Higher Learning Commission

Grand Challenge Learning: A New Approach to General Education

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Overview of the Quality Initiative

1. Provide a brief description of the Quality Initiative. Explain whether the initiative will begin and be completed during the Quality Initiative period or if it is part of work already in progress or will achieve a key milestone in the work of a longer initiative.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) will use the first two components of a campus-wide pilot program called "Grand Challenge Learning" as its Quality Initiative. Those components are (1) Grand Challenge Experience courses for first-year students, and (2) Critical Frameworks courses. These signature courses are designed to improve students’ learning, connect undergraduates to the resources of a multidisciplinary research campus, strengthen student retention and academic success, and build enthusiasm around General Education.

The Grand Challenge Learning initiative as a whole allows undergraduate students to organize some of their General Education coursework around one of three societal grand challenges: Health and Wellness; Inequality and Cultural Understanding; or Sustainability, Energy and the Environment. Students are encouraged to plan a “pathway” of four courses following the theme (Health, Inequality, or Sustainability) that most interests them.

The first step on each pathway is a Grand Challenge Experience (GCX) course. These 100-level courses are designed to engage first-year students in some aspects of the grand challenge topic, and they feature experiential learning such as projects, design-based learning, video-making, field trips, and community-engaged scholarship. GCX courses are small, enrolling a maximum of 25 students. The courses are developed and taught by highly-qualified faculty, and each course meets at least one General Education requirement. GCX courses were offered beginning in the 2015-2016 academic year.

The second pathway step is a Critical Frameworks course. These 200-level courses help students explore complex issues in Health, Inequality, or Sustainability through the lenses of multiple disciplines. There are three Frameworks courses, one for each pathway. Each course meets twice per week. During the first meeting of the week, all students enrolled in the pathway course and all the faculty teaching the course meet for a lecture. The team of six to eight faculty have different disciplinary training on the topic, and each offers his or her perspective on the topic during a “plenary” lecture. In the second meeting of the week, the nearly 150 students and about six to eight faculty members break into individual seminars for a student to faculty ratio of 25 to 1. In this session, faculty meet with their individual sections for a seminar style discussion. Through this unique structure, students benefit from the expertise of a team of faculty while working closely with one professor and one group of peers for the entire semester. Critical Frameworks courses started in Fall 2016 and meet two campus General Education requirements.

An additional feature of both GCX and Critical Frameworks courses is the development of a student ePortfolio. This tool allows students to collect and share their projects and achievements developed within each course, and encourages them to reflect on their experiences. ePortfolios encourage students to integrate their learning on in the pathways as they move from one course to another.

The signature courses, GCX and Critical Frameworks, together with their ePortfolio component, comprise our Quality Initiative.

There are two remaining steps on each Grand Challenge Learning pathway: a third course chosen from a campus call for the best existing courses on grand challenge topics, and a concluding integrative experience which may be done as an independent study organized through partnering interdisciplinary programs such as the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities or the Institute for Genomic Biology. These steps are part of the larger Grand Challenge Learning project, but are not included in our Quality Initiative.


Our Quality Initiative is already in progress. Grand Challenge Learning was developed and planned over the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 academic years. The first GCX courses were offered in Fall 2015, and offerings will continue each spring and fall semester. The first Critical Frameworks courses are being taught in Fall 2016, and will continue to be offered at least once each academic year. We plan to carefully evaluate the initiative and make adjustments in the courses and program structure as guided by ongoing assessments.

Sufficiency of the Initiative's Scope and Significance

2. Explain why the proposed initiative is relevant and significant for the institution.

Grand Challenge Learning was designed by a campus-wide team of faculty to inject new vitality and coherence into General Education. General Education at Illinois is organized around a set of distribution requirements which students may meet by choosing from among hundreds of courses. While we have good campus processes for maintaining quality in individual General Education courses, our decentralized approach may leave students uncertain as to the importance of coursework outside their major program of study and may encourage students to pursue their General Education through dual credit and early college programs in the high schools; Advanced Placement and IB examinations offered at the conclusion of high school coursework; and transfer credits brought in from other two- and four-year institutions. While these opportunities may provide students a way to complete credit hours, they do not provide students with the type of experience that can be offered at a top research university. Grand Challenge Learning thus attempts to energize and integrate students’ General Education experience, prompting students to envision General Education as a vital and transformative component of their degrees that can and should be completed on campus, in the company of fellow learners from across our many colleges and disciplines.

