News | Academics

Changes coming to introductory General Studies course following complaints over content

  • David Brann / Senior Staff Photographer
    MAKING CHANGES | Tom Harford, dean of GS students, said that a task-force will make changes to a much-maligned course for first-year GS students.

As the School of General Studies prepares for a spring overhaul of academic support services, a task force will evaluate University Studies, a non-credit course that is required for certain first-year students.

About one in four students is placed into the course by the department of admissions to help them with adjustment to college life, according to Dean of GS Students Tom Harford. Harford said that placement focuses on students who have had an especially long break in their studies or have received a substantial number of college credits at another school.

R.J. Jenkins, the assistant dean of students at GS, said that the goal of the class is to “give students a space where they can discuss issues about transitioning into Columbia and to educate and inform them about who’s here to help them.”

Still, some students said that the course, which meets for one hour per week and features workshops on study and sleeping habits, is too basic for a college-level course.

“University Studies has been a mostly bizarre experience this semester​,” Jonathan O’Connor, GS ’16, said. “The early activities were breathing exercises, a seminar on the fact that sleep was important, and a seminar on the fact that friendship was important, which were all a joke.”

Harford said that a five-person task force—including Jenkins and Melanie Rios, the assistant dean of academic support services—has been gathering data on the course throughout the semester and will prepare a proposal for an updated version of the course.

“The task force is looking at tutoring, our coaching program, our ongoing workshops, but at the forefront has been University Studies,” Harford said. “One thing’s for certain—the current iteration will evolve into something else.”

On the last day of the course, Nov. 20, the 113 students enrolled were asked to fill out an evaluation form.

“I’m not interested in having people pet us on the head and tell us we’re doing a great job without also telling us where we could be doing a better job,” Jenkins said. “Because Columbia University is a place where we strive for excellence in everything we do, and this should be no exception.”

“Really, what we’re doing is we’re looking really hard at what we do so that we can make it more responsive and really provide what it is that our students need,” Jenkins said.

As the course nears its 10th academic year of running with the same general format, mixed student feedback has generally encouraged a redesign.

“Basically, those of us in the course this year have not actually understood what it was,” O’Connor said. “It didn’t feel like an extended orientation, but it didn’t feel like a skills seminar either. And some of the activities early on were genuinely laughable.”

“The more recent, much-improved ones have featured guest speakers to talk about, for instance, the CCE, or speeches from current GS students about how to acclimatize to student life​,” O’Connor said.​

O’Connor also expressed confusion about the “failing” policy of the course. The course carries no credit and no grade is assigned for it, but failure to attend enough classes results in a “W.”

Though other students had more favorable accounts, they still pointed to weaknesses in the current format. Ryan Smith, GS ’16, said that the lectures were hit-or-miss.

“They were helpful—I mean, it depends on which one,” Smith said, adding that a “good amount” of the course content overlapped with orientation week activities.

While the proposal for a new course won’t be drawn up until winter break, Harford noted that the task force currently has some ideas for a new version of the course for the spring semester.

“I can say it’s very likely that the class will move away from a lecture format to be more inclusive of group activities and active learning,” Harford said, “and that an effort will be made to incorporate the content from students’ course work.”

Harford also said that the course will most likely be broken up into different sections to accommodate the specific needs of students. Sections would vary in terms of the subjects they would address and vary in length depending on how much guidance students need.  

“It’s just particularly important that we get this right for GS, given that the students are coming into such a competitive, elite environment after having a break in their studies,” Harford said. “I believe it’s tantamount to their success.”

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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Anonymous posted on

Bolly needs to attend a seminar on the importance of honesty, and another seminar on the importance of mindfulness. Actually scratch that. Bolly needs to go away, and never to return.

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GS '14 posted on

Dear Stephanie - I applaud your efforts - I really and truly do - but why didn't you talk to more than 2 first-semester students? Why didn't you talk to anyone who has completed University Studies? Our dear Dean Harford (who I love btw) and Assistant Dean RJ Jenkins (also an excellent individual) have been at GS all of 14 months and 3 months, respectively. The work they are trying to do is admirable but the truth is - they haven't been at GS very long!!!! I loved the University Studies program - please note - it cannot be considered a class - it's a workshop. Yes, I agree - a lot of it was BS and some of it was laughable - but it gave me some great friends and gave me some incredibly useful and important information that I missed during the craziness of orientation. Having that space once a week to bring up issues that I had was important - as was having fellow students to commiserate with in an academic environment without competition or frustration about grading. (and they gave us free pizza) In fact, at a recent GS student life focus group a few of us advocated for the University Studies to be part of every incoming GS students' experience. And to address Dean Harford's proposed solution - while it would be nice to have smaller group sessions - that might make US an even more ridiculous experience since it would increase forced participation - do we really want to go around the room and everyone say something that's bothering them and we all have breathing exercises? That's group therapy, not a study skills workshop. Having many sessions also means students trying to balance their already busy and complicated schedules need to coordinate further and extra work and effort for whoever is teaching the class(es) - meaning significantly less options for guest speakers or current GS students. The syllabus of University Studies definitely needs an overhaul, but other than that I liked it. I sincerely hope that the 5-person task force includes a balance of perspectives.

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