INTEGRATIVE LEARNING:

Note: This essay originated from the GLCA Rubrics for Liberal Arts Learning Workshop, March 17-18, 2017.

It was written by the following:

Carrie Delapp-Culver, cculver@wooster.edu, Music, The College of Wooster
Laura Furge, Laura.Furge@kzoo.edu, Chemistry, Kalamazoo College
Dianne Guenin-Lelle, dgueninlelle@albion.edu, French, Albion College
Steven Scogin, scogin@hope.edu, Biology and Education, Hope College
Jon Wiebel, jwiebel@allegheny.edu, Communication Arts/Theatre and Director of Speech, Allegheny College

As defined by the AACU VALUE rubric, integrative learning is “an understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and co-curriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus.” However, a common misconception, even among liberal arts staff, is that integrative learning occurs by default in liberal arts institutions (primarily because most students are required to take a variety of courses from multiple disciplines). Integrative learning is much more complex, however, than simply taking wide-ranging courses. Integrative learning requires institutions and educators to explicitly plan for and deliver creative opportunities allowing students to draw upon their background knowledge, synthesize previous knowledge with new understandings, and transfer this learning to new contexts as appropriate.

Integrative learning can be summarized as scaffolding students to reflect upon their experiences, synthesize key components of these experiences, and ultimately transfer this learning from a variety of past experiences to new contexts. Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks educators face in promoting integrative learning is giving students the space in a given course to engage in integrative learning practices. Choice of teaching pedagogies and assignments influence student learning outcomes, including the ability to integrate learning. Furthermore, students who are not invited to reflect upon how new material relates to past experiences will most likely not think about how what they are currently learning might inform decisions in contexts outside of a given course. In other words, siloed thinking begets more siloed thinking.

Promoting effective integrative learning in our institutions is a multi-level challenge. At the institutional level, we need creative support that allows for more flexibility in how we “do school.” For example, institutions might think outside the box when it comes to scheduling and assigning teaching credits so more courses can be team-taught by educators who represent multiple disciplines and perspectives. Also, institutions can think about various places in the curriculum to emphasize integrative learning through traditional mechanisms such as symposia, capstone courses/projects, and student portfolios that track learning progressions of students from induction to graduation. These mechanisms can be supported by providing explicit training to educators on how to design integrative experiences that push (and encourage) students to draw upon past and current experiences and apply this learning to new contexts.

Some schools, such as Allegheny College, are providing students with opportunities to showcase integrative learning through programs that allow students to discuss public policy issues with members of the greater institutional community as well as the local community (i.e., the Connections program). This program is a great example of the support and buy-in from all levels that is required to facilitate integrative learning. Other schools have seminar courses (such as the Shared Passages courses at Kalamazoo College) that promote interdisciplinary and integrative learning over the entire four years. Also, models of senior capstone interdisciplinary learning courses abound across the higher education landscape (Elon University, Champlain College, Boston University, Portland State University, etc. as well as within the GLCA).

As these examples illustrate, facilitating integrative learning is also a course-level proposition. Educators may adopt several pedagogical strategies to promote integrative learning including problem or project-based learning (PBL) and the integration of “expert guests” (either in person or virtually). PBL provides students with flexibility in the ways in which students attempt to solve the problem or create the deliverable product. For example, educators can encourage divergent thinking by allowing students to determine how they want to showcase what they have learned (e.g., written paper, performance, documentary movie, interactive poster, etc.). The “guest experts” could be alumni or professionals in the community who either speak to or work with students to emphasize how their professions require multiple perspectives and a broad range of knowledge in order to be successful.

As students engage in these various activities, educators must help students develop an integrative perspective by creating space in their course for students to reflect, synthesize, and transfer. Assignments that might help facilitate these practices include combinations of structured reflection writing prompts, collaborative activities, and opportunities for students to apply their learning to new contexts (possibly through case studies or other similar formats).

However, we cannot assume students have the skills needed to do these assignments well, in particular structured reflection. At what point in the student experience do they learn how to critically reflect? Students must be exposed to these and other skills (e.g., collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving) at some point along their trajectory. The development of these skills can begin in their first class (often an FYS), with students learning what it means to reflect effectively and develop the metacognitive skills that promote an integrative mindset. Activities to promote these skills could be as simple as having students work through an assignment, then (1) explicitly identify the process they went through to complete the assignment, (2) explain why they did what they did at each step of the process, (3) identify the contextual factors that affected these decisions, (4) reflect on the experience as a whole, (5) evaluate the effectiveness of the process and suggest changes.

Finally, in order to help our students learn and think integratively, we must attack a common identity crisis that develops in higher education (even at liberal arts institutions). For many students, identity is quickly attached to a subject area as opposed to the broader category of “life-long learner.” In many cases, liberal arts institutions promote this mindset by segregating majors through developing and promoting courses of limited scope, subject-specific clubs, departmentally-specific symposia, etc. Students follow our lead and quickly identify more with their major than with the concept of an integrative learner. In a way, this misidentification works directly against the goals of integrative learning. As institutions and as educators, we must work harder to tear down the silos and promote the integrative approach we claim to value in ALL areas of the curriculum and co-curriculum. Indeed, integrative learning starts with what happens in individual classes, not with general education requirements or broader institutional mission-speak.

The AAC&U VALUE rubric provides a rounded approach for assessing student outcomes from an integrative learning perspective. As defined by the rubric, students should show evidence of growth and maturity in their abilities to connect their experiences and disciplinary learning with contexts outside of the classroom. Moreover, students should be able to transfer their learning to other contexts through reflection and self-assessment, and be able to communicate this knowledge to others through integrated communication.

Questions for Consideration

The authors of this essay suggest several actions that faculty members could take to encourage their students to engage in integrative thinking and learning. What strategies would you add to the options mentioned here? Are there examples from your college that have shown promise in instilling the practice of integrative thinking in students?

Please send your written comments on this article to Gregory Wegner (wegner@glca.org) or Steven Volk (Steven.Volk@oberlin.edu), co-directors of the GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning. Your follow-up comments will be considered for inclusion in subsequent postings on this topic.

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