Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Phys Ed

Should there be a college-wide Physical Education requirement for all degree programs?

The question is about to break big on campus, and I'd like to get my thoughts in order before that happens. (One of the downsides of deaning is that 'thinking out loud' is taken as 'waffling.' Better to be certain and wrong than uncertain and right. See Bush, George W.)

The argument 'for' that I've heard most often is that students are increasingly obese, and phys ed is our best and most direct hope of addressing that.

I'll admit, I consider this argument obtuse. Students vote in perilously low numbers, but we don't require Intro to American Government. Many students have dysfunctional family lives, but we don't require courses on Marriage and Family. Many students lack the foggiest idea about how to handle money, but we don't require any sort of Lifetime Economics. Besides, anybody who took phys ed as a requirement in college knows that it's possible to get through it with a minimum of exertion, if you know what you're doing. (Full disclosure: I met one unit of phys ed in college with badminton. My inner eight-year-old still smirks at the word 'shuttlecock.')

The argument 'against' varies, but usually comes down to two points: the courses don't transfer to four-year schools very well, if at all, and those credits could be more productively used in other ways.

To those I'll add: phys ed doesn't work well for adult students, evening/weekend students, students with childcare issues, or students taking lots of 'distance learning' classes.

The broader question, I guess, is what is important enough to be considered part of the foundational 'general education' of any college graduate. (I have no issue with a phys ed requirement in majors where it's integral to the major itself – kinesiology, say, or dance. I also have no issue with it in a major like Criminal Justice, since the profession for which the students are being trained has some pretty intense physical requirements.) Are college graduates expected to be athletic?

Well, no.

They're expected to be literate, and to have some general historical sense, and to be capable of real-world math, and to be able to spot crappy arguments, and to have in-depth training in at least one area. I think there's a serious argument to be made about foreign-language acquisition, and I'm open to suggestions about scientific method or Great Books or diversity awareness or lifelong learning. If they happen to be athletic too, well, great, but I see it as an extra.

Questions like these are frustrating, because the reality is that we only have so many credits to play with. (The state is very particular about the maximum number of credits in a two-year degree program.) Adding a requirement for x means subtracting credits from something else. Typically, we have to devote a certain number of credits to broad 'general education' requirements (English Composition, a math course, etc.), and a certain number to the major, so the actual room to tend to other desired goods is quite small. Adding a 'diversity' course means eliminating a history or a language. Adding a course on 'character education' means subtracting one from math or the major. And so on. It really is zero-sum.

For reasons more instinctive than thoughtful, I can't help but see phys ed requirements as anachronistic, like the two-lap swim test I had to pass to graduate Snooty Liberal Arts College. There may be a certain charm in them, but when you're trying to achieve new goals within the same number of credits, it strikes me that something has to give.

What do you think? Should history majors have a phys ed requirement?

Maybe some sort of test out process, such as the two lap swim test you mentioned, would serve the purpose? It avoids the problems associated with devoting academic credits to phys ed while also ensuring that graduates, after getting a diploma, do not promply drown (it reflects badly on the institution if recent graduates try to breathe water, so this matters). This does get tricky, however, for students that are in wheelchairs and so forth.
My school (which was a snooty liberal arts school) required PE but didn't give academic credits for it--so to graduate you needed 6 quarter-long PE credits and 30 academics classes.

I passed my PE with two quarters of relaxation yoga, two of badminton, one of archery, and one of "contemplative meditation." Hmmmmm. I don't think I got much out of it, and I would have been even more bothered by it at a school that would usually be more career-focused than college-experience-focused, if that makes sense--that is, had I been an adult coming back to school part-time with an outside life it really would have bugged me. As it was, it got me out of my dorm, I suppose...
So why does Phys Ed Have to be a blow off class?
If you mandate that I take a class I expect it to be informative and useful in some way. Same thing if you’re using my money (taxes) to teach a class. I can see a class that forces students to get into shape, as much as can be accomplished in a semester or two. But I don’t think that you’re going to weigh the students and than make them vigorously exercise. So what can you put into a phys ed class that would benefit both the student and the public? Not being an expert in the field here’s what I can think of

How nutrition works for humans. This would include how to figure how many calories a person needs as well as the ‘healthy’ composition of those calories. It could also include some real world examples on portion size and the long term effects of eating too much.
It would also include vitamins and how and why those are important.

