Peer Review

Creating Intentional Pathways: The STIRS Institutional Phase

The second phase of AAC&U’s Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS) initiative, known as the Institutional Phase, was launched in 2015 as the next step in advancing the original STIRS program. Both phases of the initiative have the ultimate goal of drawing “national attention to evidence-based reasoning and decision-making as critical, multifaceted, cross-cutting capacities to be practiced by all undergraduate students in all degree programs” (Hovland and Riegelman 2012). In the Institutional Phase, AAC&U seeks to scale-up case study assignments to facilitate complete curricular reform that incorporates intentional, scaffolded curricula and utilizes evidence-based reasoning at every level of learning, culminating in student signature work.

Five STIRS Fellows were selected from four national institutions to pilot this curricular revision. As a team, they began sharing resources that would inform the curricular work at each institution. The four institutions represented by this cohort include Mercer University, Middlesex Community College, Oregon Institute of Technology, and the University of North Dakota. These STIRS Fellows met originally in July 2015 at the AAC&U Summer Institute on Integrative Learning and the Departments, and they have since continued to share ideas and resources as part of their work.

Project Descriptions

A key component of the fellows’ work at their home institutions has been creating cohorts of faculty and administrators to review and implement the reform suggestions provided by the fellows themselves. In each instance, the goal has been to create curricular components that can be piloted or enacted within the 2016–2017 academic year. As expected, the work has proceeded in different ways at each institution. Following are brief descriptions of the projects, recommendations, and actionable items that have taken shape for each STIRS Fellow.

Mercer University: Pathways to Signature Work for Nontraditional Students
Mercer University’s Penfield College offers undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree programs designed to serve a nontraditional—adult-learner and transfer—student population. Because Mercer designed Penfield specifically to serve traditionally underrepresented students, the college’s undergraduate program is uniquely poised within the larger institution to adopt the STIRS framework in a way that serves what is now being recognized as the new student majority in the United States.

With a vertically integrated curricular structure in place for its general education courses and most of its majors, Penfield viewed the STIRS framework as an opportunity to articulate existing pathways that would enhance students’ capacities for producing signature work in their capstone courses. Two majors, Liberal Studies and Informatics, were selected to pilot the STIRS framework to enhance their students’ capacities to produce signature work that clearly integrates general education outcomes with competencies specific to their majors.

By design, both the Liberal Studies and Informatics programs have vertically integrated core courses, including capstones, that students cannot transfer into the majors. However, both majors have been considering ways to improve the quality of work produced in the capstones by reinforcing the connections—in terms of both interdisciplinary and disciplinary-specific competencies—between courses leading up to the capstones. In the 2015–2016 academic year, the Liberal Studies and Informatics departments formed a joint cohort to adapt the STIRS framework to their majors. The anticipation was that by scaffolding core courses in terms of a STIRS-inspired benchmark-milestone-capstone series designed around specific capacities and assignments, the departments could establish clearer pathways toward the capstone experience within their existing curricular structures.

In spring 2016, the cohort defined the capacities within each discipline that signature work should promote and then utilized the STIRS focus on evidence-based reasoning as the common thread for scaffolding competencies from benchmark to milestone to capstone within the core course series. After aligning capacities for evidenced-based reasoning with each tier of courses in the series, the cohort determined that a peer review of assignments would be conducted over the summer to establish what type of assignment frameworks would be best suited for achieving these capacities in an intentionally scaffolded way. The cohort anticipates piloting these freshly articulated pathways in the 2016–2017 school year by being intentional with advising students to take courses in the appropriate sequence and by implementing the evidenced-based, peer-reviewed, and scaffolded assignment frameworks identified in 2015–2016. By embedding rubrics and assignments in the Digication eportfolio system, the cohort will continually track and assess the degree of success of these efforts.

Middlesex Community College: Creating an Integrated, Outcomes-Based Curriculum through Scaffolded Signature Work
Middlesex Community College (MCC) is a comprehensive community college located northwest of Boston, Massachusetts. In 2010, Middlesex began work to provide a more scaffolded, integrative general education curriculum, revising it to more directly support student achievement of MCC’s six Institutional Student Learning Outcomes (ISLOs). After much deliberation, the college moved from a distribution, input-based model of infusing content into designated courses to an integrative, outcomes-based model in which students’ competency with ISLOs is intentionally developed and assessed throughout the general education curriculum.

Complementing this work, MCC maintains a constant focus on the vertical alignment of its curricula and learning outcomes with transfer partners. They have collaborated extensively with the University of Massachusetts Lowell for this purpose. Faculty from both institutions have used backwards design from baccalaureate degree disciplinary expectations to develop signature assignments that reflect students’ increasing fluency with complex, contextualized essential learning outcomes. In each case, baccalaureate expectations have included students’ ability to apply evidence-based problem-solving approaches to frame problems in the field, generate evidence-based strategies for addressing these problems, and evaluate possible outcomes. This collaborative work between the community college and university has helped to facilitate students’ scaffolded development of those skills as they progress towards capstone work in the degree, represented by their signature work in “cornerstone” and “connector” courses typically taken by students in their first and sophomore years.

