Blog: Idea Exchange

AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers: A Brief Background

David Paris September 23, 2015

Several years ago I headed the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, a nonprofit organization promoting assessment.  The Alliance was based on the idea that any profession needed common guidelines and standards to serve its clients.  In the case of higher education that meant developing principles for assessing and reporting on student learning.

When I moved to AAC&U in 2013, one of the things that appealed to me was that AAC&U was providing this kind of professional leadership.  AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative provided a statement of Essential Learning Outcomes (ELO) that were widely embraced and even written onto policy and law in some states.  Similarly, the VALUE initiative (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) developed rubrics that defined and provided assessment tools for a range of educational outcomes.  The VALUE rubrics have likewise gained traction and are increasingly used across all institutional types in higher education.

Equally important, AAC&U’s mission set a powerful aim and goal for higher education, “to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.” 1 The best and most needed form of higher education, liberal education, was not something only for the privileged.  It should be available to all equitably.

In my time at AAC&U it seemed to us that the defining of outcomes (ELO) and assessments (VALUE) had to be coupled with a more systematic and intentional approach to curriculum, program, and pedagogy.  To be sure, AAC&U knew a great deal about effective practices from our work with member institutions, especially the importance of “high impact practices.”  But we did not have a comprehensive statement or approach to some of the basic elements of higher education.

And this is crucial, because we might have powerful statements of outcomes and tools for assessment but unless programs and practices are organized to produce these outcomes and make the best use of assessment we will not achieve our aims.  For example, consider assignments—if an assignment for a course is not designed to elicit a response that is consistent with the rubric, then the rubric can’t give us useful information.  The same can be said for curricula and programs more broadly, that programs and curricula needed to be designed to produce the valuable outcomes of a liberal education.

In 2014 AAC&U received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop plans for broad reform of curricula and programs, beginning with general education.  General education was chosen as a focus because it is the largest undergraduate program; almost every student will pass through general education.  In broadest terms, the aim of the General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) initiative is “to develop principles through which institutions of higher education can create general education curricula that focus on core proficiencies, intentional educational pathways within and across institutions, and students’ engagement in work that allows assessment of their demonstrated accomplishments in inquiry- and problem-based learning.” 2

Work under the Gates grant has produced a suite of documents that describe current issues facing higher education and offer principles and approaches for dealing with them through reform of program and practices.  For example, America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education documents dramatic inequalities in access and success and suggests principles for a more “equity-minded” approach.  Other documents address the case for a more student-centered and proficiency-based approach to general education, and undergraduate education generally; the role of assessment and especially the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics; and how the digital revolution can support equitable, liberal education.

Perhaps the principle document in this suite and the focus of the webinar I’m presenting on September 24th is General Education Maps and Markers: Designing Meaningful Pathways for Student Achievement.  This document sets forth five principles for general education programs and curricula—Proficiency, Agency and Self-Direction, Integrative Learning and Problem-Based Inquiry, Equity, Transparency and Assessment.  Each principle is accompanied by guiding questions concerning students’ experiences and institutional support that provide a kind of checklist for institutions to evaluate their practices and implement change.

Going forward, AAC&U intends to use the GEMs framework to promote broad changes in undergraduate education.  Specifically, the framework will support the “LEAP Challenge” that encourages every institution to assure that all students produce “signature work.” “In Signature Work a student uses his or her cumulative learning to pursue a significant project related to a problem he or she defines.  In the project conducted throughout at least one semester, the student takes the lead and produces work that expresses insights and learning gained from the inquiry and demonstrates the skills and knowledge she or he has acquired. ” 3 This year thirty to forty institutions are participating in initiatives as “LEAP Challenge Institutions.”

The GEMs framework and the LEAP Challenge aim to provide principles and a path to provide a liberal education equitably to all. I shared more about this in a recent webinar you can view here!


David C. Paris is a Senior Scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). From 2013 until August he served as Vice President for Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons (ILGC) at AAC&U. In that role Paris led AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) initiative, which aims to develop and pilot pathways for general education that focus on proficiencies and on students’ engagement in work that allows assessment of their demonstrated accomplishments in inquiry- and problem-based learning—“signature work.” He was the primary author and editor of General Education Maps and Markers: Designing Meaningful Pathways to Student Achievement, which provides principles and guidelines for reforming undergraduate education.


1. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “Mission Statement.”

2. Association of American Colleges and Universities, “General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs).”

3. Association of American Colleges and Universities, The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems (Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2015), 3.

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David Paris