You could teach how exercise works and benefits humans and how to improve health and fitness. This would allow some lessons on how and why and several opportunities to ‘practice.’ Students could demonstrate mastery by improving their performance in some simple metrics. Time to run a mile and number of pushups in a minute etc.

Other possible Topics
How diet and exercise affect human development. (i.e. what you should feed a kid and how much exercise they need.)
The economics of food. This could be made into a diversity thing if you looked at other cultures etc.
Sleep and Medical care.
First Aid and CPR.

I could see paying for classes on the above.

Hell, just require that they become a Red Cross certified life guard and certified in CPR and you can make the case that it’ll help society.
Garble makes some good points. My undergrad required PE (bowling and strength training--neither stuck), but they also had a good semester on health and nutrition.

A cc should be particularly sensitive to non-trads, for whom the knowledge will help but actual activities may hinder or scare away.

College is about learning. Present a rigorous course from which they know good nutrition, their own BMI, etc. and call it good.
As much as it may sounf good in theory, I doubt you'd find a really good way of applying it. Most especially given your restrictions on total credits.

All three of the colleges I attended offered them, but I don't recall them being required. Most people took them as a way to fill credit space left over by testing out of certain things. Other than First Aid or CPR certification (which can usually be obtained for less than a 1 credit class costs,) there tends to be very little that PE teaches that can't be learned somewhere else for free.

The bottom line is that those who are interested in phys ed may take them -- if, perhaps, somewhat resentfully -- and those who don't will find the path of least resistance. Or simply not take them and transfer anyway, with or without the associates. As a general assumption, those people who are reluctant to take PE have a very strong motivation not to. Bad memories, fear of ridicule, fear of failure, whatever, the people who care about not taking it generally care *very* deeply.

I certainly went to great lengths to avoid them, even in high school. I managed to get in on a very short term decision that if you were in marching band for four years, you didn't have to take PE. I wanted to do something I was good at, for a change, rather than continue to be picked last for everything.
My undergrad was a Snooty Ivy that requires not only a swim test but two semester of PE. Not being the athletic type, I bitched and moaned for two and a half years until I finally got around to fulfilling the reqirement. Now, four years later, here I am at six in the morning putting on my running shoes. Although it's a little early to be sure, that stupid PE requirement sparked what I hope will be a life long exercise habit.

For school more geared towards non-trad students, a PE requirement does seem rather optimistic, not to mention hard to implement and potentially insensitive. But I can honestly say that my undergrad institution's PE requirement changed my life--which I really just can't say for intensive Greek.
We do have a requirement at my CC (I've been here 7 years and didn't know that until this semester).

I signed up for two classes this semester figuring they were lots cheaper than my community center (I've got a tuition waiver), I'm here already and it's just down the hall. Sure, there were a lot of students complaining about having to do the courses, but most seemed fine with the activities. There were people of all ages, shapes and sizes; I took softball and yoga.

Lifelong fitness was emphasized in both classes. I suspect half of the people wouldn't have been there if it hadn't been required. Not sure where I'd stand on a decision to require or not.
I don't think it should be required--at my undergrad university, it was state law that individuals who were 25 or under when graduating had to have two semesters of PE.

I thought of it as the "full employment for the graduate students in the School of Health and Physical Education law," as virtually all of the classes were taught by GAs.