The STIRS initiative provides a framework for the college to continue improving the capacity of undergraduate students in all fields of study to use evidence to solve problems and make decisions. Contextualized to MCC’s Liberal Arts and Sciences Psychology Concentration, the project goal is to create a coherent, integrated curriculum culminating in a capstone experience that will serve as a model for other liberal arts and sciences concentrations. The project aligns tightly with the psychology concentration’s primary student learning outcome, “Students will move from relying on ‘common sense’ or biased patterns of thought to an ability to ‘make sense’ of observations, problem-solving to effectively use the scientific method and critical-thinking approaches for these same purposes,” developed in alignment with the American Psychological Association Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. In addition, the project supports the Massachusetts Academic Transfer Pathways Project that is improving system-wide agreement about students’ learning and disciplinary competencies as they navigate from community colleges to baccalaureate institutions.

As part of this project, behavioral sciences faculty are developing a library of peer-reviewed “cornerstone” and “connector” (milestone) assignments designed to generate students’ signature work at scaffolded levels of complexity before progressing to capstone work at the baccalaureate level. In the fall of 2015, faculty used backward design to create signature assignments in five courses in order to build competency with contextualized essential learning outcomes. Outcomes were introduced in Introduction to Psychology and Introduction to Sociology; reinforced in Child Psychology and Abnormal Psychology; and mastered in Research Methods in Behavioral Science, the associate degree capstone course for the program. Faculty members piloted the assignments in the spring of 2016 and assessed the work using a locally developed rubric based on LEAP Value Rubrics including Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Quantitative Literacy to determine the degree to which students’ ability to use evidence to solve problems and make decisions increased in complexity during progress towards the associate degree. Results of the pilot indicate that students are developing increasing competency from introductory courses, preparing them to transfer into the capstone course. In 2016–2017, work will continue using the college’s assignment design to include additional courses and faculty.

Longer-term goals include scaling this work to other programs, beginning with those that also offer significant numbers of general education courses, in order to affect the greatest number of students as quickly as possible. The STIRS focus on scientific thinking and integrative reasoning skills is a representation of MCC’s Critical-Thinking and Problem-Solving ISLO, and as such is relevant within and across general education and all disciplinary programs.

Oregon Institute of Technology: Inquiry & Analysis as a Vertically Integrated General Education Pathway
Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) is a small public polytechnic university focusing on undergraduate education in engineering, health technologies, management, and applied sciences at multiple campuses across the state of Oregon and online. In 2013, the university began a comprehensive review of its general education program with the aim of bringing its rationale into clear alignment with institutional goals.

A central component of this effort was the revision of Oregon Tech’s university-wide student learning outcomes; six outcomes were identified and given definition by faculty teams: communication; ethical reasoning; quantitative literacy; teamwork; diverse perspectives; and, most germane to the STIRS effort, inquiry and analysis. AAC&U VALUE Rubrics played a significant role in the work of defining and developing rubrics for each outcome. The revised model for general education, now termed “Essential Studies,” was structured around these six learning outcomes. Each outcome forms a developmental pathway from the foundational level—through practice both within and outside the major—and ultimately to capstone-level work that integrates all learning outcomes.

The pathway associated with the Inquiry & Analysis outcome exemplifies this vertically integrated model. At the foundational level—in courses with no university-level prerequisites—students will be required to complete courses tagged as Inquiry & Analysis in the humanities, in the social sciences, and in the natural sciences. While this superficially resembles a traditional “distribution” model, in order to be listed as an Inquiry & Analysis course, a class must require students to engage in several of the elements of inquiry and evidence-based reasoning. For instance, in a foundational natural science inquiry course, students may not yet be prepared to pose their own questions and conduct their own analysis, but they might be involved in experimental design; in a foundational humanities class, students might advance their own thesis and provide supporting evidence, but their methods might not be fully grounded in the theoretical frameworks of their discipline.

At the intermediate (practicing) level—courses for which a foundational inquiry course is prerequisite—students will be required to deepen their skills in inquiry as scaffolding around the inquiry process is removed. This will occur both in courses from outside the major, selected as electives by students (providing opportunities for student-directed “pathways” in general education), and in courses within the major discipline that are identified by each program.

As a capstone to the Essential Studies program, the junior-level Essential Studies Synthesis Experience, a new concept for Oregon Tech, will provide an opportunity within the curriculum for students to apply all six learning outcomes and work in teams to tackle interdisciplinary questions and problems.

A faculty team is currently working to identify how existing university activities (such as international programs, service learning, and undergraduate research) and new types of activities can be adapted to meet this need. Faculty anticipate this program will also enhance students’ readiness for tackling inquiry in their major within the traditional disciplinary capstone taken in their senior year.

To build common understanding of all learning outcomes, faculty workshops, beginning in 2015 and led by faculty participants in the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment, have included “norming” exercises evaluating and discussing Oregon Tech student work using AAC&U VALUE Rubrics. Additionally, over the course of the past two academic years, faculty across all programs have participated in multiple exercises to map their curricula to the institutional learning outcomes. These activities have helped prepare faculty for the work that is currently starting in earnest—submitting courses for “tagging” as supporting a learning outcome. Through the tagging process, faculty and departments are identifying the types of assignments that satisfy an outcome’s general criteria in their specific courses—information that will facilitate later work in assessment and iterative improvement.

