University of Wyoming Assistant Professor Diana Baumbach teaches an art class in UW’s new Visual Arts Building. Baumbach is one of dozens of UW’s top instructors slated to teach first-year seminar courses under the University Studies Program starting in fall 2015. (UW Photo)

(Laramie, Wyo.) – A major revision to the University of Wyoming’s general studies program will provide undergraduate students with a strong educational foundation while simplifying the course-selection process.

Academic units across the UW campus have begun working to implement the new general studies program, which was adopted by the UW Faculty Senate last year and is scheduled to be in place for the fall 2015 semester. The changes will culminate close to four years of review and revision involving dozens of faculty members and student affairs professionals across campus, along with input from Wyoming community colleges.

The general studies program, called the University Studies Program (USP), consists of coursework required for all students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at UW. In addition to that core of 30 required credit hours in the new program, UW students will continue to be required to complete specific coursework in their respective colleges and for their specific majors.

“The current USP is viewed by many students as large, difficult to navigate and overly complicated, placing too many constraints on undergraduates — particularly transfers and those who change majors,” says Brett Kahler, a communication major from Casper who just completed his term as president of the Associated Students of UW. “Increasing the simplicity and clarity of the system is a wonderful objective that the new program will definitely accomplish.”

The most significant change is the addition of a required course called a first-year seminar for all freshmen at UW. Students each will choose one such three-credit course from more than 60 available in a wide range of disciplines, from computer science to art. The courses will feature relatively small class sizes of no more than 24 students, and they will be taught by some of UW’s top faculty members.

“The first-year seminars will provide opportunities for students to connect with UW’s finest instructors, who will share their intellectual passions in these courses,” says Alyson Hagy, interim associate vice president for academic affairs. “The seminars represent a valuable opportunity for thoughtful, creative teaching and student engagement — for students to find out what college is all about right off the bat.”

Key skills to be gained from the first-year seminars include critical and creative thinking, inquiry and analysis, and writing and speaking proficiency. UW officials believe the courses will assist in the university’s efforts to increase student retention, as students will gain the skills they need to succeed in college while engaging with UW’s best teachers. Many universities across the country have implemented first-year seminars as required general education courses for those same reasons.

UW’s new University Studies Program represents a shift to an outcomes-based approach to higher education, identifying 13 essential learning outcomes that all those receiving UW bachelor’s degrees must meet. In addition to critical thinking and communication skills, the essential outcomes include intercultural knowledge and engagement, knowledge of human culture and the physical and natural world, quantitative reasoning, ethical reasoning, and problem-solving ability. Such an approach is favored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and it’s in line with UW President Dick McGinity’s focus on producing graduates ready to compete in a global marketplace.

“We don’t believe critical learning outcomes are achieved by checking off boxes associated with individual courses,” says UW Faculty Senate Chair Ed Janak. “Rather, because these learning outcomes represent lifelong goals, they should and will be apparent throughout the UW curriculum. The university is working now to make sure these outcomes are integrated and achieved in general coursework as well as all degree programs.”

While specific course requirements in “diversity” and “global awareness” in the current USP are not included in the revision, individual colleges and departments must incorporate those elements in their programs. In most cases, colleges and departments will continue to require the same coursework in those areas that they do now. UW will not eliminate its ethnic or gender/women’s studies programs; nor will any faculty positions in those programs be eliminated.

In fact, the new program will allow students to minor or double-major in many disciplines, including those with a diversity or global-awareness focus, much more easily.

“The goal is to develop more global- and diversity-related courses, programs and options for students,” Janak says. “With the more streamlined USP comes the potential for more students to take these courses as interest items and as part of minors, which more students will have the ‘space’ for in their programs.”

The USP changes set the stage for students to have constant contact with diversity and global topics, in and out of the classroom, throughout their experience at UW.

Making UW undergraduate education easier to navigate, while providing a stronger foundation for success in college and in life after graduation, is at the heart of the USP changes. And while not all of the specific interests of each UW academic unit are completely satisfied in the new program, it represents a compromise that meshes with the diverse curricula and missions of all of UW’s six undergraduate colleges.

