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Defining and Framing Signature Work on Your Campus
In 2015, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched its second century as a higher education leadership organization with the introduction of the LEAP Challenge initiative, which provides a vision for liberal education in the twenty-first century, arguing that institutions of higher education must prepare students to engage a world rife with complex “unscripted problems” (e.g., climate change, global migration, political polarization). The most pressing issues of our day, AAC&U points out, cannot be adequately approached solely with focused disciplinary techniques. Rather, the new generation of citizens who will address these problems must be equipped to understand the breadth of contributing factors (e.g., social, scientific, economic, technological, cultural) and be prepared to integrate these perspectives to arrive at creative solutions to significant problems. The LEAP Challenge proposes that all students, throughout their college years, should develop and practice such complex and important work, which AAC&U refers to as signature work.
The parameters of the LEAP Challenge, including a preliminary definition of signature work and a charge that it should be required for all students, were communicated in a special issue of Liberal Education (Tritelli 2015). A signature work project or experience should be substantial and broad, and “reflect and demonstrate cumulative and integrative learning across general and specialized studies” (Schneider 2015, 6). While the work connects with a pressing issue in the larger world, it is described as “signature” because it should correspond to each student’s interests and expertise. “In signature work, each student addresses one or more problems that matter—both to the individual student and to society as a whole” (AAC&U 2015, 18). In addition to the goal of producing thinkers prepared to engage modern challenges, making signature work accessible to all students is also an issue of equity. While some of our college students already engage in rich scholarly work that resonates with the signature work construct, the majority do not (Schneider 2015). Access to signature learning experiences is uneven, as first-generation students, underrepresented students of color, and economically challenged students are much less likely to complete high-impact educational projects (Finley and McNair 2013).
Developing Institutional Definitions of Signature Work
While it is difficult to find fault in the idea that students should produce meaningful integrative work, there is also an inherent tension between the generality of the LEAP Challenge’s charge (calling for all students to experience signature work) and the layers of specificity involved in implementing it (signature work projects must be facilitated by institutions with distinctive missions, and each student’s signature work project should be unique). This tension is apparent in AAC&U’s own literature, as signature work is described not only as “the expected standard of quality learning in college” (AAC&U 2015, 16) that “ought to become a degree qualification requirement” (Schneider 2015, 8), but also as an entity that will inevitably “take on many forms” (Peden 2015, 22).
Through AAC&U’s project, LEAP Challenge: Engaging in Capstones and Signature Work, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, a consortium of institutions were invited by AAC&U to respond to the LEAP Challenge. One of our first activities has been to actively resolve this tension by facilitating signature work in ways that are appropriate and feasible for our individual institutions and our students.
The first step in this process involved crafting definitions of what signature work would mean on our own campuses. Of course, no institutional definition should stray too far from AAC&U’s vision; doing so would render “signature work for all” as a meaningless national goal. Peden (2015) provides useful guidelines indicating elements that should be common even as institutions adapt the concepts to their own settings. He argues that signature work projects must align with three criteria:
- Students must have some agency in identifying the nature of their project.
- Projects must be integrative, drawing on multiple components of the student’s education.
- Student projects “must address ‘big problems’—students should apply their learning to real-world issues that matter to society and to the student” (22).
Schneider (2015) suggests that high-impact educational practices, while not equating to signature work, do provide productive launching points from which students and their mentors will be able to craft signature projects aligned to Peden’s criteria. Indeed, our institutions have found that high-impact practices (HIPs) have become useful starting points in framing our definitions of the broader concept of signature work. (For more information on high-impact practices, see Kuh 2008; Eynon and Gambino 2017.)
The Capstone’s Relationship to Signature Work
While the teaching practices and learning experiences known as HIPs are not the same as signature work, one HIP, the senior capstone, clearly has a large degree of overlap with signature work. By definition, a capstone project will be integrative in nature. Well-designed capstone experiences also have the potential to be driven by student interests, to be applied to real-world issues, and to integrate knowledge beyond the student’s major to include interdisciplinary concepts explored through general education, academic minors, internships, cocurricular learning opportunities, and other sources. Most institutions in our cohort have chosen to frame signature work in relation to senior capstone programs, though we will outline exceptions to this solution.
Our shared participation in the LEAP Challenge consortium provided the impetus for institutions to reexamine or redefine existing senior capstone programs. Bates College, for example, has a long history of facilitating capstone projects that are meaningful to the students and important to the field of study and/or to the larger society. Bates facilitates such projects for most of their students, reporting that nearly all of the graduating class completes a senior thesis. While Bates has a highly developed capstone program, they also report that collaborating with AAC&U and other institutions on the concept of signature work has pushed them to consider ways to strengthen and optimize student experiences with senior theses and capstones, and at other points in students’ time at Bates. Through interinstitutional collaboration, Bates expects to learn more about the specific elements that make signature projects compelling and explore strategies for students to integrate and reflect on such experiences over their college careers.