Grand Challenge Learning covers topics of interest to students that defy single-discipline thinking and conveys the material in a way that encourages students to be more active learners. While other General Education courses may include various strategies of experiential learning, GCX has experiential learning at the heart of the every course. Critical Frameworks also offer a less traditional structure. The campus hopes that these changes in structure will allow for students to engage with the material, the faculty, and their classmates in a deeper way and to make connections with the campus community that will promote increased retention and graduation rates.

We hope that the signature courses will result in students who are critical thinkers and citizens, well-versed in deep and interdisciplinary learning, and who are able to work in teams on creative and innovative projects. In this way, Grand Challenge Learning improves our ability to meet campus student learning goals of building students' abilities to think critically, solve problems, generate new ideas and create knowledge, make connections between academic disciplines, respect and understand differences, and develop as citizens and leaders. The campus recognizes that student success is greatly enhanced by an early opportunity to develop close working relationships with faculty members and diverse student cohorts. In planning GCX and Critical Frameworks courses, leadership has strived to develop inclusive classes by recruiting interested faculty from many different colleges and promoting the courses in all schools and colleges so as to attract a diverse student body.

Finally, Grand Challenge Learning promotes cross-campus collaborations among our faculty. At a campus that prides itself on interdisciplinary research, the Grand Challenge Learning initiative allows faculty to practice interdisciplinary teaching. Each of our Critical Frameworks courses assembles faculty from multiple colleges to approach a topic of mutual interest across disciplinary differences. Just as students in Critical Frameworks will learn how different disciplines approach a complex, grand-challenge question, faculty teaching the courses will expand and enrich their understanding of their colleagues across the campus.

3. Explain the intended impact of the initiative on the institution and its academic quality.

To enhance the undergraduate experience on our campus and improve the academic quality of our institution, our signature courses in Grand Challenge Learning will:

  • deepen and improve student learning in General Education courses, helping students integrate their learning across multiple courses and experiences;
  • help students to understand and be able to navigate the many types of differences–in disciplinary viewpoint, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc., that they will face in our increasingly multicultural, globalized world;
  • create a signature educational experience that will attract students to our campus, and help students understand the value of pursuing an undergraduate education at a large, comprehensive research university; and
  • elevate the visibility and importance of General Education on our campus by energizing faculty and departments to provide the best possible General Education experiences for our students.

Students’ work products will be collected and curated in ePortfolios, showcasing the Grand Challenge themes, interdisciplinary learning, and interactive, project-based assignments. ePortfolios provide students an opportunity to articulate the value of their undergraduate experience by allowing them to narrate and reflect upon that experience as critical to their post-graduation goals. In addition, ePortfolios provide a means for authentic assessment of student work to improve, as needed, the educational experiences of the students.

Clarity of the Initiative's Purpose

4. Describe the purposes and goals for the initiative.

As briefly described above, the goals for the initiative are to:

  • Promote deeper learning and integration of knowledge across multiple courses for our students. Rather than allowing students to think of discrete disciplines as “silos,” Grand Challenge Learning shows students how knowledge and approaches from many different disciplines can be brought to bear on a complex issue of great importance. These pathways offer students a means to find relevance and coherence in their General Education coursework and to connect ideas across different courses.

  • Encourage students to develop their understanding of, and relationships with, students on campus who are different from them. Our Grand Challenge Learning courses capitalize on methods that are known to lead to higher rates of retention and persistence, particularly for at-risk populations, such as: smaller faculty-to-student ratios, the opportunity to connect with students possessing similar interests, and the use of hands-on learning that allows for experimentation and applied knowledge as a means for learning difficult concepts. The settings of GCX and Critical Frameworks courses–experiential learning and small seminar-style discussion sections–require students to engage with one another in substantive ways. These interactions–across differences in major, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, and citizenship–enrich students’ learning and their ability to succeed in a multicultural world. As such, these courses promote a culture of shared ethical, social, and intellectual engagement in the challenges that students will face in our fast-changing world.