“A change of this magnitude is never easy, but what we have is a clear step forward for UW and its students,” Hagy says. “The faculty is excited about the potential of the new program, particularly the first-year seminars, and we’re committed to continual assessment to make sure it’s doing what it’s intended to do.”

More information about USP 2015, including documents that have guided three task forces through the review and revision, can be found at www.uwyo.edu/unst/usp-review-revision/index.html.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s wrong with the current University Studies Program at UW?

The large number of required course categories (14), in addition to two subcategories — and a complicated system of courses that meet requirements both for general and major coursework — create a dizzying array of requirements for students to manage in designing their degree programs. Students who don’t declare majors from the start, transfer students, students who change majors and those with double-majors often face difficulties. The current system is so cumbersome that students have few opportunities to take electives that might strengthen their liberal education and/or lead to minors in other disciplines.

How will the new program be better?

It dramatically simplifies undergraduate education. Students will be able to complete their general education requirements in 30 hours, or about a quarter of a bachelor’s degree, compared with up to 36 hours at present. It will be easier to change majors, pursue double-majors or minors, and identify courses to fit into student schedules. Transcript evaluation for transfer students will be simplified.

What are the main differences between the existing USP and the new one?

The new program will shift the focus of general education away from a wide array of three-credit courses toward a relatively small slate of first-year courses intended to improve student performance in reading, writing, critical thinking and quantitative reasoning. A required first-year seminar will allow for more student engagement and instill important skills for students to succeed in college.

Do these changes represent a lowering of the bar for UW students?

Absolutely not. In fact, it’s the opposite. The university will incorporate 13 essential learning outcomes across the curriculum, and those outcomes will be measured. The USP will provide a stronger foundation for students to pursue specific majors, along with skills to succeed in their chosen professions. The essential learning outcomes are: knowledge of human culture and the physical and natural world; inquiry and analysis; critical and creative thinking; communication; quantitative reasoning; information literacy; ethical reasoning; independent learning; team-based learning; problem solving; community contribution, local and global; understanding of diverse perspectives; academic responsibility; pursuit of excellence in all endeavors; and cultivation of personal health and wellness. 

When will the new program start?

It is scheduled to begin in the fall 2015 semester. 

What about students who started their college careers under the current program?

The new USP requirements will not apply to students who’ve earned 60 or more hours of credit before the fall 2015 semester. Students who’ve earned fewer than 60 credit hours as of the fall 2015 semester will have the ability to opt into the new program. However, they also can choose to continue under the current USP.

What do UW’s 2015 USP changes mean for community college transfers?

The UW faculty task forces that have worked on the USP changes since 2011 have included community college representatives. In addition, UW representatives have met with community colleges during the 2013-14 academic year to discuss the changes. UW will consider Wyoming community college students who have earned their associate’s degrees to have met UW’s USP 2015 requirements, with the exception of a senior-level course in writing and public speaking. Students who have not earned their associate’s degrees when they transfer will be required to complete the USP 2015 requirements, not including the first-year seminar.

Is the university dropping its programs in global studies, ethnic studies and gender/women’s studies?

No. While the specific course requirements in “diversity” and “global awareness” in the current USP will no longer be required, individual colleges and departments must incorporate those elements in their programs. In most cases, individual colleges and departments will continue to require the same coursework in those areas that they do now.

How did the USP changes come about?

The current program has been in place since 2003. It is customary for universities to review and revise their general education requirements every decade or so. UW’s 2009 strategic plan called for a review of the university’s program. Former Provost Myron Allen initiated the review with a “white paper” in the fall of 2010. Since that time, three task forces involving dozens of faculty members, student affairs professionals and others have undertaken the task. Numerous meetings have been held on and off campus to gather input.partments will continue to require the same coursework in those areas that they have in the The USP 2015 program was adopted by the Faculty Senate in early 2013. The third task force now is leading the implementation phase.

–UW News Service