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What Is Liberal Education?

Liberal education is an approach to undergraduate education that promotes integration of learning across the curriculum and cocurriculum, and between academic and experiential learning, in order to develop specific learning outcomes that are essential for work, citizenship, and life.

What Liberal Education Looks Like

In distilling the principles, practices, and contemporary challenges of liberal education, this signature AAC&U publication presents a clear vision of the learning all students need for success in an uncertain future and for addressing the compelling issues we face as a democracy and as a global community—regardless of where they study, what they major in, or what their career goals are.

Key Components of a Contemporary Liberal Education

  • The Essential Learning Outcomes define the knowledge and skills gained from a liberal education, providing a framework to guide students’ cumulative progress. Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first-century challenges by gaining:

    • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts—focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring.
    • Intellectual and practical skills, including inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, teamwork, and problem solving—practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance.
    • Personal and social responsibility, including civic knowledge and engagement (local and global), intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and foundations and skills for lifelong learning—anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges.
    • Integrative and applied learning, including synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies—demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problem.
  • Because they have been widely tested and shown to be beneficial for all students, including and especially those from demographic groups historically underserved by higher education, the eleven teaching and learning practices listed below have been designated as high-impact practices, or HIPs:

    • Capstone courses and projects
    • Collaborative assignments and projects
    • Common intellectual experiences
    • Diversity/global learning
    • ePortfolios
    • First-year seminars and experiences
    • Internships
    • Learning communities
    • Service learning, community-based learning
    • Undergraduate research
    • Writing-intensive courses
  • In Signature Work, students pursue an individual project related to a significant issue, problem, or question they define for themselves—immersing themselves in exploration, applying what they learn to real-world situations, and preparing to explain the significance of their work to others. Called “Signature Work” to reflect the high level of personalization and individual initiative involved, such a project bears the distinctive imprint of the interests, commitments, and cumulative learning of the student.

  • Authentic assessment is a distinctive approach to learning outcomes assessment that uses rubrics to evaluate the work students produce across their diverse learning pathways and whose results inform efforts to promote student success. This approach is embodied in AAC&U’s VALUE initiative.