While participation in the LEAP Challenge project was one motivator driving partner institutions to reexamine senior capstones, curricular change processes on campuses were another force that led institutions to align their existing capstones more closely with the precepts of signature work. Over the last five years, Nebraska Wesleyan University has worked to reimagine its entire curriculum as it strives to coherently integrate learning—both inside and outside the major—across each student’s four-year experience. The senior capstone is an integral and culminating part of that effort. Informed by the signature work construct, Nebraska Wesleyan’s faculty approved the following guidelines for senior capstone projects in 2017:
In every capstone course, students will be required to
- synthesize and integrate cumulative knowledge;
- apply learning and create new knowledge;
- work independently, bringing their own ideas to their work;
- present the results of the capstone work to an audience;
- meet rigorous professional and disciplinary standards;
- reflect on their own development.
Like Nebraska Wesleyan, Augustana College is also restructuring its curriculum as its campus transitions from a trimester calendar to a semester calendar. One significant change has involved redefining Augustana’s capstone program, called Senior Inquiry, and sharpening its alignment to signature work. Augustana’s existing guidelines for the Senior Inquiry projects are well-aligned to Peden’s (2015) criteria for signature work, but the forthcoming curricular changes have enabled this campus to make the alignment more explicit. In 2017, Augustana’s faculty approved the updated guidelines shared below. The earlier guidelines (shown in plain type) remain the foundation of Augustana’s definition of signature work, but those earlier guidelines have been clarified with language borrowed from AAC&U (shown in italics).
- The Senior Inquiry project is substantial in meaning and impact. The project should be meaningful to the student in that the student identifies the question/topic independently or in collaboration with the instructor. The student will communicate why the project is meaningful and impactful via a reflective component.
- The Senior Inquiry project is communicative of the discoveries made in the project. It includes substantial writing and/or visible results.
- The project is reflective of one or more of (a) the nature of knowledge and inquiry; (b) self-awareness and connection with others; (c) the relationship of individuals to a community. This will be demonstrated through appropriate forms of reflection on learning.
- The project integrates various elements of the student’s education, with specific emphasis (i.e., two or more areas) of the general education curriculum. The project results in a permanent record.
Enhancing Preparation for a Signature Capstone
Students at Clark University and Connecticut College generate their signature work through capstones as well, and these institutions also consider curricular scaffolds that prepare students for the senior capstone to be integral pieces of the culminating work. In expressing how signature work is defined on their campuses, these institutions emphasize that the holistic curriculum supports students as they identify questions of personal and societal significance, integrate knowledge while investigating these questions, and communicate their learning via both incremental and culminating projects.
Clark recognizes that students’ ability to produce original and meaningful work must be intentionally developed over time, hence their campus aspires for its students to demonstrate the capacity to generate and successfully apply knowledge in increasingly complex organizational, social, and civic contexts. First- and second-year students at Clark develop foundational skills through general education courses and introductory courses in the major. Upper-level students take a Problems of Practice (PoP) course that provides a transition from their earlier work in a given field to their senior capstone, where they will be expected to apply their knowledge and make a specialized, signature contribution to the field and/or beyond. PoP courses are often project-based experiences in which students work as a team for an extended period. Led by a faculty member, students in this course investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge. PoP students also engage with an extended network of collaborators who might include peers (as peer learning assistants), graduate students, and experts from beyond the campus. The PoP experience, which requires students to delve into a specific problem or emergent issue, is immersive, exposes the productive tension between theory and practice, and has proven to be risky and messy because PoP projects generally do not yield tidy solutions by the end of the term. These courses do not examine methods in a vacuum, but instead put methods into contextually appropriate practice. The PoP experience necessitates reflection on self, the field, and the development of one’s identity. These intermediate-level courses allow students to develop a “feel for the game,” and by modeling independent and collaborative work, PoP experiences prepare students to flourish later when engaging with their culminating senior capstone.
Connecticut College recently created its new Connections curriculum, which asks students to integrate their overall academic experience, including their general education courses and their majors, over the course of four years (see Budwig and Low and Hayden-Roy et al. in this issue of Peer Review for more information). Within Connections, each student chooses an Integrative Pathway in which everyone tells the story of his or her liberal arts education within a broad intellectual framework. The Connections curriculum takes the most impactful components of the college’s long-standing (and optional) interdisciplinary centers’ certificate programs, typically completed by only 15 percent of students, and requires those integrative experiences of all students (see https://www.conncoll.edu/academic-centers; https://www.conncoll.edu/connections/integrative-pathways). Every pathway is organized around a central theme; that theme helps students frame an individualized “animating question” that provides a focus for their work.
Each Integrative Pathway consists of four principal components:
- Thematic Inquiry: Every student must take a designated course that presents the theme and provides an overview of the pathway.
- Curricular Itinerary: These three courses, taken in a variety of departments and disciplines, allow students to explore the theme of the pathway in light of their animating questions.
- Global/Local Engagement: Each pathway requires students to pursue purposeful engagement in a local or international context, such as study away, an internship, or community-based learning.
- Senior Reflection: Each pathway provides an opportunity during the fall of senior year for students to reflect on the different elements of their pathway, in the context of their overall undergraduate experience. This component is connected to an all-college symposium, at which students will share their responses to their animating questions with the wider college community.
