A faculty-led effort to reform the structure of EWU’s curriculum and graduation requirements is entering a new phase, as departments across the campus work to standardize learning requirements for senior capstone projects.
Across the nation, many universities are rethinking the way they provide “general education” (Gen Ed), that portion of undergraduate degree programs that comprises the foundational core of student learning. At its most basic level, Gen Ed reform — at Eastern as elsewhere — involves making these core classes more relevant to the needs of today’s students. Reforms also help, according to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, to assure parents and legislators of higher education’s value, to support student retention and to also assure employers that graduates will be highly qualified.
Krisztian Magori, assistant professor of biostatistics in the Department of Biology and head of EWU’s Disease Ecology Lab, is leading the university’s Gen Ed reform effort. Magori has been involved in the process since he arrived on campus in 2014.
“Many people, including myself, worked on the new system,” Magori recalls. “It just formalizes what we should be doing anyway.”
Gen Ed requirements at EWU cover one-quarter to one-third of the classes necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree — roughly 53 to 65 total college credits. The classes take up most of an undergraduate’s first two years of studies, a critical period during which students build essential skills, broaden their perspectives across a range of disciplines, and advance their ability to learn and achieve.
Eastern’s reform effort, led by its General Education Committee, focuses on everything from the first-year experience to which courses should be required for graduation. The General Education Learning Outcomes, adopted in 2017, are aimed at helping ensure that Gen Ed classes are of the highest quality, and that every course develops some of the soft skills that are in demand by today’s employers.
“It’s very difficult to teach people how to critically think or behave respectfully or be a good leader or be a team player. Those are the things we hope to instill in students while they are still in school,” explains Magori.
The 2017 reforms opened the door for more interdisciplinary classes that engage broader student interests and give faculty greater flexibility in subject matter. For instance, Eastern now offers a class that examines the role that geometry plays in art and another that teaches about climate change by exploring science as well as the societal aspects.
“I think it’s useful for the students to see diverse perspectives from other faculty,” Magori says.
Applying uniform standards for capstone requirements is especially challenging. Capstone projects provide students with the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned inside the classroom in the “real world.” Courses in different disciplines are diverse in subject matter and even class size, however, making project requirements dramatically different from one department to the next. And that can be confusing for students who don’t always know what to expect.
“We have to formalize things so that no student ever has to wonder, ‘What is my capstone going to be like,’” Magori says.
The General Education Committee is meeting regularly to draft the new requirements. Their preliminary recommendations will be reviewed by all of the colleges, with feedback incorporated into a final capstone proposals that will be considered by EWU’s Faculty Senate.
“We have to be sort of flexible and listen to faculty and what they want to do and what they think,” Magori explains, because the formalized standards must work for everyone – especially the students. He hopes to have a draft of the proposed requirements by the end of the year.