Liberal Education

Signature Work: A Survey of Current Practices

At the centennial annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider introduced the LEAP Challenge, the next phase of AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. The LEAP Challenge calls on all colleges and universities to engage their students in “Signature Work” that will prepare them to integrate and apply their learning to a significant project.1

Signature Work does not describe any one pedagogical practice or educational approach. A Signature Work project can take on many forms, though it must meet several criteria. First, Signature Work requires student agency and independence: students choose the topic and form of the project, and complete much of the work independently, with guidance and coaching from faculty, staff, or community partners, over the course of a semester or a longer period of time. Second, the project must be integrative, meaning that it requires students to draw on the skills and knowledge they have developed across many disciplines, through their general education and their major, and through cocurricular activities. Finally, Signature Work project must address “big problems”—students should apply their learning to real-world issues that matter to society and to the student.2

It’s important to note that while the term Signature Work may be new, the learning principles it embodies are drawn from the pedagogical practices AAC&U’s member institutions have engaged in for many years. This article highlights some of the work being done at eight institutions of higher education to bring Signature Work to all their students. I have focused on three broad categories of learning practices—applied and community-based learning, capstones and culminating experiences, and e-portfolios—that, as practiced at these colleges and universities, exemplify integrative, student-centered learning at a broad range of institutional types, from research universities to community colleges. This survey is by no means comprehensive, but the examples here represent some of the crucial aspects of Signature Work as currently practiced in the field.

Community engagement and applied learning

With its emphasis on applied learning and active inquiry, Signature Work often occurs in the context of students’ engagement with communities outside the classroom. Not only does community-engaged learning require students to address real-world issues, raising the stakes for students’ personal investment in their learning, but the problems students address with community partners are inherently interdisciplinary, requiring students to integrate knowledge and skills from a broad range of courses taken in both general education and the major.

Cornell University has spent the last five years expanding community-engagement efforts across campus as part of its 2010–2015 strategic plan,3 which names excellence in public engagement as one of the institution’s primary goals. One of the first steps toward this goal was the creation of the Engaged Learning and Research Center in 2011, which now serves as the focal point for all community-engagement activities at Cornell. In 2014, the university launched Engaged Cornell, a ten-year initiative intended to expand on the goals set in the strategic plan and “establish community engagement and real-world learning experiences as the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience.”4

Cornell already has a long history of community engagement, says Vice Provost Judy Appleton,5 who leads Engaged Cornell, with an especially strong record in some of the social science departments. But Engaged Cornell aims to increase students’ community engagement in every department and school within the university, especially in those departments that aren’t traditionally associated with community-engaged learning. The initiative is supported by a grant from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, and the first round of funding has been designated for faculty development, supporting the creation of new community-engaged courses and the modification of existing courses to include cocurricular community engagement.

It’s important to note that there is no community engagement requirement in the Cornell curriculum, but through Engaged Cornell, the university hopes to expand engagement opportunities so that every student has ready access to such opportunities. “We take a broad definition of community as we approach it so every discipline can approach it,” Appleton says. “That can be a business community or a geographical one, local or regional, interest groups, age groups such as children, veterans—any group with a shared need is a community.”

Other opportunities occur in the cocurriculum. The Social Justice Roundtable series is a monthly forum for discussing social justice issues affecting the university and the surrounding community, while Be the Change Workshops delve into the topics discussed at these workshops and focus on potential solutions.6 At both types of events, students share facilitating responsibilities with faculty and staff. Students who are able to commit more time can apply to the Fellowship for Undergraduate Engaged Leadership,7 a cohort-based program that prepares students to complete a community-engaged capstone project through training in leadership development and service-learning theory, and close mentorship from Cornell faculty, staff, and alumni.

