University of Massachusetts Amherst

UMass Amherst: General Education

Umass Logo image 1 image 2 image3

Course Approval & Governance


Adding a 4th Credit to a Gen Ed Course

Changes in General Education - Background and Summary
by Professor John McCarthy

1. Background

In Fall 2007, Provost Charlena Seymour and the Faculty Senate created a joint task force to make recommendations for improving general education at UMass Amherst. This General Education Task Force (GETF) began its work with rather modest, short-term goals, but soon discovered that the challenges were bigger than had been anticipated. Many students and even some faculty do not understand the purpose of the general education curriculum. General education is often seen as an arbitrary collection of requirements that need to be checked off to get a degree. Students do not receive as much benefit as we would hope from courses that constitute one-third of their total curriculum.

The GETF's final report describes the results of the Task Force's work on these and other difficult problems. Pages 11-16 of this report present a two-pronged approach to the problem of enhancing student learning in general education:

  1. Reduce the number but increase the intensity of courses by shifting from a 3-credit to a 4-credit model. The report includes a specific proposal about how to do this.
  2. Develop upper-level "integrative experiences" that help students pull together the learning they have done in general education courses and their majors.

When the GETF finished its work in May 2009, it recommended pursuing these changes after a year or so of further study and pilot projects, to resolve questions about implementation.

2. The Looming Budget Crisis

The July 8, 2009 message from the MSP President and the June 18, 2009 message from the Chancellor describe the budget crisis that will affect this campus in the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2010. Because the Commonwealth has already spent the second year of the federal stimulus money, we can expect to bear the full brunt of cuts in state funding on that date.

Both the MSP President and the Chancellor urge faculty to become involved in developing ways of dealing with this crisis with minimal harm to the institution, its students, and its employees. The GETF's recommendations offer an opportunity to do that by permitting us to teach the same number of students, despite inevitable faculty attrition due to retirements and resignations when there is little or no hiring.

In July 2009, when the budget crisis had become clear, the GETF met to consider accelerating the schedule for implementing these changes. The GETF unanimously endorsed a proposal to the Senate to proceed immediately with the revised general education curriculum. The effects of that proposal are succinctly summarized in this table. This plan was also endorsed by the General Education Council, the Academic Matters Council, and the Ad Hoc Committee on Strategic Oversight. (See section 4 below for further details on the process for reviewing this proposal.)

3. How This Will Work

This table shows exactly how the requirements will change. The changes affect only those parts of the general education curriculum that involve natural science, social science, arts, and humanities. (These courses have BS, PS, AL, AT, HS, or SB designations.) There are no changes in the courses that fulfill the R1, R2, and writing requirements. There is no change in the diversity requirements (see What about the diversity requirements? in the FAQ).

Many general education courses, particularly in natural science, already carry 4 credits. Beginning early in Fall 2009, there will be a concerted effort to encourage faculty teaching 3-credit BS/PS/AL/AT/HS/SB courses to move to 4 credits. This effort will initially focus on courses that are taken by large numbers of first-year students.

In most cases, this change will not involve adding another hour of lecture to a course. That is neither possible -- because classroom space is so scarce -- nor advisable -- because added lecture time is rarely the best way to help students achieve greater depth in a topic. The GETF has developed a list of ideas for expanding a course to 4 credits. The change will not be automatic; instructors will need to apply by explaining how the course work will expand to reflect the increase in credits awarded.

The Dean of Undergraduate Education will work with School/College deans and individual departments to ensure that adequate capacity is developed within each 4 credit category. At present a large majority of the seats in these categories are contained in a reasonable subset of the total approved courses (on the order of 70% of the instruction delivered in 15% of the courses). In those situations where a substantial effort is required to design additional course components and their evaluation, such as in courses with enrollments of 100 or more first-year students, instructional development support funds will be provided and may be used for compensation to faculty or other supplemental activities directly related to the course conversion.

4. The Process of Making This Change

The members of the faculty, through the Faculty Senate, control decisions on curricular matters. The Senate has been deeply involved in the process of developing and reviewing this proposal from the outset:

  1. The proposal is based on the work of a joint Senate-administration task force, the General Education Task Force (GETF).
  2. The proposal was unanimously endorsed by the GETF on July 14 2009.
  3. The proposal was reviewed and unanimously endorsed by two Senate councils, the General Education Council and the Academic Matters Council, at a joint meeting on July 23 2009.
  4. The proposal was reviewed and endorsed 11-1-1 by another Senate body, the Ad Hoc Committee on Strategic Oversight, at a meeting on July 23 2009.
  5. The proposal will be considered by the Rules Committee of the Senate on August 3 2009.
  6. The proposal will be presented to the Faculty Senate at the first meeting of the Fall semester, on September 17 2009. The General Education Implementation Committee will likely offer amendments to address unresolved questions like this, this, and this.


5. Frequently Asked Questions

About Timing

What's the rush?