What a waste of time and money.
In my opinion, phys ed has nothing to do with a college degree. However, a wellness course providing the basics of nutrition, maybe discussing exercise programs, and other relevant items should be a requirement. It's a one-hour credit course for all of our programs.
PE is for high school! Require it there and then let it go.
At my large state university, students who worked 20 hours a week or more were exempt from the P.E. requirement. On the other hand, I met a reallly ace pool player who honed her skills in a required college P.E. class.
At my undergrad university, Mediocre State, required a wellness class called "Lifetime fitness for health". It was, by far, the lamest class I took there --- I certainly wouldn't recommend such a route over genuine PE classes. I don't remember much about it except the lectures where they tried to put the fear in us with respect to illegal drugs and sexually-transmitted diseases. The fact that it was a 400 person lecture taught by a graduate student probably didn't help.

I think a PE requirement makes sense at a 4-year residential college, where the goal is to provide the Total College Experience (tm). (Sure, those who'd prefer not too will take classes where they don't really sweat, but looking for the easiest course to fulfill a disliked requirement is pretty universal.) At a commuter college, whether 2 or 4 year, I'm not really experienced enough with those environments to judge.

Why is there a push for this anyway? Is the college gym underutilized, and PE classes in need of more students to justify the relevant department's FTEs? (Given your budget issues, I don't suppose this is part of a push to get new exercise facilities.)
Heh. You said shuttlecock.
I'd forgotten...we had a PE requirement at my snooty liberal arts school too! I took a general fitness class, using the exercise machines and tracking my progress along with the rest of the class. It was actually a pretty good experience, except for injuring myself. (I caught my foot in an exercise bike -- yay for the uncoordinated!)

Of course, most folks I knew took bowling or something similar.

The amazing memorability ::rolls eyes:: of the experience doesn't speak too highly of it.

I think in a CC environment, where there are only so many credits to be gotten, and where so many students (here anyway) are just barely affording school, a PE requirement is not likely to be too popular.
At my former school (a cc), my PE requirement was waived due to my military service. I really can't imagine how having yet another requirement that falls outside one's discipline is a good idea at any level. What ever happened to depth is a program?
True that college graduates are not expected to be athletic, and that's why there are only 2 credit-hour PE requirement in the AA and AS degrees in community college. I mean, it is ONLY TWO HOURS in the two year degree.

The goal for higher education is to become a better human. To be in good shape is a part of the goal.
Dumb questions for the Dean, touched on by topometropolis... What does your phys ed department look like now? How are their enrollments? Are existing faculty capable of handling the increased enrollment demdn this requirement would lead to? If not, what's the plan to hire additional faculty?

Though I lack experience in a CC environment, I believe I would be quickly persuaded to the "no" camp by the fact that PE courses would not transfer well.
"Students are increasingly obese, and phys ed is our best and most direct hope of addressing that."

As someone who does research in obesity prevention, I'm not sure that mandating physical activity is the best way to establish it as the lifelong habit students need to avoid obesity. By mandating physical education, you take away what psychologists call "intrinsic motivation" (a sense that you're doing this for yourself, perhaps because you enjoy it or you value the benefits, and have chosen to do so as an autonomous individual) and replace it with "extrinsic motivation" ("I'm doing this because my college makes me"). Not surprisingly, intrinsic motivation does a better job at sustaining behaviour change in the longer term.

I'd also be deeply sceptical about whether providing nutritional education or education about how physical activity improves health will actually result in health-promoting behaviours. Systematic reviews show that the correlations between health knowledge and health behaviours are pretty small.

So, I'd argue for not sacrificing one of your other credits to a phys ed requirement.
Why require PE for undergrads?
First, the department title "Physical Education" is still used at most higher ed institutions...and it is dated. The real goal of PE is to expose students to a variety of offerings that promote lifelong activity. So no, we don't expect students to be athletic, we (PE DEPT) strive to inspire them to be physically active for life! The university I taught for offered a wide variety of Activity Classes to fullfill the PE requiement. Inevitably students would enroll in my aerobics dance class and then stand in the back, avoiding all movement, hoping I didn't see them. Probably their standard of behavior since PE in middle school. I would remind them that if they didn't enjoy aerobics, it was time to find a different class. Try bowling, sailing, Yoga, Salsa dancing or rock climbing! The goal is not to suffer through, it is to discover what activity you are passionate about! An individual that is passionate about an activity, other than academics may just fit that ideal of the "well rounded student." They may indeed inspire friends, co-workers, perhaps their own children (someday) to live an active lifestyle!

