The General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) Design Principles and Guidelines for General Education

In preparation for the 2015 AAC&U Summer Institute on General Education & Assessment, CCVC members reviewed design principles for general education as described in the publication, General Education Maps and Markers (2015). Part of the national project, General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs), these design principles are: Proficiency, Agency and Self-Direction, Integrative Learning and Problem-Based Inquiry, Equity, and Transparency & Assessment. Given their importance in the national conversation on general education reform and redesign, we summarize the AAC&U design principles here, and then we present our own principles based on our overall review of the literature and what we believe will work best for CSB/SJU. All quotes describing the AAC&U design principles are taken from the General Education Maps and Markers publication (cited as "GEMs").

The General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) Design Principles:


Definition: " Colleges and universities should provide clear statements of desired learning outcomes for all students." General education should "provide programs, curricula, and experiences that lead to the development of demonstrable, portable proficiencies aligned to widely valued areas of twenty-first century knowledge and skill" (GEMs 2015, p. 3)

Questions to Consider:

  • Are there clear statements of desired learning outcomes for all students at your college or university? Are these expectations frequently explored with students?
  • Does each course or experience that contributes to general education clearly explain the cross-cutting or transferable proficiencies it helps students develop? Are the assignments transparently connected to the expected proficiencies?
  • Do faculty and staff work intentionally and collaboratively on the design of assignments that effectively help students practice, develop, and demonstrate the cross-cutting proficiencies that the institution has articulated both for the degree and for general education?
  • Does faculty training and development, including for contingent faculty, focus on helping all students achieve proficiencies and designing assignments and assessments that allow students to demonstrate their proficiency levels? (All questions from GEMs 2015, p. 14)

Initial Steps:

  • Draft a vision for general education at CSB/SJU.
  • Revise the learning outcomes for the general education program.
  • Use the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) and the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) as reference points and guidance to design programs to ensure that students develop 21st Century proficiencies.

Agency and Self-Direction

Definition: "General education should play a critical role in helping all students understand, pursue, and develop the proficiencies needed for work, life, and responsible citizenship. Students should be active participants in creating an educational plan in which they identify and produce high-quality work on significant questions relevant to their interests and aims" (GEMs 2015, p. 3).

Questions to Consider:

  • Are general education programs, curricula, courses, and related experiences designed in ways that clearly articulate for students how and where they can develop and demonstrate proficiencies?
  • Are general education programs, curricula, courses, and related experiences designed in ways that help students integrate and apply their learning to complex questions?
  • Are new digital tools and resources used to provide students with multiple opportunities to participate in active learning environments as part of their education?
  • Can each student demonstrate and explain his or her own best or Signature Work (see definition under Design Principle #4 in section B.3 of this report, and in Appendix G).
  • Are e-portfolios and digital profiles used to enable students to integrate and document their reflections, Signature Work projects, and other demonstrations of proficiency and work in various settings? (GEMs 2015, pp. 15-16)

Initial Steps:

  • Develop e-portfolios so students understand and appreciate the value of the general education learning outcomes and how they have met them.
  • Provide students with opportunities to develop Signature Work.

Integrative Learning and Problem-Based Inquiry

Definition: "Students should develop and demonstrate proficiency through a combination and integration of curricular, cocurricular, and community-based learning, as well as prior learning experiences...Students should demonstrate proficiencies through inquiry into unscripted problems that are relevant to students' interests and aims and where a full understanding of the problem requires insights from multiple areas of study" (GEMs 2015, p. 17).

Questions to Consider:

  • Do students formally reflect on how proficiencies are progressively developed and demonstrated in different settings-for example, between and among courses and in cocurricular activities, communities of practice and action, virtual networks, internships, service learning experiences, and prior experiences?
  • Are faculty members mindful of and able to help students productively connect with multiple communities, within and beyond higher education, to achieve their learning goals?
  • Does the general education program clearly map and guide students along integrative curricular, cocurricular, and experiential pathways that progressively develop proficiencies?
  • Is faculty development building the capacity of faculty to work across disciplines? (GEMs 2015, pp. 17-18)

Initial Steps:

  • Develop curricular maps to indicate where proficiencies can be achieved in the CSB/SJU general education curriculum.
  • Design "interdisciplinary concentrations" or thematic clusters of courses that address topics and problems from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Incorporate high-impact practices into these clusters so students have multiple opportunities to practice critical skills at different levels. Integrate the clusters/concentrations with the revised general education curriculum.
  • Incorporate FAE into general education course design so students have opportunities to reflect on these experiences.
  • Devote some FDRC grant resources to support faculty working on thematic clusters.


Definition: "General education programs should be equity-minded in design and implementation...General education programs should advance practices and policies that are aimed at achieving the full spectrum of learning outcomes for all students regardless of their backgrounds" (GEMs 2015, p. 19).

Questions to Consider:

  • Do curricular materials and assignments take into account students' identities, lived experiences, and needs?
  • Is there ongoing examination of campus environments and attention to whether all students feel welcomed, supported, and helped in achieving their goals?
  • Do organizational policies and structures support equitable change, including faculty and staff development, to eliminate practices and structural barriers that work against equity? (GEMs 2015, pp. 19-20)

Initial Steps:

  • Ensure that high-impact practices such as internships, study abroad, and undergraduate research are available to all students.
  • Provide faculty development and training so instructors can meet the needs of a changing student population.
  • Monitor student progress through the general education program, and identify areas of weakness.

Transparency & Assessment

Definition: "Students, faculty members, and other stakeholders should understand what proficiencies are being developed in any general education program, course, or activity, and how these proficiencies can be demonstrated at key milestones in students' progress toward the degree" (GEMs 2015, p. 21)

Questions to Consider:

  • Are there shared, rubric-based assessments, such as the use of VALUE rubrics, to provide a means for responding to students' individual levels of development to ensure quality and achieve equity?
  • Are there faculty development opportunities regarding assessment that include a focus on the role of digital tools and learning environments in assessment?
  • Does the institution widely share these reports, get feedback on them, and use them in faculty and program development and dialogue with students and other stakeholders to improve results? (GEMs 2015, p. 21)

Initial Steps:

  • Assign a Director of Assessment to oversee assessment of the general education program.
  • Create a culture of assessment that is meaningful to faculty and students, with assessment data used to for program improvement and to help students achieve the learning outcomes.

We have incorporated these five AAC&U design principles into a set of vision and design principles for general education revisions at CSB/SJU, which we describe in the following section.