University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Work Plan for Give the Students a Compass 

General Education Project



University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) welcomes the opportunity to participate in the Compass project to reform general education as an outcomes-driven program that focuses on students developing the breadth of knowledge and intellectual and practical skills needed for a 21st century college graduate while understanding their personal and social responsibilities. UWM has a wealth of experience in high impact practices such as Freshman Seminars, undergraduate research, capstone courses, study abroad, internships, and senior theses. The Compass project provides a much-needed focus for the various elements of a rich general education programs to organically come together in a new form that reflects the mission and aspirations of UWM and embodies the principles of the LEAP initiative. The proposed work plan is comprehensive in addressing the design and implementation of the program, faculty development, advising and student support, and assessment of student learning. Assessment information will be tracked in a web-based system and will be used to make necessary changes. Knowledge gained in Access to Success and the Equity Scorecard projects will enable UWM to ensure that the benefits of the reform are realized for all students including underserved students. The diverse project team consists of key individuals who can catalyze various constituencies of the campus in this project. The project will serve as a useful case study for other urban research institutions as well as for other UW system institutions.


The Current Model

The goals of the general education requirements at UWM, formulated in 1984, are stated as

“General education should provide opportunities to develop a strong foundation of verbal and quantitative skills; to understand the roles of methods and processes and their constraining effects on thought; to gain cultural and historical perspectives on the world; to develop consciousness of self in relation to tradition; to appreciate creativity, including the creation, testing, and application of ideas; to see how ideas relate to social structures; and to understand how values infuse both action and inquiry.”

To meet these goals, the current general education requirements at UWM are organized into a blend of competency and distribution requirements. The competency requirements assure basic student competencies in English composition, mathematics, and foreign language. The distribution requirements provide a broad body of knowledge in the arts, humanities, natural, and social sciences as a foundation for specialization. One of the courses that meet the distribution requirements must be designated as a cultural diversity course. The competency requirements may be met by either achieving a specified score in a placement examination or by successfully completing coursework. The distribution requirements are met by successfully completing courses designated as general education courses in each area. More than 95% of the undergraduate students complete the general education requirements in this way.

The distribution requirements may also be met by completing an alternative curriculum referred to as Cultures and Communities (developed in 2001), a set of courses that emphasizes diversity and cross-cultural literacy, multicultural arts, global studies, and the cultural contexts of science, health care, and technology. The Cultures and Communities curriculum has a strong service learning component.

Transfer students may complete all or part of UWM general education requirements at their home institutions. Transfer students come from a variety of schools including UW system 2-year and 4-year institutions and Wisconsin Technical College System. Information on UWM’s general education requirements are provided through a variety of avenues including UWM website, UW System Transfer Information System, articulation agreements, as well as through advisors and admissions representatives.

Motivation to Reform

General education at UWM is viewed largely as a requirement to complete a certain number of disparate courses rather than as integral part of a student’s academic program that contributes significantly to developing the student’s knowledge base, intellectual and practical skills. The concept of general education as a program has not taken root; to meet the requirements, the student is required to complete 21 credits. To do so, students may choose from a list of more than 600 courses designated as meeting general education requirements. While it is possible for a motivated student to select courses from this list that would meet the lofty general education goals cited above, students can and do meet the campus general education requirements without achieving the breadth of knowledge and acquiring intellectual and practical skills expected of a 21st century college graduate.

Further, there has not been any institutional level review of the general education requirements since they were formulated in 1984. The overall goals of general education have not been translated to student learning outcomes. Courses are classified as meeting general education requirements if they fulfill one of the specified criteria for content or pedagogy. Most are focused on content and do not intentionally focus on developing intellectual and practical skills. Over the past two years, the campus Academic Programs and Curriculum Committee has required that every general education course that is reviewed by the Committee specify how the course meets a current general education criterion, a learning goal, and the associated course-level assessment activity. While these requirements advance the goals of assessment, much more is necessary to define and assess overall student learning outcomes at the program and institutional levels.

Student learning outcomes for general education as a program are currently being defined, as described in the next section. In the absence of a defined set of general education program learning outcomes, it is not possible to relate course-level assessment to the program level. It is also not possible to provide adequate guidance to students on the selection of general education courses that would best meet the students’ programmatic needs.


