Foundational Skills Innovation Spotlight: Clarke University

In this series, we highlight exceptional responses we’ve seen on the part of higher education institutions to the many challenges endemic to America’s foundational skills crisis. This month we profiled Clarke University, which recently eradicated “Gen Ed” from its vocabulary in favor of a more holistic approach to building foundational skills and helping each student craft a narrative of their experience for their career and life.

Key Player: Susan Burns, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty

Burns arrived at Clarke University in 2014 and inherited the task force charged with finalizing and developing implementation plans for the new Clarke Compass experience. The Clarke Compass was originally intended to enhance the Gen Ed curriculum, but under Clarke’s President’s, Sister Joanne Burrows directive and Burns’ leadership, the mission switched to rethinking Gen Ed altogether. Burns’ vision for the program has been integral in gaining faculty buy-in and creating a culture of collaboration.

The Challenge: Creating an environment of integrated learning, where skills are developed in and out of the classroom.

Foundational skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving are best developed across multiple settings to ensure their transferability. Under the old Gen Ed framework, these skills are challenging to teach across disciplines when balancing the demand of content, and even harder to assess. Ownership of these foundational skills was unevenly distributed among programs and although faculty discussed assessment rubrics, the delivery of these skills was compartmentalized. Additionally, students exited the program without fully internalizing how these skills impacted their full academic and future career goals, and so there was no clear and consistent narrative they could use to describe the skills they had acquired.

The Innovation: Replacing Gen Ed with an interconnected program that builds foundational skills across multiple settings.

The Clarke Compass experience now helps students develop crucial and highly sought after skills all across campus with academic affairs and student life partnering in the delivery of outcomes. For example, students who demonstrate leadership skills on the athletic field can apply them toward their Compass requirements. With 8 learning outcomes (including Communication, Spirituality, Intercultural Engagement, Leadership, Self-sufficiency, Professional Preparedness, Critical Thinking, and Integration of Knowledge), the Clarke Compass guides students to develop foundational skills in a deeper and more meaningful way than the old Gen Ed program. Within both curricular and co-curricular learning environments, students cultivate and demonstrate cornerstone skills as they endeavor toward pursuing their passion and purpose.