Similar to Cornell, the University of La Verne includes “community and civic engagement” as a core pillar of its latest strategic vision,8 and all students at La Verne are involved in multiple civic and community-engaged learning experiences. A private university with multiple campuses in Southern California, La Verne takes a highly structured approach to community engagement, channeling students into these learning opportunities through the La Verne Experience, which President Devorah Lieberman describes as a “cocurricular/curricular/values-based program threaded throughout all four years.”9

The first and second years of the La Verne Experience in particular emphasize applied learning through community engagement. In the First-Year Learning Experience, all students enroll in interdisciplinary learning communities that address broad questions and social issues and include service-learning components. In Markets and the Good Life, for example, students use the lenses of microeconomics and philosophy to examine “the economic, philosophical, and ethical implications of markets, free will, and the choices humans make,” Lieberman says.10 As part of the course, students volunteer at a local transitional house for women and families, assisting with cleanup and engaging in guided reflection on the idea of “the good life” with faculty and residents of the facility.

The Sophomore La Verne Experience (SoLVE) focuses explicitly on infusing the curriculum with cocurricular activities, including service learning and community engagement. In order to make this integration explicit and to foster deliberate reflection on the connections between the curriculum and cocurriculum, SoLVE includes a required two-credit seminar focused on the values of the institution and how they are embodied in the cocurricular activities in which students participate. In the Junior La Verne Experience, students apply their previous learning outside the classroom with greater autonomy as they design a capstone project that addresses a real-world problem.

Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, also includes an explicit requirement that all students participate in some kind of applied learning experience outside the classroom, usually taking place in the summer after the sophomore or junior year. This project is the centerpiece of Lynk, Mount Holyoke’s curriculum-to-careers initiative. This requirement can be fulfilled by a broad range of experiences, so long as they are student-designed and require the student to apply her learning to a real-world problem in a setting outside the classroom. Some students develop projects that address community issues, but others engage in field research, complete internships, or conduct hands-on projects while studying abroad.

To prepare students to work independently outside the classroom, Mount Holyoke faculty and staff provide considerable scaffolding, says Kirk Lange, director of international experiential learning. Advising is crucial to the enterprise, and students have extensive discussions with faculty advisors about their interests and learning goals before proposing a specific project. After proposing a project, each student meets again with her advisor and with a sponsor from the off-campus site, such as a supervisor for an internship or a contact person in a community-based organization, in order to discuss the specific learning goals of the project and the needs of any community partners that are involved.

Mount Holyoke is able to make such projects a requirement in part because it offers the funding to carry them out—each student can receive up to $3,600 to support the completion of an applied learning project. Advisors offer logistical support to help students prepare a budget and find housing in other regions or countries. Although funding is guaranteed, the application process is extensive, requiring further discussion of the project’s goals and learning outcomes. “This application has become a learning tool in itself, further stitching together the work on campus and beyond the gates,” Lange says.11

Further scaffolding is built into the curriculum. Before leaving campus to begin an experiential project, students must complete College 210: Ready for the World—Preparing for Your Internship and Research Project, a half-semester seminar in which students discuss how to apply the skills from their academic studies in a professional of community setting. A second course, College 211: Tying It All Together, is required for students to complete their experiential projects, and focuses on integrating academic work with students’ goals beyond college. A final reflective piece comes in the senior year, when students present the results of their research projects or discuss the work they did in internships or community initiatives at a series of symposia open to the entire college community.

Capstones and culminating projects

The La Verne Experience and the Lynk program at Mount Holyoke College are representative of applied, often community-based learning programs, but they also include many elements of capstone projects. In capstones, students design projects by drawing on their learning from across their coursework and in the cocurriculum in order to address a topic or issue of their choosing, usually in the junior or senior year. Portland State University’s capstone program meets these characteristics, while also requiring that students’ capstone projects address real-world problems faced by communities in the Portland, Oregon, area.

Portland State’s program is also different from the capstone programs at many institutions in that the student projects at Portland State are generated through established capstone courses in which any student can enroll, rather than each student creating his or her own independent study course. The senior capstone courses are the culminating piece of Portland State’s general education program, says Seanna Kerrigan, director of the capstone program, and so all courses must be submitted to the faculty senate in order to ensure that they further the university’s learning outcomes. Faculty are encouraged to use a backward design approach12 when creating capstone courses so that “they will have thought through the university learning goals, the community issue, and how students will learn by addressing that issue,” Kerrigan says.