The General Education Task Force was formed in 2007 by the Provost to study best practices and be a catalyst for general education reform. Participation of campus teams in the AAC&U General Education Institutes in 2007 and 2008 as well as in other conferences has led to campus discussions of LEAP outcomes and other liberal education topics. The Task Force has formulated common learning outcomes for all undergraduates at UWM which correlate with the LEAP outcomes for knowledge, skills, responsibility, and integrative learning. In the spring semester of this academic year, the Task Force members will engage the campus community in discussions of outcomes and reforming the general education curriculum based on outcomes. These efforts have the support of the Provost and the Chancellor.

The Center for Instructional and Professional Development (CIPD) has focused its activities and workshops around general education and assessment at the course and program levels. In the past three years, more than 800 faculty and staff have attended CIPD workshops.

The campus has significant experience in several high impact practices. The College of Letters and Science Freshman Seminar program in Humanities and Social Sciences focuses on student learning outcomes and their assessment. CIPD and the College provide specific professional development activities in syllabus design, pedagogy, and assessment to Freshman Seminar instructors. Our assessment data show that first-year students who enroll in Freshman Seminar courses demonstrate higher rates of satisfactory performance and retention compared to those students who did not take a Freshman Seminar.

The campus has launched a number of Living and Learning Communities and has expanded the undergraduate research opportunities significantly this year. The study abroad program has steadily grown and has made successful efforts to improve access to its programs. Capstone courses and senior thesis have been implemented across campus in all programs. Student participation in internship programs has been increasing. CIPD has provided professional development assistance for instructors involved in these high impact practices. Enrollment in these courses is representative of student diversity at UWM.

The campus’s signature program for improving the academic achievement of underserved students, Access to Success, brings under one umbrella a variety of curricular and co-curricular programs and services. Assessment of Access to Success programs shows improvements in satisfactory performance and retention rates for underserved students. The campus also has piloted the Equity Scorecard Project and has had significant success in achieving the goals of the Milwaukee Commitment, which is the campus’s implementation of Plan 2008.

A shining example in reforming general education courses can be seen in the History Department. Faculty in the department have revised a number of courses from being content-driven to courses that focus on the learning process and intentionally develop students’ intellectual and practical skills. Course objectives and assessment of student outcomes have been formulated and implemented in History courses including general education courses in History. Such reform that is initiated and implemented by faculty in the basic academic unit –the department – is both actionable and sustainable. Extension of this model to other departments will mark significant progress.

Resources and Challenges

Resources available for implementing the project include the General Education Task Force, UWM Assessment Council, CIPD, and the Compass Project Team. The major political issue on campus will be to gain the support of a sufficient number of faculty that will allow the faculty senate to formally approve general education reform. The major resource issue is the potential budget constraints in which the campus will be expected to operate in the next biennium.



The primary goals of the project will be:


Development of an outcomes-based foundational general education curriculum




Implementation of the outcomes-based general education program




Ongoing faculty development programs to support the redesigned general education program


Design and implementation of student advising and support services to guide students through the redesigned curriculum


Assessment of student learning outcomes both in the foundational general education curriculum as well as in the major and in closing the loop by using assessment results to improve the program and the courses

UWM is well poised to undertake the tasks that will lead to achievement of the above goals. Campus discussions over the past two years are converging on the goals of reforming general education based on outcomes and instituting robust processes to assess student learning at the course and the program levels. Combined with institutional level assessments through participation in NSSE, the Equity Scorecard and other institutional measures UWM will have provide multiple avenues to assess the success of students. The programs and services under the Access to Success umbrella have already shown their effectiveness in improving the academic success of underserved students. Strategies to increase participation of underserved students in these programs are under study and will be vigorously pursued.

The high priority tasks that will be undertaken to achieve the goals of the project are:


Development of an outcomes-based foundational general education curriculum


a. 1.

Engage campus constituencies (faculty, staff, students, and administration) in dialogs on the common learning outcomes (CLOs) in working towards approval of the CLOs by governance bodies

a. 2.

