversation, thank you so very much.

McMurtrie: Thank you, I'm really glad to have an opportunity to talk to y'all about these issues.

Wyatt: And when I take a survey course on writing and journalism, I hope it's you teaching it. [Both laugh]

McMurtrie: That's my next career.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today Beth McMurtrie, she's a Senior Writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Beth talked to us via phone from Washington, D.C. We thank Beth for joining us and we thank you, our devoted listeners, for tuning in. We'll be back again soon. Thanks so much, bye bye.