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Integrative Learning: Integrative Learning Blog

Resources and updates from the Integrative Learning Steering Committee.

What is "Integrative Learning?"

by Chris Boettcher on 2017-10-31T09:40:00-04:00 | Comments

The Integrative Learning Steering Committee is honored to announce that our grant from the Davis Educational Foundation was renewed for its second year. In July, we received a letter praising our progress in Year 1 and presenting us with funds for our Year 2 budget. In the spirit of visibility and transparency, we are establishing this blog as a way to share information about the project, the ideas behind it, and the various resources we are collecting.

We begin by giving a broad and brief answer to a good question that we sometimes hear:  “So, what is integrative learning (IL), anyway?”

If you were to ask faculty members this question, many would probably call to mind team-teaching. A team-taught course, one bringing together two or more disciplines, is certainly “integrative.” However, integrative learning does not require such a complex interdisciplinary approach or multiple experts in the room. Integrative learning happens when an educator guides students in making such connections between what they have learned in their courses and other activities. Meaningful integration can happen during class discussion or as part of an assignment. It can explicitly link the work of several courses, or it can encourage student reflections to find their own individual connections.  Some courses are specially designed to promote intensive integration through the use of pedagogies such as case-studies or problem-based learning.  These methods require students to draw from multiple sources of knowledge and to practice various skills and dispositions in combination. In our next blog post, we will present some of the theory and scholarship that informs this idea of Integrative Learning.

This idea of integrative learning describes what Castleton faculty members do well, how we build relationships with students and work toward a transformative education. We want our students to recognize what we know:  that all of their coursework is valuable. Not every course or its subject matter will explicitly link with others.  In fact, some courses will simply promote curiosity about a field that is seemingly unrelated to anything else that the student is studying. However, we think that making integration more visible in our teaching and raising it as a collective project will help students to see the value in courses they might have otherwise thought irrelevant. It also informs our aspirations as a residential campus with robust investments in student activities.  Integrative learning helps students to recognize how the many things they learn at Castleton, in and out of the classroom, contribute to their overall education in ways they might have yet to realize.

Our team pursued the grant knowing that there are already many intentional instances of “integrative learning” on campus, both in major course sequences and in special courses and programs. During the first year of the grant, we surveyed many such instances of integrative learning. We hope to make these practices more visible and to promote them more widely.  So our project is, at its heart, an attempt to bring more resources and support to enhance our community of teaching and learning. To this end, we have planned discussions and workshops, have offered extended professional development for faculty members, and have worked with our librarians to establish a new teaching and learning collection in the library.

We don’t mean to suggest that integrative learning is a magical concept or the latest and greatest cure-all.  It has become a “buzzword” in some circles, but it is a buzzword that is directly informing the work of other institutions, many of which we compare ourselves to. Talking with educators on other campuses about the challenges and the promise of integrative learning, we learned that really effective IL is usually supported by institutional structures beyond the classroom:

  • IL is at its best when it includes courses dedicated to teaching such integration, and doing so at developmentally appropriate stages of students’ educations.  Early courses, such as a first-year seminar or writing course, teach basic principles and introduce the idea that students’ course work and experience are interconnected. When developmentally appropriate, later courses in the sequence expect students to make use of what they have learned in their previous courses and activities. Some of our competing campuses have used these ideas to revise their Gen Ed programs or to build all new IL Programs that contribute in visible and public ways to their academic brands.

 

  • IL thrives when there is cross-departmental and cross-campus collaboration.  Again, this collaboration happens not as much in the classroom but in establishing goals that everyone agrees to work toward in their own campus positions.  It is supported through collaborative planning of curriculum and other educational opportunities.  Educators teach and advise students in a way that helps them to see the value of what they are learning for other situations beyond the immediate course or activity.  In other words, we do not work alone.  Visiting other institutions, we learned about initiatives that support this kind of collaboration.  Examples might include campus-wide themes, school years devoted to a shared set of general concepts, and courses working together to solve “wicked problems.”  We talked with faculty genuinely excited about the prospects for this collaboration and imagining the big ideas that could be treated with this kind of an approach.

 

  • Many IL programs are linked with developmental advising that helps students to reflect on what they are learning and to make academic plans based on it. Such efforts are often tied to retention, persistence, and pace-to-degree initiatives that contribute to the perceived value of the institution’s education. We have seen integrative learning, especially branded integrative learning, used to promote enrollment among high school students.  We have seen it used to publicize the values of academic programs, especially those in the liberal arts.  We have seen it used to sell the value of a four-year education, an explicitly four-year education, in which all of the courses contribute to student academic preparation for their careers and citizenship.  And we have seen these principles inform alumni tracking and collection of data to support the value of the institution for prospective students.   

These ideas about how we teach for integrative learning invite us to think beyond established institutional structures, especially those that promote the “silos’ of higher education.  We tend to spend most of our time in individual units, separating faculty in departments, majors from other majors, liberal arts programs from professional programs, academics from student life.  Pursuing integrative learning means thinking beyond these structures and attempting to imagine new and maybe more vibrant institutional structures.

During the first year of our grant, we thought deeply about what new kinds of structures could better support our teaching and learning across the campus.  In future posts, we will share some modest proposals that imagine how working for integrative learning could enrich our institutional lives. Beyond these ideas, we are very interested in facilitating a wider discussion among faculty and educators across campus about our common cause and promoting the resilience and vitality of Castleton and the Castleton education.


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