Work with faculty and staff that currently teach foundational general education courses to transform the courses to incorporate appropriate pedagogy, high impact practices, and assessment of student outcomes consistent with the CLOs



Implementation of the outcomes-based general education program


b. 1.

Recruit programs as early adopters of the outcomes-based general education program. By implementing reform at the program level, the benefits of the reform are assured for all students including the underserved student populations.

b. 2.

Work with faculty and staff in the programs to scaffold CLOs through the entire degree program



Ongoing faculty development program to support the redesigned general education program


c. 1.

Through CIPD, develop a learning community of faculty and staff who teach in the foundational general education curriculum and the early adopter programs

c. 2.

Provide multiple levels of professional development (summer faculty institute, brown bag series, workshops, individual consultations) on course design, assessment, and other needed topics



Design and implementation of student advising and support services to guide students through the redesigned curriculum


d. 1.

Engage members of the Advisors and Counselors Network in discussion on effective advising and student support practices leading to the implementation of a robust advising system that guides students through the redesigned general education curriculum

d. 2.

Through professional development activities, provide student services staff (including multicultural advising and student support services staff) information on best practices to improve student outcomes

d. 3.

Develop advising guidelines for transfer students and communicate general education outcomes to transfer institutions and students



Assessment of student learning outcomes both in the foundational general education curriculum as well as in the major and closing the loop


e. 1.

Put in place robust assessment processes at the course level and at the program level.

e. 2.

Continue to participate in institutional measures of student success (such as NSSE)

e. 3.

Use assessment results to identify shortcomings and implement necessary changes at the course and program levels

e. 4.

Track the assessment results and actions taken through WEAVE Online.


Team Characteristics

The Compass project team consists of the following individuals:

Jeffrey Merrick, Associate Dean for Humanities, College of Letters and Science

Dev Venugopalan, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs

Rodney Swain, Associate Dean for Social Sciences, College of Letters and Science

Karen Brucks, Associate Dean for Natural Sciences, College of Letters and Science

Janice Miller, Associate Dean, Lubar School of Business

Ronald Perez, Associate Dean, College of Engineering and Applied Science

Suzanne Falco, Professor of Nursing and Chair of Academic Planning and Curriculum Committee

Gesele Durham, Director, Assessment and Institutional Research

Michael Powell, Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Climate

Lori Fitzenberger, Senior Advisor, College of Letters and Science

Tina Current, Advisor, College of Engineering and Applied Science

Seven members of the team come from faculty ranks and six also have administrative duties related to academic programs. The two advisors bring the perspectives of student advisors and their expertise will help design the necessary advising mechanisms to guide students. The Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Climate is the campus point person for coordination of services to minority and underserved students. The Director of Assessment and Institutional Research brings her expertise on institutional level measures of student success. The chair of the most important faculty committee, the Academic Programs and Curriculum Committee, brings crucial faculty governance insight into the development and implementation of the project. The team was carefully put together recognizing the role of each team member in advancing the project goals and accomplishing the tasks. The team members are key individuals at UWM who can catalyze various constituencies of the campus in this project. The team is diverse in its membership (six women, five men, and three minorities).

The leadership team will draw upon other entities including the General Education Task Force, the Assessment Council, the standing faculty committees, the Advisors and Counselors Network, Freshman Seminar instructors, faculty mentors for undergraduate research, faculty and staff of Living and Learning Communities, staff of multicultural student service offices, programs and services under the Access to Success umbrella, and CIPD staff.



UWM is a large research university located in an urban community. Research growth (with a tie to regional economic development) and Access to Success define the two main goals of the institution. It is both an institution of choice and an institution of access. UWM has a strong tradition of shared governance. Implementing general education reform in an under-funded public research university presents numerous political, governance, and resource challenges. The design of the reform process and the path taken to implement the general education reform at UWM will present unique perspectives to similarly situated institutions in other parts of the country. Within the UW system, UWM is the most diverse and enrolls the largest number of underserved students – first generation and economically disadvantaged students. Extension of the work done by UWM on closing the achievement gap of student populations targeted in Access to Success and ensuring that student success is inclusive will be a case study for other institutions both in the UW system and nationally.