The GETF and everybody else involved would prefer to proceed more slowly, but there just isn't time. Here's the timeline, working backwards toward the present:

  • July 2010: The new fiscal year begins with a much smaller budget.
  • May 2010: Sufficient 4-credit courses need to be ready for first-year students filling their schedules at summer orientation.
  • January 2010: The Scheduling Office needs to know about any room changes necessitated by the shift to 4 credits.
  • November 2009: Proposals to change courses from 3 to 4 credits need to be submitted to ensure action before the end of the semester.
  • October 2009: The Registrar's office needs to be informed of any potential changes in time or capacities in the affected courses.
  • September-October 2009: Workshops and incentives will be provided to support proposals to change courses from 3 to 4 credits. The 50 or so courses that teach the most first-year students will be particularly targeted.
  • August 2009: Department chairs and faculty are informed about the impending change.


About The Requirements

Will students who are subject to the new requirements be allowed to substitute two 3-credit courses in some general education area for one 4-credit course in that area?

This has not yet been decided. It is attractive because it gives students and departments more options, but it makes the new requirements more complicated to explain and it may prove too cumbersome for Spire.

What about the diversity requirements?

The diversity requirements are not changed. Since most students fulfill the domestic (U) and global (G) diversity requirements by taking a course that also has another designation (e.g., SBU), most students will fulfill the diversity requirements with 4-credit courses. The few stand-alone diversity courses (U or G designation only) can remain at 3 credits, if the instructors so choose.

What about non-gen ed courses?

This change has no effect on courses or requirements other than those in the BS/PS/AL/AT/HS/SB areas of general education.  

What about interdisciplinary courses?

The question of exactly how to fit I and SI courses into the new system of requirements has not yet been settled, but there is a commitment to making sure that they do fit in.

What about Commonwealth College?

This is also under discussion.

The change from 3 to 4 credits gets most of the attention. What about the integrative experience?

The integrative experience aspect of this proposal is not as fully developed as the change from 3 to 4 credits. The main reason is that it is simply less urgent: the earliest that non-transfer students will be eligible for it is September 2012. See pages 12-13 of the final report and notes here and here  for further explanation of the integrative experience.


About Impact on Students

Which students will be affected by this change?

Only first-year students entering in September 2010 or later. Continuing students will remain subject to the current general education requirements.

What about transfer students?

It has not yet been decided how transfer students will be integrated into this system.

What if students subject to the current general education requirements take 4-credit courses?

Those courses will count toward satisfying those requirements, but no more so than 3-credit courses. Any 4-credit courses on a student's record will naturally count toward the 120 credit degree requirement, regardless of when the student entered the University.

How will this change affect Five-College students?

Five-College students already receive 4 credits for taking the existing 3-credit courses at UMass. Therefore, this change will mean that they no longer have an unearned advantage over our own students.


About Impact on Faculty

Will faculty and departments get help in changing their courses?

Yes. The Dean of Undergraduate Education and the Center for Teaching will provide timely support in the form of advice, ideas, workshops, and compensation where appropriate (see section 3).

Will faculty and departments be forced to change their courses from 3 to 4 credits?

No, but after a few years the demand for 3 credit courses is likely to diminish significantly.


How will this affect teaching loads?

The councils and committees that have reviewed this proposal have discussed this question at length. There is no simple formula because departments, schools, and colleges have their own ways of measuring teaching load. The sense of most faculty who have examined this question is that each unit should find a way of recognizing the added burden of teaching a 4-credit course, particularly to large classes.


Isn't this just a way of getting more work out of faculty for the same pay?

Yes and no. Faculty will undoubtedly have to do extra work to develop activities consonant with the fourth credit and to evaluate the results of that work, but it is not expected that this change will add 33% to the total time commitment for teaching such a course. How much extra work this entails will also depend on how departments handle 4-credit courses when balancing teaching loads. Look here for some ideas for expanding courses to 4 credits.


Will the workload of TAs and TOs be affected?

The answer depends on the course and how the work associated with the fourth credit is managed. Departments will need to take care that TAs and TOs are not given work that exceeds their contractual hours.


About Procedures

Who will manage the transition?

On the administration side, the Dean of Undergraduate Education. On the faculty side, a new ad hoc Committee on General Education Revision and Implementation (GERICO), with representation from the Academic Matters Council, the General Education Council, and the Rules Committee.

How do I change my course from 3 to 4 credits?

GERICO will develop and distribute a brief but thorough application form. The form will focus on the following criteria, which are drawn from Sen. Doc. no. 05-007:

  • How will the syllabus change to reflect the increased workload?
  • Are the expectations of students performance increased commensurately?
  • How will the additional work be evaluated?

GERICO will give prompt feedback on applications with advice for improving applications that are unsuccessful on the first attempt.


What are the other responsibilities of GERICO?

To resolve minor questions as they arise, and to develop proposals about larger questions, such as the treatment of interdisciplinary courses or accommodation of transfer students.


How will proposals for new general education courses be handled?

They should go to the General Education Council, not GERICO. Proposals for new BS/PS/AL/AT/HS/SB courses should reflect the 4-credit workload.


Revised Gen Ed requirements


Please note: The proposal submission process is expected to be active through fall 2010.