My Positive Experience Teaching Mandatory PE in College (Guest Post)

by AmberLynn 


Last week I read a post by Samantha in which she questioned whether PE should be mandatory in colleges and universities. I stopped and caught my breath because my immediate reaction was, “How can another academic find my field unnecessary to the college experience?” I felt invalidated. But, after reading the post again and reading the group post lead by Susan and the guest post by Sally, I understand why some people would have this reaction. I found it somewhat ironic that one of my own university professors (Dr. Ekkekakis) was quoted in Susan’s piece.

So, I’m writing today in defense of the course I teach so that hopefully you can see some of the positives that I experience on a weekly basis in my classes. I have been teaching a specific type of physical activity course off and on for the last 10 years. It is different at each of the University of North Carolina schools, but all offer a version of a required lifetime physical activity and wellness course.

It’s mandatory to graduate even from their online bachelor’s programs and it is offered as an online course in those cases. The community college I teach at also offers the course and I taught one semester of it online there in addition to online and face-to-face versions of the course at two different UNC schools. In my current position the course is called PED 101– Physical Activity and Wellness. The course, in the traditional format, is taught twice a week for 50 minutes of activity time and includes an online wellness  lecture.

The options for what to take for your “activity” are endless. I currently instruct sections on Fitness Walking, Walk-to-Jog, and Functional Training. We offer Fencing, Weight Training, Lifetime Sports, Swimming, Yoga, Group Exercise, Triathlon Training, various martial arts, and more that I can’t even remember off the top of my head. And as I mentioned in my comment on Samantha’s post, accommodations are made for students in adapted and alternative sections of the course.

One of the things that was addressed as an issue with mandatory PE is that it doesn’t give you the option of choice. Many general education requirements at a college or university offer limited options for choice. When I was an undergraduate student I was required to take a religion course. The options were narrow and it had nothing to do with my degree in Exercise and Sport Sciences. In PED 101, not only do we give students the option to choose their activity, but we’re encouraged to create greater and greater autonomy throughout the course of the semester through our teaching.

For example, in my Walk-to-Jog class last fall I started sharing my personal running workouts with some of the students who were more interested in pursuing running for distance and speed. I never assign any one student to a specific workout of the day, but allow the students to choose from a few options. One day an option was mile repeaters and a student decided to push herself to try something she’d never done before. She completed 3 mile repeaters during our class time when she thought she’d only be able to do two.

On a different day in that class she did interval training and completed a 6:00 mile pace in her intervals.Her goal at the beginning of the semester was to be able to run at an 8:00 mile pace. She wasn’t required to do either, but learned something about her capabilities by deciding that she wanted to try something different. I think that’s a benefit to requiring the PE class. There are many students who won’t take a PE elective because they have a perception that they don’t have time to fit it into their coursework. There are students paying for a Student Recreation Center in their student fees who never use it unless they’re required to attend a class there. There are students who don’t know the proper way to lift weights and are in there lifting away into injury because they never had correct instruction. There are students who don’t know their full potential or how to have fun with activity because of the way they’ve experienced PE in the past.

I see mandatory PE in college as a way to change these things. I had a student last semester who learned about the proper fit of shoes for her activity and magically found her shin splints disappeared. Another concern addressed in the comments was that all of the people teaching these classes are fitness enthusiasts and come naturally to sport. In our classes we stress the need for meeting personal lifestyle needs, wants, and likes. We share with them difficulties that they may face in maintenance. We ask them theoretical questions about who they plan to be and what they want to achieve. I personally want them to see that PED 101 is not just showing up for a fitness class twice a week and doing some online busy work. PED 101 is a chance to improve their overall health, their mental health, a way to explore the entire fitness and wellness realm, a way to build connections, a way to decompress, and a way to expand communication practices.

While I may be a fitness enthusiast, sport did not come as naturally to
me as it does for some. I also struggled with PE in elementary school and have NEVER been able to do a complete pull-up in my 38 years. My colleagues come in every shape and size and ability and age and that adds diversity to the experience for our students. In the lecture portion of the course we teach about Changing Personal Behaviors for Optimal Wellness, Understanding Fitness Principles, Conditioning Your Cardiorespiratory System, Building Muscular Strength and Endurance, Maintaining Flexibility and Back Health, Improving Your Nutrition, Managing Your Weight, Managing Stress, Risky Behaviors: Avoiding Substance Use, Abuse, and Addiction, Risky Behaviors: Reducing Risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections. Many of these topics are not presented in other classes on campus and go far beyond being picked last for ultimate frisbee. Because of these topics being introduced many of my students find new resources on campus for mental health, nutrition, and have even found jobs and internships with different organizations they might not have been otherwise exposed to.

I teach PED 101 because it’s a chance for me to spread a message of wellness far beyond those within the Exercise and Sport Sciences major. It’s an opportunity for me to make life-long learners and exercisers. It’s a chance for me to engage a population where I can make a difference that directly impacts so many different aspects of their lives in and out of school. It’s about the health of our university community and the health of our future leaders.

AmberLynn is an Adjunct Lecturer at UNCW and CFCC in Wilmington, North Carolina. She travels the country spreading fitness education for NETA. And when she’s not training for a road race or doing yoga, she’s spending every waking moment with her beautiful boys riding bikes, playing baseball, and in general being active. She also reads for fun and writes occasionally on her blog as onegirlbreathing.

4 thoughts on “My Positive Experience Teaching Mandatory PE in College (Guest Post)

  1. I hesitated to respond to the earlier negative PE posts, but I wanted here to share some of my experiences with PE.

    First, never mind the horrors I’d the middle school locker room. That’s on femininity, the internalized male gaze, and mean girl culture. ACTUAL PE was where I could be fully me, a tomboy, rather than just a failed girl. In high school, PE included the weight room and swimming. Since I was also on the boys’ soccer team (thanks, Title IX), I did a fair amount of weightlifting after practice with my friends but quickly learned the boys didn’t necessarily know how to do all of the exercises safely. I was glad of some formal training via PE.

    PE in college was a bloody revelation. I hadn’t made the college soccer team and was struggling to maintain fitness for the first time in my life. I also was far more sedentary throughout each day. I was allowed to choose from a wide array of options for the physical activity, much as described in this blog, but required to choose several and got some decent non-bullshit health information for the first time. I barely remember the classroom component but have fond memories of the Tae Kwon Do option and of the swimming option. That was when I really learned to do laps and pace myself and alternate kicks and pulls, and do different strokes. I have come back to that periodically in my life especially after joint injury in my knees or ankles. Zoning out while swimming 16 or 20 laps is a thing of beauty I would never have known were it not for college PE. And lord knows, now that I have kids and really understand how much martial arts usually costs, I appreciate the heck out of free TKD.

    I think it is possible to do a good mandatory college PE. Teaching people how to enjoy sports and physical activity that are NOT oriented towards competition, but towards pleasure and fitness, is a big part of what college PE can do.

  2. Your class sounds like something I would have loved back in university. I did some things on my own when I could, but mostly thought of fitness activity as a luxury until I had kids of my own and decided they needed a good role model. That was a good 15 years after graduating – so much lost time!

  3. Tough one because honestly I’m not sure I would have been interested at that time, in terms of a mandatory PE course at university. There were so many other exciting electives to take plus mandatory courses for my undergrad major.

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