Susan Taffe Reed, Dartmouth College
Elysa R. Smith, Franklin University
Justine S. Leigh, University of South Florida
A note about the origins of this article: The authors of this publication met through an Idea Generation Writing Group that was part of the NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising Writes Initiative. All three authors work with undergraduate students at non-profit schools. During monthly meetings, advising experiences were shared from the authors’ home institutions—Dartmouth College (four-year liberal arts college, approx. 4,500 undergraduates), Franklin University (adult student focused, large online presence, approx. 3,000 undergraduates), and the University of South Florida (four-year public state institution, 60% transfer students, approx. 35,000 undergraduates). As the group’s conversations evolved over time, discussions focused on general education at each respective institution and how the authors advise students on this part of the curriculum. The important role academic advising plays in assisting students with the selection of general education courses was recognized, especially in helping students make meaning and develop connections based on their individual perspectives, interests, and values.
The merit, purpose, and logistics of fulfilling general education requirements is a salient advising topic in conversations with students across a variety of undergraduate colleges and universities. The structure of a core curriculum that covers a diverse swath of academic disciplines can be found at a variety of institutions (Rust, 2011). Understanding the institution, the student population, and the individual student is key to shaping conversations about general education from multiple perspectives. A tailored approach is needed to meet the unique needs and interests of each individual student as they consider the many general education choices available to them. Academic advisors can begin to shift common student perspectives on general education—such as the idea that these courses are merely a requirement to fulfill or a box to check—by guiding students through an intentional process of exploring the general education opportunities available to them. The goal of this article is to use self-authorship theory to provide approaches to general education advising conversations held by primary-role advisors and faculty advisors with students, whether those conversations be about the student’s personal values, interests, or career goals.
Advisors can start general education conversations by utilizing the concept of self-authorship theory to help students co-construct their college experience. Self-authorship theory is “the capacity to internally define a coherent belief system and identity that coordinates engagement in mutual relations with the larger world” (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004, p. xxii). Along the self-authorship journey, students move from allowing others to define and guide them to becoming the author of their own life through developing a grounded sense of who they are and basing decisions on their inner core beliefs. Academic advisors can play a key role in this journey by acting as “intentional interaction designers” (Shockley-Zalabak, 2012). For example, an academic advisor could suggest to a pre-medical student that an introduction to psychology general education course could be beneficial to understand patients holistically—physically and emotionally. Viewing the advising relationship this way aligns with “student-centered goals that focus on the development of students’ capacities as lifelong learners . . . so that students can manage their own learning as well as self-author their own meaning making, knowledge construction, and bases for judgment, decision making, and problem solving” (Melander, 2005, p. 90).
Academic advisors can “help the student see the meaning of the educational journey” (Champlin-Scharff & Hagen, 2013, p. 233) every time the student needs to make a choice between general education courses. These moments are openings for “dialogue in which the learner has the opportunity to express, justify, and discuss individual goals and ideas” (Hemwall & Trachte, 2005, p. 80) and “interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies” (Melander, 2005, p. 86). The advisor can connect the student’s goals and competencies to general education options. For example, a cisgender female STEM major might be interested in taking an introduction to women’s studies general education course because she wants to learn more about how societal gender roles may impact her field.
Approaching conversations from the lens of self-authorship theory will ensure that each student is treated as an individual and recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all academic plan. It also gives the space to acknowledge that there are various socio-historical factors that impact student’s goals, interests, and choices such as “an individual’s race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religion as well as place of birth, educational background,” etc. (Champlin-Scharff, 2010, p. 62). Advisors are encouraged to have these conversations across multiple semesters because time itself plays a role in the development of a student, their interpretations of themselves, and their relationship to their educational choices (Champlin-Scharff, 2010, p. 62).
Through the use of open-ended questions, advisors can find out important information about students, such as what motivates them, what their interests are, and what they value. When reviewing the general education curriculum and course offerings, academic advisors can frame general education as an opportunity for personal growth and self-improvement. “The excellent advisor helps the student to understand, and indeed in a certain sense, to create the logic of the student’s curriculum,” Lowenstein argued (2020, p. 5). Questions to ask students might include:
- What connections can you draw between the courses you have taken so far?
- In which academic subject area(s) have you always wanted to take a course?
- What is one skill that you would like to develop and why?
According to Rust (2011), “Students question many aspects of their college experience, including the value of taking a particular course, joining a student organization, studying abroad, or pursuing any other endeavor outside of their major or focus area” (p. 5). It is good practice to help students reflect on completed coursework to make decisions about future enrollment by identifying interests, likes/dislikes, strengths/weaknesses, etc. Advisors can cultivate the discovery of new areas of academic curiosities and even new majors through the curricular exploration that general education fosters.
Academic advisors can also connect general education requirements to what may be most important to the student—their career. In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed, Schroeder (2021) discussed higher education’s future of “bridging the gap between the expectations of learners and the needs of employers.” For many students, the priority is getting a job after graduation. In the same article, Schroeder (2021) cited a University of California, Los Angeles’s annual survey of first-year students entering four-year colleges and universities. According to this survey, roughly 85 percent of first-year students say they are going to college so they can get a job (Horn & Moesta, 2020, para. 1). It is not just traditional students who are going to college for their career; post-traditional students are also focused on the benefit a college education can bring to their current and future job. In a separate survey of students, “nearly 90 percent of those returning to college are seeking to enhance their career prospects” (Schroeder, 2021, para. 2).
While the needs of employers have evolved over time, most “generally have confidence in higher education” and believe that “a liberal education, or preparation for more than a specific job, provides knowledge and skills that are important for career success” (Flaherty, 2021, para. 2). In a recent report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the consistently top ranked essential learning outcomes employers value are “critical thinking and analysis, problem solving, teamwork, and communication through writing and speaking” (Flaherty, 2021, para. 15). General education courses are one place students can find opportunities to strengthen these skills.
Academic advisors can help students facilitate finding value in general education courses by connecting traditional and post-traditional students’ expectations with future employers’ needs. For example, the specific content of a humanities course may not be directly applicable to every student’s major, but the skills learned in the humanities course—critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and communication skills—can be. It is up to advisors to help students distinguish the difference between the content of a course and its universal transferable skills that can be used in future courses, experiences, and jobs.
There are many ways that academic advisors can engage in rich conversations with students about how general education courses are more than requirements needed for the baccalaureate degree. Students may start their college experience by prioritizing individual components, such as only focusing on future careers. However, by utilizing the concepts from this article, academic advisors can shift student perspectives, guiding them to envision their undergraduate education holistically. Academic advisors encourage students to build areas for personal growth, self-improvement, and explore academic curiosities. The self-authorship process helps students understand how general education courses can be the intersection of personal and professional interests that lead to a meaningful and individualized college experience. Overall, general education courses are opportunities for students to curate their education, prepare for their career, and become lifelong learners.
Susan Taffe Reed
Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students
Undergraduate Deans Office
Elysa R. Smith
Senior Academic Advisor
College of Business; College of Health & Public Administration
Justine S. Leigh
College of Nursing
University of South Florida
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Cite this article using APA style as: Taffe Reed, S., Smith, E.R., & Leigh, J.S. (2022, March). More than just a requirement: Advising opportunities to personalize general education. Academic Advising Today, 45(1). [insert url here]