The Portland State capstone program is also distinctive in that students must complete their capstone projects working in teams. A typical course enrolls up to sixteen students, who will divide into teams of four students to complete semi-independent projects in the context of the course. In a course that focuses on grant writing for a community organization—a common structure for capstone courses—each student team will write a separate grant. In a course that focuses on an educational program, one team of students might write a grant for a new transportation van, while another team writes a grant for scholarships and other students write grants for supplies. In other courses, students might build websites, launch a fundraising campaign, or volunteer at the facilities of the community partner, depending on the learning outcomes for the course, the students’ interests, and the needs of the community partner.

Most students complete their capstones through one of the established courses, but students who have already found a community partner, designed a project, and received approval from a faculty advisor can enroll in a capstone course titled Effective Change Agent. Like the other capstone courses, Effective Change Agent enrolls up to sixteen students, though each student has developed his or her own project to serve the needs of a different community partner. Students still meet as a class with an instructor to discuss assigned readings and reflect on the university’s general education goals and how they apply to each student’s project. The course offers “a good blend of structure and student self-determination,” Kerrigan says.

The College of Wooster, a private liberal arts college in Ohio, also requires all students to complete a culminating project in their senior year, although the structure of the program and the range of student options differ from those at Portland State. All capstone projects at Wooster are framed as undergraduate research, but the form that research takes varies according to each discipline and each student’s individual project.

Independent Study, as the capstone is known at Wooster, is completed during the senior year, but the scaffolding for the project begins in the required first-year seminar, which focuses on critical inquiry, and many students also apply to participate in the Sophomore Research Program, in which students serve as paid research assistants to professors in every discipline. In the junior year, students enroll in a seminar in which they explore the range of projects available in their major fields and study relevant methodologies so that they are prepared to meet faculty advisors and propose projects for the senior year.

Work on the final Independent Study projects spans both semesters of the senior year. Students meet individually with their project advisors for one hour each week and “plan, develop, and complete a significant piece of original research, scholarship, or creative expression—culminating in a major research paper, an art exhibit or a performance—that pulls together what [they’ve] learned and demonstrates the analytical, creative, and communication skills [they] have honed at Wooster.”13 Laboratory space on campus is provided for students conducting research in the physical and biological sciences, as is studio space for students working on visual or performing arts projects. Extra funding is not required, as the Independent Study is built into the regular curriculum and can be conducted on campus, but students who wish to conduct projects that will require them to travel beyond campus or purchase expensive supplies can apply for competitive grants from the Henry J. Copeland Fund for Independent Study.

A public presentation of the final project—whether that is a summary of research results or the performance of an original composition—is the final required piece of the Wooster Independent Study. Portland State University has a similar requirement for capstone projects, although in that case the presentation takes place at the community partner site, not on campus. In Mount Holyoke’s Lynk program, students also give final public presentation based on their field experiences and their subsequent reflections. This portion, called the Launch, is accompanied by a literal “elevator pitch,” in which each student gives a short, filmed talk—while riding an elevator—that explains how her applied learning project integrated the knowledge and skills she developed across the curriculum.

E-portfolios

Like capstone projects, e-portfolios offer the chance for students to integrate the learning they have achieved over the course of their entire college career, in multiple disciplines and in the cocurriculum. E-portfolios are digital repositories of student learning artifacts selected by the students themselves. Combined with rubrics, such as AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics, e-portfolios can be effective tools for assessment, both on the individual course and institutional levels, but the act of preparing an e-portfolio for assessment also offers an opportunity for students to engage in reflection about their learning. As they select representative learning artifacts, students must think deeply about the college’s learning outcomes, the degree to which they have achieved these learning outcomes, and which assignments are representative of these achievements, says Gail Ring, director of e-portfolio initiatives at Clemson University. Like capstone projects, e-portfolios facilitate integrative thinking, prompting students to draw together strands of learning from a range of disciplines and from the cocurriculum. Indeed, e-portfolios can amplify the benefits of other types of Signature Work because they encourage students to integrate learning from applied learning experiences with their classroom learning, and curating and reflecting on assignments from previous courses is excellent preparation for culminating projects.