  • Offer a signature learning experience to our students–one that is distinctive to our campus and that leverages the resources of a multidisciplinary, land-grant research university. Grand Challenge Learning gives students something that is “Illinois-specific,” a learning experience they would not necessarily get on another campus. If our Grand Challenge Learning pilot is successful, then our General Education program should be one of the best reasons for students to come to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • Provide an alternative model for how General Education can be taught on our campus, connecting learning to concrete social issues, and bringing students and faculty together across a wide range of intellectual areas and personal/professional experiences. Using this approach elevates the importance of General Education among both faculty and students. Moreover, faculty and departments are encouraged to contribute their own innovations to our General Education program.

While the Grand Challenge Learning program offers students a four-step pathway, our aspirations are focused on students’ learning and development rather than on how many students complete the full pathway. A student may take one course or the entire pathway and may segue their interest in the topic into a minor or a reconfiguration of other General Education courses around one of the Grand Challenge theme areas. We have developed a set of Grand Challenge Learning student learning outcomes (SLOs) that would be appropriate for any level of engagement in the initiative. Illustrated below, the Grand Challenge Learning SLOs,which are well aligned with the campus SLOs.

Grand Challenge Learning Student Learning Outcomes

Students in Grand Challenge Learning will acquire broad, interdisciplinary knowledge in one grand challenge area (Health, Inequality, or Sustainability) and will understand how and why these issues transcend disciplinary boundaries.

Students in Grand Challenge Learning will apply their knowledge of the grand challenge areas by identifying the level of complexity involved in the grand challenge issue, recognizing ways to address the challenge, and taking an active role in demonstrating their learning and proposed solutions through various interactive strategies.

Students in Grand Challenge Learning will bridge the gap between theory and practice to apply what they have learned in collaboration with faculty, other students, and/or community groups, including groups that consist of individuals outside the student’s major area of study and/or college.

Students in Grand Challenge Learning will be able to critically reflect on the grand challenge areas through encountering and writing about a range of social and cultural perspectives that illustrate reasoned arguments about the role of these differences in the grand challenge itself.

Students in Grand Challenge Learning will understand the complexity of the grand challenge areas in relation to how they are interdependent, interdisciplinary, and affected by local and global systems.


Category Campus SLO Grand Challenge Learning SLO
Intellectual Reasoning and Knowledge  Illinois students will acquire broad and deep knowledge across academic disciplines and fields. Students in Grand Challenge Learning will acquire broad, interdisciplinary knowledge in one grand challenge area (Health, Inequality, or Sustainability) and will understand how and why these issues transcend disciplinary boundaries. 
Creative Inquiry and Discovery  Illinois students will apply knowledge to promote inquiry, discover solutions, and generate new ideas and creative works.  Students in Grand Challenge Learning will apply their knowledge of the grand challenge areas by identifying the level of complexity involved in the grand challenge issue, recognizing ways to address the challenge, and taking an active role in demonstrating their learning and proposed solutions through various interactive strategies.
Effective Leadership and Community Engagement  Illinois students will build and sustain productive relationships to respond to civic and social challenges at local, national, and global levels, creating positive change in their communities.  Students in Grand Challenge Learning will bridge the gap between theory and practice to apply what they have learned in collaboration with faculty, other students, and/or community groups, including groups that consist of individuals outside the student’s major area of study and/or college.
Social Awareness and Cultural Understanding  Illinois students will develop a critical and reflective orientation toward such social and cultural differences as race, indigeneity, gender, class, sexuality, language, and disability.  Students in Grand Challenge Learning will be able to critically reflect on the grand challenge areas through encountering and writing about a range of social and cultural perspectives that illustrate reasoned arguments about the role of these differences in the grand challenge itself.
Global Consciousness Illinois students will discover how complex, interdependent global systems–natural, environmental, social, cultural, economic, and political–affect and are affected by the local identities and ethical choices of individuals and institutions.   Students in Grand Challenge Learning will understand the complexity of the grand challenge areas in relation to how they are interdependent, interdisciplinary, and affected by local and global systems.



5. Describe how the institution will evaluate progress, make adjustments, and determine what has been accomplished.

The evaluation of Grand Challenge Learning will focus on the success of the program and on the learning gains of the students across the series of courses. In part, we will define success of the program as having a steady enrollment in and demand for the courses, identifying a group of students who take more than one Grand Challenge Learning course, realizing a number of students who pursue minors in areas related to the Grand Challenges, observing a diverse group of students in the courses, and securing an ample number of campus faculty (not graduate teaching assistants) interested in teaching these multidisciplinary courses. In addition, we will assess how well students have met the learning outcomes for Grand Challenge Learning. We have begun to design, and have already piloted, strategies to gather student and faculty input on the program’s effectiveness.