The ideal PE offerings for higher ed? Courses that teach the Key Components of Fitness, Nutrition, stress management, and how to live an active life from now till a ripe old age! Yes, some students are athletic, and will select sport classes. But the majority of students need to learn to include physical activities while studying to be the next great historian, researcher or accountant.
No. I would have found it ridculous as an undergrad to have to have taken a phys ed. class.
One additional point here that I've not seen raised elsewhere:

In every campus I've ever been on save one, the PE courses and the Fitness and Nutrition for Living course have been glorified excuses to give the golf and tennis coaches real workload because simply coaching their teams didn't take 40 hours a week.

On that one campus, those coaches were junior administrators and also helped run the intramural program.

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader which option is better.
My university didn't have a physical education requirement. I hated Phys Ed in highschool and I suspect that a phys ed requirement may have made me think twice about choosing a university program in the first place.

If I had been required to take phys ed, I'm pretty sure that it would have been just another stupid requirement to resent. I don't think that required courses can really lead to the sort of lifelong love of activity that would be necessary for this to be useful.
Oh, Jolly Hockey Sticks.

Hire a couple of math teachers with the money.
I don't see a rationale for Associates degree requirements unless they help students transfer into a particular major at a four-year college.

I NEVER heard of any four-year college turning down a cc transfer because they didn't have PE.

(A few four-year colleges do have PE requirements, but I can't imagine they wouldn't mind the student doing it there.)

Our local cc is cramped for space and stretched for financial resources. I'd be pretty unhappy to see any of the limited resources going for PE. (There are perfectly good Y's across the street that offer very low-cost deals to cc students who have time and desire to take advantage of their fitness classes and facilities.)
I absolutely hated PE in high school and was thrilled to not have to do it in college (prestigious R1). However, I found myself doing other activities that weren't the traditional sports but that gave me lots of exercise and that *gasp* I actually enjoyed doing, like dancing in cultural group shows. I would argue that a requirement would be horrible, but that if you want to spend money to try to increase participation in physical activity, try to go the more informal route. However, at a CC the demographics are quite different, so I don't know how that would work.
U of Left Coast State (all campuses) required it when I was na undergrad. not such a big deal. But when I taught further to the north, PE was required, and History wasn't. I will say, though, that for a lot of people finding the time to exercise -- and an affordable place -- is difficult. I can see how a PE requirement might give a person who can't allow herself the time, but wants to exercise, the chance and excuse to do so.
Before I answer this question:

Do there currently exist a plethora of clubs and intramural sports for students who are interested?

If not, why not push campus life a little bit instead? It's a win-win; the folks who want to share the real benefits of lifelong physical fitness can do so, and your students can search out and finally find the physical activity that works for them.

If you do do a physed requirement, it should probably be the same course for each person (nutrition and basic info don't vary much) with a good teacher/student ratio to allow for interesting assignments and useful counseling. Make sure your teachers are fully plugged in to your counseling apparatus, though, as both overeating and lack of interest in physical activity can be symptoms of psychological stressors, and you'll be missing a golden opportunity to help a lot of otherwise undetected students if you don't.
Two points - Badminton is a very intense sport. I'm not sure whether you meant to imply that you got through it with a minumum of exertion? If you played it as it is intended to you'd definitely be far above any such minimum.

Second - in all my school and studies up to a Master's degree in Business (not in the USA) I never had a single class on healthy eating etc - I'd have liked that.
I'm actually freaking out because of it. I'm a continuing ed student (26 yrs old), and I have a bunch of physical problems already (asthma, bone spurs, carpal tunnel), and am definitely not overweight in the slightest. i'm going to have to take 3 hours of phys ed 3 times a week to graduate this semester, and it honestly makes me want to scream. i don't know what to do. :( my phys ed hasn't started yet this semester... but if i don't do a whole credit of it, i won't graduate.
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