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2011 December 10

General education at universities, particularly UCSC

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Ariolimax dolichophallus at UCSC

A couple of years ago UCSC completely revamped their general education requirements (actually reducing them somewhat). The new requirements have pedagogical justifications (unlike the old system) and seem to me to be mostly well chosen. Because some people in the US are seriously discussing switching to a UK-style university system (where students do nothing outside their major and so finish in 3 years rather than 4), I think it is worthwhile to look at what the additional courses are for general education, at least in a carefully designed system.

I’ll start out with a disclaimer—this is not an unbiased analysis.  I personally think that the early specialization of the British system is a bad idea, and that the world needs more people with broader education.  I remain open on the question of whether the general education system of US universities and UCSC in particular are the best way to achieve this.

To provide some context, a bachelor’s degree at UCSC generally consists of 36 5-credit courses (plus some extra 2-credit lab courses in science and engineering programs, associated with lecture courses).  Each course has 33–35 hours of lecture and 3 hours of final exams, and is intended to have about 80–90 hours of work outside the lectures and exams, though that varies enormously between disciplines (with engineering courses sometime exceeding the target workload and humanities courses often falling far short).  Students normally take 9 courses a year, finishing their bachelor’s degree in 4 years.  It is quite common for students in majors with a lot of requirements and long prerequisite chains (like the engineering majors) to have difficulty scheduling all their courses and to take more than 4 years.

There are 11.4 courses (11 5-credit courses and one 2-credit course) in the UCSC general education requirements, amounting to almost a third of the total courses, but many of the requirements overlap with requirements in student’s majors, so the number of extra courses beyond those of the majors is typically much smaller.

Here are the requirements, copied from  (my apologies if there are any errors—cutting and pasting from PDF documents is an extremely error-prone procedure, as the PDF file does not preserve document hierarchy or order of elements:

  • CC: Cross-Cultural Analysis. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) Courses in Cross-Cultural Analysis prepare students for a world with increased interaction and integration among peoples, companies, and governments. These courses encourage a broader and deeper understanding of cultures and societies outside the United States. Such courses might focus on an in-depth examination of one culture, or one aspect of such culture (for example, art, music, history, language). Alternatively, these courses help students develop skills of cross-cultural comparison and analysis. A third option is courses that explore topics that are inherently cross-cultural such as international relations or the processes of economic globalization. Whatever the approach, these courses all aim to help students develop the openness and sensitivity necessary for cross-cultural understanding.
  • ER: Ethnicity and Race. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) Courses in Ethnicity and Race prepare students for a state and a world which are increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-racial. Beyond familiarizing students with the culture and/or history of one or more ethnic or racial groups, these courses also aim to develop theoretical and practical understanding of questions such as (but not limited to): how categories of ethnicity and race are constructed; the role they can play in identity formation; how ethnicity and race have historically been used to justify forms of enforced inequality; and the contributions of people of various ethnicities to society and to political change. These courses are particularly concerned with how ethnicity and race may intersect with other categories, such as gender, class, or sexual orientation, to shape self-understanding and patterns of human interaction.
  • IM: Interpreting Arts and Media. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) Interpreting Arts and Media courses explore the complex ways in which information of all kinds is represented by visual, auditory, or kinesthetic means, or through performance. These courses build in-depth understanding of one or more forms of artistic media: that is, media in which non-textual materials play primary roles. They offer skills in the practice, analysis, interpretation and/or history of one or more of these media, as well as the ability to analyze the means by which they encode and convey information.
  • MF: Mathematical and Formal Reasoning. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) In a world in which much thinking and discourse is directed by emotion and association, formal or mathematical models teach the value of dispassionate analysis. Mathematical and Formal Reasoning courses emphasize the development of mathematical, logical, and/or formal reasoning skills. Mathematics-based courses that satisfy this requirement are focused on teaching significant problem-solving skills, and are often oriented towards particular application areas. Other courses that satisfy this requirement train students in formal reasoning skills and/or in the construction and use of formal models. Formal reasoning domains include mathematical proof, logic, and applied logic. Some examples of formal models are: computer programming languages, generative grammars (from linguistics), supply and demand models, and formal music theory.
  • SI: Scientific Inquiry. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) Courses in Scientific Inquiry teach students about the essential role of observation, hypothesis, experimentation and measurement in the physical, social, life, or technological sciences. In these courses, students acquire key concepts, facts, and theories relevant to the scientific method. By the end of the course students should be able to articulate an understanding of the value of scientific thinking in relation to issues of societal importance.
  • SR: Statistical Reasoning. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) In today’s globalized, media-saturated information society, we are continually presented with–or asked to present–numerical data. Statistical Reasoning courses prepare students to interpret quantitative claims and make judgments in situations of statistical uncertainty. The goal of Statistical Reasoning courses is to teach skills for effective reasoning about probability and the use of quantitative information. Students acquire an understanding of making informed decisions in the presence of uncertainty. Topics addressed in Statistical Reasoning courses include ways of (mis)representing data; correlation vs. causation; statistical inferences; experimental design and data analysis; understanding orders of magnitude.
  • TA: Textual Analysis and Interpretation. (one 5-credit course or equivalent) Even in our current multi-media world, the written word remains a major vehicle of communication. Many fields, from literature and history to law, government, and religion, depend heavily upon the understanding and interpretation of written documents. Textual Analysis and Interpretation courses have as their primary methodology the interpretation or analysis of texts. The aim of these courses is to develop higher-order reading skills and to train students how to read attentively, to think critically and analytically, to produce and evaluate interpretations, to assess evidence, and to deploy it effectively in their own work. These abilities are not only necessary for academic success, but also for full participation in civic life at every level.
  • Perspectives (one 5-credit course or equivalent from any of the three following categories):
    • PE-E: Perspectives: Environmental Awareness. The interactions between people and the earth’s environments are subtle, complex, and influenced by a variety of natural, scientific, economic, cultural, and political factors. Courses satisfying the Environmental Awareness requirement teach students about the complexity of particular ecosystems and/or people’s interactions with nature so that they will better understand the environmental issues and trade-offs that are likely to arise in their lifetimes.
    • PE-H: Perpectives: Human Behavior. Courses in Human Behavior help students to prepare for a world in which many of the most pressing challenges (such as genocide, environmental degradation, poverty) are impacted by human thoughts, decisions, or practices. As well, they provide a kind of “owner’s manual” for students to assist them in understanding themselves, their roles (for example, parent, partner, leader), and their social groups (family, workplace, neighborhood, nation).
    • PE-T: Perspectives: Technology and Society. The study of technology helps satisfy the need of society for knowledgeable people able to understand, participate, and guide the rapid technological advances that play such a vital role in our world. Technology and Society courses focus on understanding technological advances, how they are developed, and their impacts on society.
  • Practice (one minimum 2-credit course from any of the three following categories):
    • PR-E: Practice: Collaborative Endeavor. Students learn and practice strategies and techniques for working effectively in pairs or larger groups to produce a finished product. For example, students might learn specialized practical information such as how to use change-management software to monitor and manage changes initiated by multiple group members. Alternatively, they might learn basic information about leadership, teamwork, and group functioning, which they can incorporate into their own group process. What is common to all courses is that some instruction regarding the process of collaboration is provided, in addition to instruction specific to the academic discipline and the products being produced.
    • PR-C: Practice: Creative Process. Creative Process courses teach creative process and techniques in a context of individual or collaborative participation in the arts, including creative writing. Courses may combine theory and experiment in the creation of a new artwork, or new interpretation(s) of an existing artwork. Creative Process courses include studies in individual or group creativity or improvisation, and/or ensemble rehearsal and performance.
    • PR-S: Practice: Service Learning. Service Learning courses provide students with an opportunity to integrate their academic coursework with community involvement. Such courses provide supervised learning experiences where students reflect on, communicate, and integrate principles and theories from the classroom in real-world settings. Students gain valuable practical skills while giving back to the community.
  • C1C2: Composition. Composition requirements (C1 and C2). (two 5-credit courses or equivalent) C1 and C2 typically are fulfilled by your college core course and Writing 2, Rhetoric and Inquiry. Students must complete the Entry Level Writing Requirement to satisfy the composition requirements.
  • DC: Disciplinary Communication (DC) requirement. The goal of this requirement is to ensure that students acquire the skills in writing and other forms of communication appropriate for their discipline. Students satisfy the DC requirement by completing 1–3 upper-division courses required for their major, totaling a minimum of 5 credits. The DC requirement is automatically fulfilled by the completion of major requirements.

