"Tell Me What you Want, What You Really, Really Want": Pop Culture, General Education Curriculum, and the Interests of Post-traditional Students

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

Undergraduate programs are seeking innovative ways of inspiring student engagement in general education courses, including the incorporation of popular culture in curricular offerings. This session will lead to collaborative discussion surrounding survey results that suggest post-traditional students have higher preference for traditional general education course topics.


Karen Wolak has dedicated the past 15 years of her career to the enhancement of university student success with an emphasis on the first-year experience (FYE). After serving on registrar and student advising teams, she began her online teaching career in 2017. She is currently a full-time faculty member in the University Studies program at American InterContinental University (AIU). She is the 2016 recipient of the AIU Excellence in Student Advising Award was nominated for Faculty Member of the Year at AIU in 2018 and 2020. She is currently completing her doctoral studies in Learning Analytics in Higher Education at Northcentral University with a projected completion date in late 2022.

Extended Abstract

Topic and Relevance

General education courses are an important staple of undergraduate degree programs in the United States. While program-specific courses may offer the hard skills graduates will need in their specified careers, general education courses are designed to establish foundations for the development of the transferable skills needed for personal, social, and professional success. Problem-solving skills, the ability to work as a team, communication skills (both written and verbal), and leadership skills are among the top attributes sought by employers; they also are central themes in most general education programs (Finley, 2021; NACE Staff, 2020).     

Despite this, students often fail to recognize the relevance or importance of general education courses. A common perception of college students is to take general education classes early to “get them out of the way,” as if they are some hurdle holding students back. General education instructors and student advisors often receive questions from students about why they have to take general education classes. Studies on student attitudes and perceptions reveal that students have mixed feelings about the value and importance of general education courses (Johnson, 2010; Petrosko, 1992).

As a result, universities are exploring innovative ways to make general education courses more appealing to students. In addition to using varied pedagogical approaches, many universities have branched out from traditional general education course titles to include topics that are relatable and relevant to university students. Pop culture has become a notable theme among general education courses. In recent years, Glasgow’s University began offering a workshop based on the philosophical themes presented in the popular television series, “The Simpsons” (Ratner, 2018).  The University of California-Santa Cruz recently developed a course on the Harry Potter series, calling it “one of the most popular Humanities offerings of 2018, with nearly 400 students enrolling” (Garcia, 2018). Penn State drew inspiration from modern music and dance, developing a general education course studying the social and political influences of hip hop (Penn State News, 2019). Course topics like these are sure to stand out among traditional general education offerings like Introduction to Philosophy or Sociology.

This presentation will review results from an informal study conducted by general education faculty serving online, post-traditional students. Drawing inspiration from pop culture and the success of other universities, it explored social media and reality television as potential topics for updated general education courses. It sought the input of its students on the topics they would find most interesting, the topics they would find least interesting, and other course topics of interest. The findings were surprising, and suggested that post-traditional students are more interested in traditional general education course topics than topics related to pop culture. Students also reported a high value on courses related to developing life skills and maintaining mental, social, and emotional health regardless of the specific topic/subject area covered by a course.


This will be a highly-interactive presentation where participants will be asked to engage in discussion about the current successes and pitfalls experienced at their institutions when determining curricular offerings in General Education. Themes of discussion will surround participants’ perceptions of student interests and their preconceived notions of common general education course topics. In addition, the differences in the needs of traditional and post-traditional students will also be discussed, and whether these differences do (or should) impact the type of curriculum offered.


The takeaways from this presentation will be further developed through discussion. However, a key point of the research and presentation is that innovation in general education course design may not need to take the form of major curriculum overhauls to align with modern interests. Attendees of this discussion will have the opportunity to reflect upon their institution’s general education program, the needs and demands of modern society, and the needs and interests of its student base. While drawing from popular culture may entice some students, it may not be a cure-all for student engagement. Course designs should be done mindfully and in alignment with student needs.


Finley, A. (2021). How college contributes to workforce success: Employer views on what matters most. Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/research/AACUEmployerRepo...

Garcia, M. E. (2018, June 5). Harry Potter course leaves students spellbound. UC Santa Cruz Newscenter. https://news.ucsc.edu/2018/06/harry-potter-class.html

Johnson, C. (2010). Attitudes and perceptions of general education requirements at career focused post-secondary institutions (3409271) [Doctoral dissertation, Capella University]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. https://aiuniv.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/dissertat...

NACE Staff. (2020, January 13). Key attributes employers want to see on students’ resumes [Press release]. National Association of Colleges and Employers. https://www.naceweb.org/talent-acquisition/candidate-selection/key-attri...

Penn State News. (2019, April 24). New hip-hop course puts a fresh spin on learning: Course goes beyond rap to explore politics, history and culture. Penn State News. https://news.psu.edu/story/571062/2019/04/24/academics/new-hip-hop-cours...

Petrosko, J. M. (1992, November). Measuring first-year college students on attitudes toward general education outcomes [Conference session]. 1992 Annual Meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association, Knoxville, TN. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED353310.pdf

Ratner, P. (2016, November 18). Why “The Simpsons” Is Now a Legit College-Level Philosophy Course. Big Think. https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/why-the-simpsons-is-now-a-legit-co...