Student feedback will be gathered to learn their satisfaction with courses, motivation to take courses, appreciation of General Education, and perception of learning outcomes. The plan is to email an electronic survey at the end of the semester to students enrolled in the courses. A short survey may be sent to students who did not continue enrolling in the Grand Challenges to find out why. Students who continue will also be asked their motivation to do so. Some focus groups will be held to compare focus group findings with survey results. The aggregate data from the surveys and focus groups will help illuminate areas of student success and limitations within the two signature courses.

Faculty feedback will be gathered through interviews, focus groups, or surveys to learn more about their experience with the Grand Challenge Learning courses, the Student Affairs connection, and ePortfolio. Although faculty are engaged in many ways through orientations and planning meetings, this additional evaluative feedback about their engagement with the program itself will be important to help us determine necessary changes as we move forward. Because of the small number of faculty participating in the pilot year, individual interviews were planned. Besides direct feedback provided through focus groups and surveys, the evaluation of Grand Challenge Learning will also take place by looking at several performance indicators to learn how Grand Challenge Learning may impact engagement/persistence and GPA. The gender, race/ethnicity, and majors of the students will be reviewed on a regular basis to track the inclusiveness of the initiative.

In addition, ePortfolios will allow students to showcase their work in one course or in a series of Grand Challenge Learning courses and will allow evaluators to directly assess the level to which the students have met the learning outcomes of the initiative.

Each year, the Grand Challenge Learning leadership team will share the findings of its evaluation in a report and will review the findings to identify the initiative’s accomplishments as well as areas where adjustments are needed. Special attention will be paid to student enrollment patterns. If necessary, logistical changes may be made (i.e., course time or day), and, in some cases, more substantive changes may be required, such as increasing diversity. Reaching out to colleges or programs on campus to enlist their help can accomplish this type of change. The Grand Challenge Learning program will expand or contract over time, depending on enrollment and student and faculty interest.    

Evidence of Commitment to and Capacity for Accomplishing the Initiative

6. Describe the level of support for the initiative by internal or external stakeholders.

The signature courses that form our Quality Initiative grew out of a campus-wide, grass-roots process. In Fall 2013, the Office of the Provost convened a Campus Conversation on Undergraduate Education to gather input and ideas on the future of undergraduate learning at Illinois. The nearly 600 faculty, students, and staff who participated put forward a comprehensive vision of what Illinois students might learn, do, and achieve. A series of faculty working groups subsequently developed more specific plans for pursuing this vision, and these plans coalesced into the Grand Challenge Learning program and its signature GCX and Critical Frameworks courses.

Since that time, Grand Challenge Learning has emerged and grown through collaboration with deans, faculty, advisors, and students from all of our undergraduate colleges. To date, 28 full-time faculty have taught or are signed up to teach a GCX course, and 19 full-time faculty are teaching the first Critical Frameworks courses in Fall 2016. These faculty come from the colleges of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; Applied Health Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering; Fine and Applied Arts; Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Media. The number of faculty, who want to be engaged with the program, continues to grow as illustrated by discussions during the Summer of 2016 with faculty from the School of Social Work and College of Veterinary Medicine.

The initiative has also developed unique bridges between faculty and Student Affairs, whose staff members have helped faculty to create experiential learning opportunities for GCX courses, leveraging their skills and involvement with campus housing, intercultural programs, career services, and more.

In addition, there are signs that Grand Challenge Learning is becoming integrated with other programs on campus. The Critical Frameworks course in Sustainability has already been accepted for credit in the new Institute for Sustainability minor. Other such partnerships, enabling some students to pivot from a Grand Challenge Learning pathway to a relevant minor, are under discussion. Over time, individual programs, colleges, or the campus at large may wish to require students to take one or both of the signature Grand Challenge Learning courses and/or to enlarge grand challenge topics to include other themes.

7. Identify the groups and individuals that will lead or be directly involved in implementing the initiative.

Overall leadership and support of Grand Challenge Learning has been delegated by the Provost to Charles Tucker, Vice Provost for Education and Innovation. A Provost Fellow (a tenured full professor who has a 50% appointment in the Office of the Provost, typically for two years) provides primary operational leadership for the initiative. Lauren Goodlad, Professor of English, served in the role from Fall 2013 through Summer 2016. A leadership transition to Kelly Ritter, Professor of English, began in January 2016, and Prof. Ritter has full responsibility for the program beginning in Fall 2016.