More information about the reasoning behind the changes and analyses of the requirements by departments can be found at

I think that there are still some requirements that have more political than pedagogical justification, but the requirements are at least explained in terms of what the students are supposed to get from the courses, rather than by arbitrary disciplinary or administrative boundaries.

Some parts of this general-education reform that I particularly like:

  • The explicit inclusion of statistical reasoning as a required subject is a good one.  K–12 schools in the US generally do not require any statistics (even the tiny amounts that used to be included in middle school math and algebra classes are now often omitted).  I did not have any statistics in my BS and MS in math, nor in my PhD in computer science, and I should have.  Everyone needs to be able to understand some basic statistics (like “expected value”, the risk of low-probability-high-cost events, and the effect of sample size on the significance of a result) in order to assess the claims of politicians and advertisers, who often prey on the innumeracy of the general population.
  • The generalization of mathematics to formal systems (including linguistics and logic courses in philosophy) was part of our older system also, but now the logic behind the requirement is made clearer.
  • Although the basic idea of a scientific inquiry course (where students do science, not just memorize the results of science, as is done too much in K-12 science classes) is a good one, I’m not happy with the final sentence requiring students to “articulate an understanding of the value of scientific thinking in relation to issues of societal importance.” That is not scientific inquiry but either metacognition or ability to parrot propaganda, depending on how it is evaluated.  That sentence was not added by scientists, but by humanists who did not understand what scientific inquiry means.  Luckily, I don’t think that ludicrous appendage to the requirement is being enforced.
  • The writing requirements (C1, C2, and D) are a slight restructuring of the previous writing requirements, but an important one.  The main new feature is that the disciplinary communication course (replacing the old “W” requirement) is now explicitly part of every major, and each department had to come up with a sensible way for their majors to meet the requirement.  Previously, most departments refused to teach anything that required writing (since writing is expensive to teach and evaluate), so that students were meeting their “W” requirements with courses whose content they did not care about and with writing that bore no resemblance to what they would need to do in their chosen majors and subsequent careers.
    It is a little too soon to tell whether the new D requirements will be met with substantial writing courses in different disciplines, or whether departments will find ways to shirk the most onerous teaching.  The bioinformatics and bioengineering majors far exceed the minimum requirements here, so even if there is some decay in quality or quantity, it will be a long time before our majors come close to not meeting the intent of the requirement.
  • The practice requirements are good and are easily met in engineering majors by capstone courses, not to mention all the other design courses students take.  I would have liked to see this requirement increased (and some of the others decreased), as the production of novel material is at the heart of university scholarship, but is too often overlooked in undergraduate education.

There are a couple of requirements that I’m somewhat indifferent to—they seem less important to me, but have reasonable pedagogic goals:

  • “Textual analysis and interpretation” is one of the favorite expressions of humanists for justifying their courses.  I have not seen any evidence that the sort of analysis done in those courses generalizes even within the humanities (historians gain little from literary analysis and lit students little from critical reading of history).  Neither particularly supports the sort of critical technical reading essential in science and engineering.  The nice thing with the new requirements is that journal clubs in the sciences easily meet the intent of the requirements, while providing science students with reading skills they actually will need.  Looking in the catalog, I see that biology has had three courses approved and math has had one, but other science and engineering departments have not yet gotten approval for reading courses in their disciplines.  This should be remedied!
  • “Interpreting Arts and Media” looks like a reasonable parallel to the textual analysis and statistical reasoning requirements.  I took some classes in grad school that might have counted for that, but not really as an undergrad, unless the generic world civilization course that I took as a gen-ed requirement would have counted—maybe it would have, since I think that Gombrich’s Story of Art was one of our texts (I may be misremembering, as it was almost 40 years ago).  Few existing science or engineering courses would count for this requirement (there is one computer science class that counts—I think it is part of the game-design major).
  • “Perspectives” seem like rather broad general education “feel-good” themes.  A lot of the courses so far approved are either in engineering fields or Earth and Marine Sciences, so I probably shouldn’t complain about these requirements being too touchy-feely, but they lack the focus on skill development that the requirements I like have.

