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Hello, pottery class: NDSU proposal would emphasize required skills over specific courses

FARGO - North Dakota State University is considering a change to its general education program, from content-based learning to a new outcome-based approach.

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FARGO - North Dakota State University is considering a change to its general education program, from content-based learning to a new outcome-based approach.

In other words, students could soon be able to satisfy a communications requirement in a science course, or a critical thinking requirement in a pottery class.

"This is a paradigm shift," said Amy Rupiper Taggart, NDSU director of general education. "It's not that everything changes, but your main goal is less about, 'I'm going to teach this textbook' or 'I'm going to teach this content' and more about, 'What do I want the students to be able to know, do or be at the end of the class?' "

The model would still require students to take a few specific courses (English 120, Comm 110) and a certain number of credits in each topic; for example, 10 credits in science and technology.

But for many topics, such as the new "critical thinking, creative thinking and problem-solving" area, students could complete their required credits in a variety of classes.

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Take that pottery class. "If a student knew how the person making the pot thought about making a pot and creating it, that would count as critical reasoning," said Dennis Cooley, president of the faculty senate.

The proposal is in limbo right now, though, because it conflicts with the North Dakota University System's policy governing general education. Policy 403 was designed to create universal standards, so that students can transfer easily from one school to another.

"There's also the fact that 403 was carefully negotiated among the institutions and the legislative bodies and so on for a number of years," Cooley said. "And they wanted categories, they wanted those areas covered because that fits the land-grant mission for NDSU."

A feasibility committee has been formed to seek an exception to the policy, but even that wouldn't guarantee its implementation.

"The faculty could say this is a complete disaster and shut it down. They could say this is the most wonderful thing on the earth, push it forward," Cooley said. "All of this is very tenuous right now."

Cooley said faculty are split on the proposal, which took more than five years to draft.

NDSU historian Tom Isern recently published two scathing blog posts about the plan, saying it would complicate transfers, create political trouble for NDSU and interfere with "the land grant ideal," which is to promote both practical and liberal education. Isern declined an interview.

"I've heard people say that all this is going to do is what we call siloing students," Cooley said. "So very powerful majors will be able to take care of all the education within that major, or almost all the education within that major, and so students have no breadth of understanding."

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But Rupiper Taggart, who is an English professor, sees a benefit to letting science students learn how to write from scientists.

"They are the ones with the expert knowledge about how communication works in their discipline," she said. If the plan is approved, she envisions new professional development, such as classes for science faculty on how to teach writing.

An outcomes-based program could also streamline NDSU's accreditation process, as the Higher Learning Commission has been focusing on outcomes for the past decade, she said.

But first, the university needs the approval of the system office.

"NDSU is not a rogue here. This is merely an idea that we would like to try, or an idea that we want to put out into discussion," Cooley said. "If it turns out that NDUS says no, we're done."

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