Oregon Tech’s faculty development committee will be working over the coming academic year with the teams for each learning outcome to assist faculty with the revision of existing courses or the development of new courses, as needed—for example, helping faculty integrate inquiry-based teaching approaches in laboratory classes—through a continuing series of workshops that include sharing best practices and discussing student work.

Finally, as part of this process, academic leaders at Oregon Tech came to view the interrelationship of our assessment, faculty development, and general education efforts as key to the ultimate success of this general education reform. As a result, Oregon Tech has restructured the university committees involved in these three areas to enhance communication between them and the learning outcome committees as the university moves towards full implementation of the new Essential Studies model slated for the fall of 2017.

University of North Dakota: Integrated Studies Pathway
Seeking to overhaul an existing Interdisciplinary Studies major within the College of Arts & Sciences, fellows from University of North Dakota (UND) proposed reshaping the major by utilizing an existing well-established and very successful first-year learning community called the Integrated Studies Program as an entry point to an interdisciplinary studies major for first-year students. UND’s general education program, Essential Studies (ES), already contained a mandatory capstone requirement, and thus two key components—situated at the beginning and end of an interdisciplinary degree program and both involving aspects of general education—were already in place.

Because of these existing curricular pieces, it was relatively straightforward to imagine how the structure and lens of STIRS, with its emphasis on evidence-based reasoning, scaffolded learning practices, and culminating signature work, could provide an excellent framework for an interdisciplinary major serving first-year students. The newly revised major now combines the Integrated Studies first-year program with intentionally crafted upper-level courses that emphasize how knowledge and evidence are acquired and acted upon within the disciplines. In addition, a new capstone course was created that capitalizes on the interdisciplinary experiences of students in the program, asking them to find common ground to address a topic of interest or concern and present their findings in both an oral presentation and a coauthored paper.

An important consideration that emerged through this work was the need for an entry point into the Interdisciplinary Studies curriculum for non-first-year and transfer students. By taking account of this need, an unanticipated—but we believe very fortuitous—outcome has emerged: a mechanism to address the needs of undeclared students who have reached junior status without a major or focus of study, and thus who find themselves at risk for a delayed graduation, or in some cases, no degree attainment at all. And through anecdotal information from academic advisors, those students in this group can often finish with a four-year degree that has little coherence or meaning. The new STIRS-based courses created for this major will provide students in upper-level classes with a way to make sense of their learning and will encourage them to engage in intentional academic inquiry that emphasizes evidence-based reasoning and integration of knowledge. Using existing faculty from the Integrated Studies Program, this newly crafted Interdisciplinary Studies major is currently being piloted for first-year students as well as students in the upper-level classes.

Reflecting on Common Features

While the shape of fellows’ individual projects addressed the needs and strengths of their particular institutions, similarities exist and include a cornerstone/capstone structure, deliberately connected through courses or assignments focused on evidence-based reasoning, which include the scaffolding necessary for students to successfully progress through increasing levels of sophistication to a degree that meaningfully incorporates the general education program. That these common features exist across varied programs and institutions may suggest a potential for generalizability, and certainly one goal of this article is to help faculty and administrators see ways in which they can use the STIRS framework to benefit their students.

Of course, some may want to have a sense of how well the projects described here are working before making changes of their own. To help with that, the STIRS Fellows intend to develop—using the AAC&U VALUE rubrics—a tool that can be used to assess student work relative to evidence-based reasoning. Other ways to measure the success of fellows’ projects could include the number of students enrolled in the programs described above, information related to degree progression and completion, transfer readiness, and/or student engagement measures such as the NSSE. Although specifics will vary by fellow, another point of consistency is the need for mechanisms to assess each project’s success. Given that implementation is only now occurring, some of these metrics are not yet available. Continued work at each fellow’s institution will ultimately provide these necessary assessment results.

As a final point about consistency, it is worth noting that across the two STIRS phases a consistently diverse group of faculty have been interested in the project. The humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines are well represented in this group. And in each case there is a focus on developing mechanisms to help students become more adept at understanding and using evidence to reason, to pose and solve problems, and to make decisions. For these faculty members, there seems to be a shared sense of the importance of educating our students to become better “consumers” of evidence—a goal clearly consistent with any world-class liberal education.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2016. VALUE Rubric Development Project.

Riegelman, Richard K., and Kevin Hovland. 2012. “Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS): Essential Outcomes for Medical Education and for Liberal Education.” Peer Review 14 (4): 10.

Seth Anthony, assistant professor of chemistry, Oregon Institute of Technology; Wesley Barker, assistant professor of religious studies, Mercer University; Tami Carmichael, professor of humanities and integrated studies, University of North Dakota; Catherine Pride, associate professor of psychology, Middlesex Community College (MA); and Ryan J. Zerr, director of essential studies and professor of mathematics, University of North Dakota

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