Finally, there are a couple of requirements that I think are more political than pedagogic in nature:

  • Cross-cultural analysis, while a worthy study for those who want to do it, and a reasonable general-education goal for high-school social studies classes, seems a little too much like life support for departments with shrinking enrollments, rather than an essential part of everybody’s university education.
  • The ethnicity and race requirement also looks to me like life support for departments with shrinking enrollments, but it may be a case of too little too late, as American Studies has already shuttered their program.  Of course, no one could speak against this requirement without being branded as a racist, so it was pushed through with almost no discussion.

So, of the 11.4 course requirements, I strongly support 6.4 courses, am ok with 3 more, and think that 2 were pushed through for political rather than pedagogic reasons.  For a general-education curriculum, which is trying to please many different faculty, students, and other “stake-holders” (I always imagine vampires, mallets, and spear-carriers with no lines as the “stake-holders”), that ratio is pretty good.  I further like that the requirements are not tied to specific departments, but are specified in terms of what is to be learned, so that any department can offer courses satisfying any requirement, if they can convince the Committee on Educational Policy that they really meet the specifications of the requirement.

Even chopping out the 5 requirements I’m least happy with would not reduce STEM majors at UCSC to a UK-style 3 years—at best it would reduce the time to 3.5 years and more likely would not achieve even that much.

Another aspect of the new system that I like is that each course can be counted for both the major and general-education, but no course can have more than one general-education code.  It used to be the case that students would look for courses that gave them as many general-education codes as possible, even though they had absolutely no interest in the subject matter.  At least that perversion of education is not supported by the new system.

I was just looking over the undergrad courses in our department, and noticed that we only have general-education codes for two of them: our bioethics class and programming for biologists class.  I think that we should look carefully at our courses and see if we can properly label some more classes with other gen-ed codes.  We don’t currently have an undergrad journal-club course, but we might want to think about creating one (as if the budget could stand any new courses—we’re having to cut several grad courses and some sections of undergrad courses, because of cuts in our teaching budget next year).


  1. […] UCSC general education requirements (see my blog post on general education) recognize mathematical reasoning, scientific inquiry, and statistical reasoning as distinct parts […]

    Pingback by Critical thinking | Gas station without pumps — 2014 October 26 @ 10:57 | Reply

  2. Thanks for pointing me to this post. It seems like my schools gen-ed reform and yours are philosophically similar (departments don’t own any part of the gen-ed, etc). I really like the statistics requirement, and I was hoping to have some sort of a computer science requirement, too (not necessarily full courses in either, but I want my students to know what a p-value tells them—and what it doesn’t—and I want my students to know how to write a for loop).

    I see that this post is six years old. How is it going?

    Comment by bretbenesh — 2017 May 4 @ 07:05 | Reply

    • The new system seems to be working better than the old one (which was more of 1-of-this-2-of-that system designed more to make sure that unpopular departments got students than for any good pedagogical reasons).

      The requirement that no course can satisfy more than one gen-ed code has nearly eliminated the courses that existed only because they satisfied more than one gen ed (a few survived because there was some real interest in the subject).

      There is a great shortage of courses that teach textual analysis in the sciences and engineering—I think that only biology and biomolecular engineering have put together courses that do the requisite deep look at how papers are constructed to make an argument, rather than just reading for content. The committee that approves the gen ed codes has been quite strict about what constitutes a “TA” code outside of the humanities (where they’ve been pretty lax), so that journal clubs do not qualify.

      Engineering students still grumble about cross-cultural analysis and race and ethnicity requirements. They have so few courses that they take outside their major that they’d rather they got to choose something that interested them instead of being forced to take things of no interest to them to satisfy a gen ed requirement.

      The Disciplinary Communications requirements have been difficult for some departments to handle, as they have no faculty willing to read student papers and comment on them. (Computer Science, with the huge student-to-faculty ratios has had particular difficulty.) The beginning writing courses have been evolving, because we have more and more students not meeting the ELWR (entry-level writing requirement). It used to be rare for our incoming students to need remedial writing help, and now many of them do (more international students from China with much less English than they need and students from California high schools that seem to only get to 8th grade level of instruction in math and English). There is some on-going work on restructuring the first-year experience, so that students can’t take the C1 composition course until they have gotten past the ELWR.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2017 May 4 @ 07:41 | Reply

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