These pathways are the main mechanism through which Connecticut College students are asked to integrate their work and create a final, signature project. Integrative Pathway themes that have been approved by the faculty include Bodies/Embodiment; Cities and Schools; Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation, Value, and Change; Eye of the Mind: Interrogating the Liberal Arts; Global Capitalism; Peace and Conflict; Power/Knowledge; Public Health; and Social Justice and Sustainability: Developing Resilient Communities Locally and Globally. Other pathways still under development include “Identity” and “Global New London.” The entire Connections curriculum is framed under the umbrella of “full participation,” a campus culture that “enable[s] people—whatever their identities, backgrounds, or institutional positions—to enter, thrive, realize their capabilities, engage meaningfully in institutional life, and enable others to do the same” (Sturm et al. 2011).
Facilitating Signature Work through High-Impact Practices
Senior capstones are not the only HIP that can be harnessed to facilitate signature work. Elizabethtown College’s Signature Learning Experiences (SLE) program, instituted in fall 2013, requires all students to choose and complete at least two experiences from among five categories: (1) internship/practicum/field placement; (2) research under a faculty mentor; (3) capstone experience, project, or developmental portfolio; (4) cross-cultural experience; and (5) community-based learning. Through these experiences, which occur in the curriculum, the cocurriculum, and the SLE program, a student is mentored by faculty instructors and guided by academic advisors who have been trained to ask “big,” developmentally appropriate questions. With this help, the student chooses and completes a body of work that the school’s website states is “as unique as your own signature.” In some cases, particular SLEs are built into departmental curricula, so choice refers not only to the specific categories of SLEs but also to the nature of the specific SLE work (e.g., the topic of undergraduate research or the site of a study abroad semester).
While other institutions in our cohort view the senior capstone as the clearest example of a signature work program reaching all students, most institutions also highlighted how additional HIPs scaffold, support, or complement the capstone. Nebraska Wesleyan uses eportfolios as tools that help foster the integrative goal of their capstone program. Augustana’s Senior Inquiry capstone program includes a faculty-directed or assisted research project. Some form of real-world engagement (be it through study away, community learning, community-based learning, or internships) is included in both Clark University’s and Connecticut College’s programs designed to prepare students for a culminating capstone. Hence, while the pedagogical practices recognized as high impact are not synonymous with signature work, our cohort of institutions has found that the provision of HIPs for our students is a necessary component of facilitating their signature work.
Enhanced Understanding of Signature Work’s Meaning, Importance, and Associated Challenges
Our collective effort in defining signature work on our campuses enables us to share a more nuanced vision of how this construct might be defined and how it might play out in practice. As we examined institutional definitions and understandings of signature work, common descriptors emerged. These terms include transformative, high impact, culminating, integrative, applied, self-directed, independent, and substantive. As evident from the institutional definitions and constructs cited in this article, signature work results in tangible outcomes, typically with students’ communication of a final product and clear demonstration of higher-order thinking on Bloom’s taxonomy. Most institutions highlight that the final product is reflective of a student's understanding of modes of inquiry and the construction of knowledge, and some institutions, through careful advising and/or mentoring, also promote a student's reflection on the meaning of their signature work in relation to self, others, and communities.
Defining signature work, of course, is much easier than ensuring that each of our students completes such work during their college years. Preparing students and faculty to meet the spirit of the LEAP Challenge is certainly a daunting task, but it is well worth pursuing. The claim that signature work experiences can effectively prepare our graduates for unscripted and multifarious twenty-first-century problems is not unreasonable. Our institutions have found that HIPs are indispensable vehicles for facilitating signature work. The present reality in the United States is that traditionally underserved students are much less likely than their more affluent peers to experience HIPs, even though it has been found that underserved students actually reap greater educational benefits when they are engaged with HIPs (Kuh 2008). Signature work promises to enhance these benefits even more, prompting students to reflect on the meaning of these rich learning experiences as they integrate and apply their learning toward significant problems facing local, national, and/or international communities. We join AAC&U in challenging higher education institutions to ensure that all students have the opportunity to produce signature work.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2015. “The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems.” Liberal Education 101 (1/2): 16–21.
Eynon, Brett, and Laura M. Gambino. 2017. High-Impact ePortfolio Practice: A Catalyst for Student, Faculty, and Institutional Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Peden, Wilson. 2015. “Signature Work: A Survey of Current Practices.” Liberal Education 101 (1/2): 22–29.
Schneider, Carol Geary. 2015. “The LEAP Challenge: Transforming for Students, Essential for Liberal Education.” Liberal Education 101 (1/2): 6–15.
Sturm, Susan, Tim Eatman, John Saltmarsh, and Adam Bush. 2011. Full Participation: Building the Architecture for Diversity and Public Engagement in Higher Education. New York: Center for Institutional and Social Change, Columbia University.
Tritelli, David, ed. 2015. “The LEAP Challenge.” Special issue, Liberal Education 101 (1/2).
Mike Egan, Associate Professor, Education, Augustana College; Kristi Kneas, Dean for Academic Affairs and Faculty Development, Elizabethtown College; and Michael Reder, Director, Joy Shechtman Mankoff Center for Teaching and Learning, Connecticut College