Reform General Education courses

Large lectures are not a great way for students to start their college education

By Alya Simoun, Collegian contributor

All University of Massachusetts students are required to fulfill General Education requirements in order to earn their degree. According to the UMass website, these courses provide “students with experiences, knowledge, and skills necessary to become well-educated, successful, and valuable contributors to our ever-evolving global community.” When meeting with their academic adviser, most first-year students are told to complete a large portion of their Gen Eds throughout their freshman year and spread the rest out throughout the coming years. For many students who enter college having no idea what they want to study, including myself, these courses are largely used beyond their intended purpose; they are the way students figure out what they want to study and, for some, what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

Regardless of first year students’ certainty (or lack thereof) of the major they wish to pursue, at UMass, your first year of courses are mostly large lectures. With the exception of a pass/fail seminar or a college writing course, first year students spend the majority of their time in a dimly-lit lecture hall for a Gen Ed or introductory-level course. It seems as though UMass treats these courses merely as something to check off the long list of requirements—as if your first year of college is nothing but preparing for actually engaging, upper-level courses you’ll eventually take as an upper classman. Most prerequisites and Gen Ed fulfilling courses are lecture-style. In my personal experience, it feels like lectures are simply a filler for students awaiting the engaging and academically fulfilling courses they are told will come.

Many students, including myself, change their major several times throughout their first year. The introductory-level and Gen Ed requirement-fulfilling courses should serve as a glimpse into the next four years — something to keep students engaged and provide a well-rounded education while figuring their interests out. The curriculum most first-year students follow needs to be reformed. Gen Eds are not fulfilling their intended purpose and need to be more than something for students to check off their list.

Sitting in the back of any given lecture hall, you will find most students scrolling mindlessly through their Facebook feeds, solely having attended the class for the possibility of answering an iClicker question to get participation credit. Many students essentially spend their first year of college slumped in a lecture hall seat, surrounded by hundreds of their fellow disinterested peers, waiting for the interesting courses to come in their upperclassman years. According to UMass, through Gen Eds, students “will broaden their perspectives [and] improve critical and analytical thinking.” In my own experience, as I’m sure many of you can relate, lectures far from fulfill this purpose. I am in no way saying that there should be no Gen Ed requirements — I actually find them to be an important part of receiving a degree in any field and think a Gen Ed program should be employed at all universities. However, lectures quickly get overwhelming and can leave students feeling passionless or uninterested in the major they initially selected or clueless about what they want to continue studying. UMass needs to reconsider which courses are offered exclusively in large lectures and the effect this has on students—especially underclassmen. The solution? Offer more seminars and course options to fulfill Gen Ed requirements, and put more effort into prerequisites.

As a humanities student, I too dreaded taking my science and math Gen Ed requirements. Many STEM majors feel this way about their mandatory history and social science courses. Instead of forcing all students into these less-than-engaging courses, which they already lack interest in, the topics and structure of Gen Eds could allow students to engage in their interests in a diversified array of courses. If a history student, for example, is well into their major, shouldn’t they be able to take a course on the history of chemistry to fulfill their physical science requirement? Gen Ed requirements are important, and there is good intent behind them, but they are not actually productive. To enrich students’ college education rather than distract from it, UMass must re-examine the Gen Ed curriculum and offer smaller courses in more diverse and appealing subjects.

Alya Simoun is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]