Peer Review

Integrative Learning in the First-Year Program

In 1998, Wagner College launched the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts, which encompasses multiple successive learning communities (LC). The first-year and senior LCs feature an experiential learning component and a reflective tutorial. At the heart of the first-year experience is an interdisciplinary and themed set of three courses taught by two full-time faculty in different disciplines. A cohort of twenty-four to twenty-eight students take two content classes, each taught by one of the two faculty, and a reflective tutorial (RFT) where the focus is on writing, critical reflection, and experiential learning. This introduction to the processes of liberal learning aims to connect foundation skills, inquiry, and experience beyond Wagner.

Addressing New Challenges and Opportunities

Despite the success of this plan, three converging circumstances led to a strong desire to extend the best elements of the first-year program (FYP) into the second semester of the first year. These issues include a strong commitment to promoting the overall well-being of students and faculty. First, the literature indicates that a focus on supporting development of the whole person, including social and emotional well-being, is critical, both to maintain retention and to ensure that students graduate feeling confident and fulfilled. Secondly, engagement with the community has grown increasingly important since the formation of the Port Richmond Partnership in 2009. This partnership, with its four aligned and distinctive initiatives—health, immigration, education, and economic development—has resulted in a variety of collaborative projects that have deepened student learning and contributed significantly to community betterment. Lastly, a freeze in faculty hiring has reduced the number of full-time faculty who usually serve in the FYP, spurring interest in creating alternative opportunities for faculty to mentor incoming students in the areas of expository writing, close reading, critical thinking, and community engagement.

The Wagner Plan has remained successful and engaging over time because the Learning Community Committee meetings and annual retreats have been inclusive of all important personnel (faculty, campus life, academic advisement, and administrators) and have been spearheaded by strong connected leadership within the faculty and across the campus. Under the Wagner Plan, the idea has been constantly reinforced that faculty need to feel ownership of the program and be empowered to develop strategies for change. Thus, to ensure that both faculty and administrative staff were an integral part of the process to consider strengthening and extending the FYP, the faculty members in the FYP Review Committee conceived a Wagner Plan Summit.

Working Together to Extend Integrative Learning

The goal of the summit was to develop and implement a pilot program for the second semester and was open to all. Interested participants were asked to complete an application that included two questions: (1) What aspects of the FYP should be extended into the second semester? (2) Without considering logistical implications, what would you like the FYP to look like in the second semester?

The core leadership group consisted of ten faculty members, four administrators, and one representative from various campus life offices. Those chosen to participate in the summit shared a commitment to the FYP and the Wagner Plan and were also concerned that many of its goals could not be sustained without further expansion and enrichment.

Discussion led to these agreed-upon student learning outcomes:

  • Reinforce skills of writing, information literacy, research;
  • Reinforce social cohesion and connection;
  • Explore spectrum of disciplines/relation to possible majors;
  • Reinforce skills and knowledge of internationalization/diversity/interdisciplinary exposure;
  • Develop the whole student (personal, professional, interpersonal and life skills);
  • Articulate the value of a liberal arts education; and
  • Enhance experiential learning.

Participants shared and discussed several proposals, and two proposals were selected for pilot testing in spring 2014. One approach was based on modifying two or three existing courses reserved for first-year students to include additional components, including programs from campus life offices, academic–cultural lectures, and structured writing assignments addressing critical thinking and research.

The second proposed approach built on the team-taught spring semester learning community by creating an integrative opportunity in the second year. Sophomore year students will take a one-unit practicum, supervised by campus life and civic engagement administrators, incorporating experiential learning and emphasizing theory and practice.

For both of these proposals, plans were developed to create a lab for all participating students, that will meet one hour per week, and will be instructed/facilitated by staff from the Center for Academic and Career Engagement (CACE). Summit participants identified a variety of topics students should address including professional/career development, diversity/intercultural competence, health and well-being, leadership, civic engagement, the arts, and the New York City experience.

These two approaches share the goal of deepening and extending the learning that had already occurred in the areas of reading, writing, critical thinking, research, and civic engagement in the FYP. In addition, this extension intentionally connects personal, social, and intellectual development by addressing topics about student well-being and healthier adjustment to Wagner’s academic culture and by providing students with strategies for applying classroom learning to real-world community problems.

Collaborative Faculty and Campus

A decade ago, faculty, administration, and staff created Wagner’s FYP through shared governance, and in the ensuing years they sustained it through a structure that brings stakeholders together regularly to plan and assess the program. The leadership structure within the Learning Communities has brought forth a general expectation of involvement with great potential for results. This natural leadership has grown accustomed to being productive and influential across the curriculum and campus.

More than ten years later we looked to reinvigorate the FYP through collaboration among a committed group of faculty and staff. We believe our recent redesign is working well because it grew out of integrative communication and collaborative strategies. Faculty at Wagner can and do promote change. As we think about liberal education for the future, the deeper integration of engagement with communities raises important questions about the knowledge, skills, and capacities needed by all to respond to pressing needs. An enriched Wagner Plan offers an opportunity to explore how educational innovation can integrate academic, cocurricular, and community learning.

Patricia Tooker is the dean for integrated learning; Nick Richardson is an associate professor of chemistry; Stephen Preskill is a professor of civic engagement and leadership; John Esser is the department chair of sociology—all of Wagner College

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