Until recently, Clemson University required all students to create e-portfolios, which were used for assessment of the university’s general education learning outcomes. “When a student put in an artifact—a study abroad paper, say—she had to write a rational statement explaining why she chose this piece of evidence, how it demonstrates a learning outcome like cross-cultural awareness,” Ring says. “You’re learning a lot when you study abroad, much more than just language immersion. Reflecting on that in a paper, and coming back and reading that paper and connecting to future course work, that’s incredibly powerful.”

But Clemson’s faculty rolled back the e-portfolio requirement, despite the potential learning gains for students, because they determined that they were not providing sufficient scaffolding to help students think meaningfully about how they curate their portfolios throughout their years at the university. Clemson students begin work in the university’s general education program in their first semester, but they may not be prepared to think reflectively about what they are learning and document those reflections without explicit guidance from faculty, Ring says. Too many students were arriving at the senior year having done little or no work on their e-portfolios.

“The power of the portfolio is the reflection over time for growth,” Ring continues. “But without faculty integration, it wasn’t happening. They need us to help unpack the competencies, and the more we do that early on, the more students can do that on their own.” The faculty senate voted to remove the university-wide portfolio requirement, though many colleges and programs still require that their students complete e-portfolios, and the campus e-portfolio office offers workshops and individual guidance for students who are interested in creating a portfolio on their own. The number of students creating portfolios continues to grow—more than 30 percent of undergraduate students are now creating e-portfolios that they use in a reflective capacity, Ring estimates—and even without a university-wide requirement, it’s becoming a distinctive feature of Clemson, she says: “We’ve had job-seeking students who met with potential employers that said, ‘Oh, you’re from Clemson—let us see your e-portfolio.’”

While Clemson pulled back on its e-portfolio program because of a failure to properly scaffold the process for using them, Santa Clara University is looking to expand e-portfolio use precisely because the tool offers opportunities to scaffold learning when implemented deliberately. The university is piloting a program in which students complete an e-portfolio as part of Pathways, the upper-division portion of Santa Clara’s general education program. Students complete four Pathways courses, which are grouped in a thematic cluster, during their junior and senior years, and shortly before graduation write a reflective essay that integrates concepts from these courses and other courses completed in their majors.

As part of a pilot study, select groups of students are using e-portfolios to track their Pathways work. The idea is to encourage students to engage in the reflective thinking that epitomizes the final essay throughout their time at Santa Clara, says Chris Bachen, director of assessment at Santa Clara. Before the introduction of e-portfolios, many students didn’t think much about the final essay until graduation approached. By introducing e-portfolios, and encouraging students to update their e-portfolios on a regular basis, faculty hope to encourage students to think more progressively and longitudinally about the connections between these various courses and about their own learning gains over time, Bachen says. The pilot includes groups of students who are working independently on e-portfolios, and groups who meet regularly to discuss their e-portfolio reflections with faculty facilitators.

The pilot is still ongoing, but results so far suggest adjustments will be needed before the program can be brought to scale. While some students have adopted regular, reflective practice with their e-portfolios, many others view e-portfolio use as simply another requirement, rather than something that will enhance their learning. There are also some students who have crafted their e-portfolios to be explicitly “outward looking”—presenting their accomplishments for potential employers—rather than using them as tools for personal reflection on their learning. Bachen and her colleagues working on the pilot recommend that, as the university looks to scale the program, e-portfolios should be integrated into a required course or program in the first year so that all students will have early, faculty-led practice in “archiving work, selecting appropriate work samples to exemplify specific learning outcomes, and reflecting on that work with attention to how the learning is scaffolded or integrated.”

LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York system, is also using e-portfolios as an integrated part of a college-wide curriculum, says Bret Eynon, associate dean for teaching and learning. Faculty use e-portfolios to target three dimensions of student learning. First, creating and curating the e-portfolio offers students practice in multimedia digital communication—a crucial skill in
the twenty-first century. Second, e-portfolios encourage integrative thinking across disciplines. Finally, e-portfolios can help students become more reflective and intentional about their learning: the e-portfolios help them track their own progress across their educational careers and become more self-aware of their transformation, which, in turn, prompts them to take more ownership over their learning, Eynon says.

The introduction of e-portfolios coincides with a larger reorganization of the college, in which the academic affairs and student affairs departments now work together much more closely and the curriculum and cocurriculum are becoming increasingly integrated. Students create e-portfolios during required courses for their major programs, but they are also asked to incorporate learning artifacts and reflections from their general education courses and from their cocurricular activities. Faculty hope the use of e-portfolios will help prepare degree-seeking students for the capstone projects they will complete in their majors. Students also share their e-portfolios with their advisors, which both offers students a chance to reflect on their learning in a one-on-one session with faculty or staff mentors and facilitates the use of the portfolio as a map for charting a path toward completion. LaGuardia has been scaling up the program slowly, but the college hopes that 90 percent of enrolled students will have created an e-portfolio by next year.

Engaging all students in Signature Work

The three types of student work presented above are by no means discrete categories. The Lynk program at Mount Holyoke College and the La Verne Experience at the University of La Verne both use community-engaged projects as preparation for culminating capstone work. Similarly, the capstone courses at Portland State University all involve engagement with community partners, as do some of the capstones completed by students at the College of Wooster. And in all the e-portfolio programs described above, the portfolio is used as a tool to integrate learning from both traditional classroom studies and applied learning experiences, often in preparation for a capstone or culminating experience. The fact that these programs integrate all these aspects of deep learning is what makes them representative of Signature Work.

But while these examples are representative, they are far from comprehensive. This article barely scratches the surface of the deep, interdisciplinary, student-centered learning happening at AAC&U member institutions around the country. There are many, many other examples of Signature Work happening at colleges and universities of all types, but too often these essential learning practices are reserved for a limited set of students at any given institution. The LEAP Challenge calls on all colleges and universities to make Signature Work the expectation for all students.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Notes

1. Carol Geary Schneider, “The LEAP Challenge: Preparing College Students—Privileged and Not—to Create Solutions for Our Future,” YouTube video, recorded at AAC&U’s 2015 Annual Meeting, January 22, 2015, 1:46:34, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K1oeQtdc3E#t=5761.

2. AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities), The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2015).

3. Cornell University at Its Sesquicentennial: A Strategic Plan, 2010–2015 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2010), http://www.cornell.edu/strategicplan.

4. “University launches ‘Engaged Cornell’ with $50 million gift,” Cornell Chronicle, October 6, 2014, http://www.news.cornell.edu//stories/2014/10/university-launches-engaged....

5. Personal communication. Unless otherwise noted, quotations and other information presented in this article are gathered from interviews conducted by the author.

6. See http://elr.cornell.edu/events/be-change-work-shop-series.

7. See. http://elr.cornell.edu/students/programs/fellowship-undergraduate-engage....

8. 2020 Strategic Vision (La Verne, CA: University of La Verne, 2011), http://laverne.edu/2020vision.

9. Devorah Lieberman, “Implementing the ABCD Model of Service Learning at the University of La Verne,” The LEAP Challenge Blog, March 10, 2015, http://www.aacu.org/leap/liberal-education-nation-blog/implementing-abcd....

10. Ibid.

11. Wilson Peden, “Mapping a Path from Curriculum to Career: The Lynk Initiative at Mount Holyoke College,” AAC&U News, June 2014, http://www.aacu.org/campus-model/mapping-path-curriculum-career-lynk-ini....

12. See Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005).

13. “Independent Study,” The College of Wooster, accessed March 25, 2015, http://www.wooster.edu/academics/research/is.


Wilson Peden is senior writer and digital content editor at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and associate editor of Liberal Education.

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