A Grand Challenge Learning Leadership Committee, composed of faculty and staff from across the campus, provides academic oversight of the program. The Provost Fellow chairs this committee.

Three faculty members serve as executive co-chairs, one for each pathway. These co-chairs help recruit instructors for the GCX and Critical Frameworks courses in their track, coordinate the faculty team teaching their Critical Frameworks course, and, together with the Provost Fellow, form an executive committee to guide the overall program. The current co-chairs are:

  • William Stewart, Professor of Recreation, Sport and Tourism (Health and Wellness)
  • Terri Weissman, Associate Professor of Art History (Inequality and Cultural Understanding)
  • Trevor Birkenholtz, Associate Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science (Sustainability, Energy and the Environment)

Evaluation of the initiative is led by Staci Provezis, Assistant Provost for Assessment, in collaboration with the Provost Fellow and the co-chairs.

8. List the human, financial, technological and other resources that the institution has committed to this initiative.

When an instructor teaches a GCX or Critical Frameworks course, his or her department receives $9,000 from the campus to over the replacement cost for one of the instructor’s courses; however, the department may use these funds for alternate purposes if the no course replacement costs are needed. In return for teaching a Grand Challenge Learning course, the department will release the Professor from one of his/her courses for the semester. The campus also funds release time and/or summer salary for the Provost Fellow(s), pathway co-chairs, a full-time project manager (an academic professional), and a graduate teaching assistant who helps course instructors use ePortfolios.

The campus has acquired the ePortfolio software from Digication, purchasing enough accounts to accommodate all students in Grand Challenge Learning, with enough additional accounts to allow other instructors and units on campus to explore the use of ePortfolios. A ten-person ePortfolio Committee, consisting of faculty and staff from across campus, is charged with campus-wide guidance and support of ePortfolios. GCX and Critical Frameworks courses comprise the largest number of users of ePortfolios, so this committee works closely with Grand Challenge Learning. Staff from our campus Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning support the use of ePortfolios, leading workshops for faculty and providing expert advice for both pedagogical and technological issues.

The Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs has committed time of staff members from across Student Affairs departments to assist with GCX courses. Any GCX instructor who requests staff assistance is matched with an appropriate Student Affairs partner who assists with the course, especially its experiential learning component.

Appropriateness of the Timeline for the Initiative

9. Describe the primary activities of the initiative and timeline for implementing them.

Fall 2013: The Campus Conversation on Undergraduate Education engaged nearly 600 faculty, staff, and students to articulate a vision of the Illinois undergraduate experience.

Spring 2014: Five working groups transformed the vision from the Campus Conversation into ideas for projects and pilot programs. This formed the basis for the Grand Challenge Learning initiative and its signature courses.

Fall 2014: Plans for Grand Challenge Learning, and especially for GCX courses, were further shaped and refined. Executive co-chairs for the three pathways were recruited.

Spring 2015: The Grand Challenge Learning Leadership Committee was first appointed. The first round of GCX course instructors were recruited, syllabi were drafted, and course proposals were vetted by the General Education Board.

Fall 2015: The initial GCX courses (six sections) were offered. Planning for Critical Frameworks courses progressed.

Spring 2016: An additional 22 GCX sections were offered. Proposals for the three Critical Frameworks courses were approved by the General Education Board.

Fall 2016: The three Critical Frameworks courses will debut, and four GCX sections will be offered.


Spring 2017: GCX courses will continue (nine sections are planned). Additional components of the Grand Challenge Learning pathways (campus courses and integrative experiences–not part of our Quality Initiative) may have their first, pilot offerings.

2017-2018: GCX and Critical Frameworks courses to be offered at an increased scale (20-22 GCX sections, three Critical Frameworks courses). Campus courses and integrative experiences will begin to scale up.

2018-2019: All four components of the Grand Challenge Learning pathway should be in place and available to students. Comprehensive assessment of program structure and success will occur. A summative report on the initiative will be prepared and made available to stakeholders, including HLC reviewers.


Institution Contact

Staci Provezis, Assistant Provost for Assessment

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