Learning Across Disciplines in Freshmen Interest Groups at SUNY-Potsdam
All too often college learning occurs in isolated departments that don't communicate with each other, says Gerald Lee Ratliff, associate vice provost of academic affairs at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam. "Particularly when finances are tight, we tend to retreat into our disciplines and guard our resources jealously," Ratliff says. But students benefit most, he says, when the curriculum invites them to make connections across the various disciplines they're studying. To that end, SUNY Potsdam has spent the last twenty years refining their First Year Interest Groups (FIGs), clusters of related courses students complete during their first semester at the university. The SUNY Potsdam FIGs are a type of learning community, one of several high-impact practices AAC&U advocates for.
Each FIG is based around a theme or core idea that connects the various classes making up the cluster. FIGs both introduce students to potential areas of study and fulfill general education requirements, while also fostering closer relationships between instructors and students, Ratliff says. "Through pairing courses, and making larger sets of related courses, we're moving towards teaching broad concepts that transcend a number of disciplines—a traditional high-impact practice that you see in effective programs, and that we hope to have going on here," Ratliff said.
A History of Integrated Learning at SUNY Potsdam
SUNY-Potsdam first began experimenting with themed clusters in 1991 when the university expanded its general education requirements, according to Oscar Sarmiento, director of the Learning Community program. The idea of coordinated course groupings was first proposed as a way of helping students navigate general education requirements and complete the necessary credits to graduate in four years. Another important driver was the need to reach at-risk students, who might benefit particularly from closer relationships with professors and tighter communities of fellow students. "We at the college had to address the needs of the population," Sarmiento says. "If public education was to serve well all kinds of students, especially those who are more at risk, [SUNY Potsdam] had to be proactive and creative to be supportive of all students."
Since 1991, the FIG offerings have grown to more than thirty clusters, with topics varying year to year. In 2009, 450 freshmen enrolled in FIGs—half the freshmen cohort of approximately 900 students, and three-quarters of the 600 students entering in the College of Arts and Sciences, where all but one of the FIGs are housed (the remaining three hundred students enrolled in the School of Education and Professional Studies, which has one FIG, or the Crane School of Music, which has none). Five FIGs also feature coordinated housing assignments, with all students from the FIG living on one floor of a dorm.
The basic model for all FIGs is the same. Cohorts of ten to twenty-five incoming students take three to five classes that are connected by a cross-disciplinary topic or theme. Current examples include "Money and Power," which looks at the intersecting influences of economics and politics, and "Gender: Go Figure," which approaches gender through literature and various social sciences. A FIG coordinator, usually an instructor teaching one of the courses, tracks the students' progress and communicates with all instructors teaching in the cluster. Students in FIGs also benefit from spending time with faculty members outside of class. Some FIGs feature regular field trips and excursions—the Environmental Studies FIG includes full-day trips in the surrounding Adirondack Mountains every week. Other FIGs have less regular trips, or gather for more informal, cocurricular activities outside of class.
These close communities allow instructors to stay attuned to how their students are performing academically and adjusting to college life, Sarmiento says: "We are each more aware of individual situations, and therefore we can address them as a collective: What I see in my class, do you see in your class? Is it repeating? How do we address that particular situation?" Having this detailed knowledge allows them "to create situations that will be engaging for all the students, and particularly for the students who may be more at risk," he says. But the students also offer each other a support network, says Provost Margaret Madden. Students in FIGs get to know each other very quickly, and with common schedules it's easy to discuss assignments and coordinate study sessions—"they figure out how to do college-level work together."
Leaving Room for Faculty Innovation
The FIG model at SUNY Potsdam comes with a great deal of flexibility. Clusters vary in the number of students they enroll, the number of courses those students take, the degree of coordination and integration faculty bring to the cluster, and the extent to which the FIG is connected to other aspects of the students' first-year experience. The Environmental Studies FIG comprises five courses, including ecology, writing, drawing, and an environmental studies seminar that examines the relationship between humans and the natural world, with a focus on the Adirondack region. These courses are reserved exclusively for students enrolled in the FIG, and they are the only courses those students take their first semester, according to Stacy Rosenberg, who teaches Introduction to Environmental Studies and coordinates that FIG.
In most cases, however, students take at least one or two classes outside of their FIG. The classes that make up the FIG may also enroll students who are not taking the entire block of courses. To some extent this is a necessity—the university lacks the resources to reserve some classes exclusively for FIG students. While he's never observed that students not part of the FIG feel excluded or ill-served by these courses, Sarmiento says it is important for faculty members to discuss the matter up front and be clear about the nature of the learning community and how it will affect classroom activities.
But the variety of course arrangements is also deliberate, Madden says. Flexibility is good for the program "because it means faculty groups can develop something that suits them and the particular array of courses they are involved in." While some FIGs feature coordinated syllabi and content that is thematically tailored, in others the central themes are more implicit, she says. (She added that the strongest FIGs, in her opinion, are those whose faculty members collaborate closely.)
Faculty may also choose whether or not to have a section of the First Year Success Seminar (FYSS) attached to their FIGs. FYSS, which teaches basic study and college-life skills, is recommended for all freshmen, regardless of whether they are in enrolled in a FIG. The seminar has its own core concepts and assignments, but it also offers a fair amount of latitude for instructors who wish to tailor the course to the theme of a particular FIG. For Sarmiento, who coordinates a FIG focused on the intersection of Latino and American cultures, including an FYSS in the cluster provides time every week when students in the FIG have a class to themselves. "If we have them an hour together, we can actually get to know them through that particular colleague who is teaching the seminar," he says, "and that feedback from the colleague is essential for us throughout the whole semester."
The Future of FIGS at SUNY Potsdam
While assessment of the FIG program has been limited so far, faculty and administrators at Potsdam have been pleased with what they've seen—and so have the students, they say. Surveys of graduating seniors and of faculty show positive impressions of the FIG program, with responses indicating the program is succeeding at providing such key elements of high-impact practices as timely feedback from instructors and students taking responsibility for assisting each other in learning, Sarmiento says. FIGs have also improved student retention, according to Madden. And while the university hasn't collected data on the subject yet, she says research at other institutions indicates "that students who are at risk benefit proportionately more than other students from having those sorts of experiences." To that end, the university has set aside five FIGs exclusively for students admitted through its Educational Opportunity Program, which provides academic support and financial aid to students who show promise for mastering college-level work, but who may otherwise not be accepted.
Now, with the benefit of a Title III Improving Institutions grant, the university is looking at how the FIG model can help get more students involved in another high-impact practice—undergraduate research. Sarmiento hopes this will involve research projects than draw from multiple courses and get students working closely with faculty during their first year. "We want to make sure that they see themselves [not just] as our students, but also as human beings that we are going to work along with, collaborate with," he says. To support the research activities in FIGs, a special section of the First Year Success Seminar that emphasizes research principles and skills has also been developed.
The university is also working on a plan for extending the FIG model to upper-division courses. "If it benefits freshman, it can benefit upper classmen," Madden says, and Sarmiento points to the success of the university's classics program, which in the past featured a block of interconnected courses for upper-division students. Extending the model to more upper-division students certainly poses challenges, he says, given the specific courses required by each major, but "it's a challenge we'd like to face up to." As AAC&U has described in its Shared Futures initiative, "the goals of democracy, equity, justice, and peace encompass the globe and demand deep understanding from multiple perspectives"—preparing students to meet these goals means teaching them to apply their knowledge across disciplinary boundaries and understand the interconnections of a globalized world.