Institutional Readiness for Signature Work

There is little doubt that the principles and practices of integrative liberal learning reflected in signature work can be of immense value in educating undergraduate students. As is noted in Budwig, Ratliff-Crain, and Reder’s article in this issue, the work of the LEAP Challenge: Engaging in Capstones and Signature Work consortium has shown that most students need substantial assistance in preparing for signature work, but students are not alone in that need. Every institution in the consortium has noted that there is a significant level of institutional readiness needed for the full value of signature work to reach all students at colleges and universities. As Ferren and Paris (2015) have noted, there is demonstrated need for faculty leadership to deliver on the promise of the LEAP Challenge (see, which called on campuses to guide students in significant signature work projects that are meaningful to the student and to the world. Participants in this project also learned quite a bit about what sorts of institutional capacity building need to take place for integrative liberal learning to occur. This article follows that line of work, looking at the professional and institutional development our consortium schools believe will enhance student signature work on their campuses. We look first at faculty development and then continue to examine other forms of campus leadership, as well as institutional structures and supports that have been created to enhance the chance for all students to succeed.

Professional Development for Signature Work

Faculty Development
The consortium schools have recognized that effective mentoring of signature work is likely to require faculty development, as supporting students in these self-authored, applied experiences requires a distinctly different set of skills from those associated with the traditional classroom. Faculty development programs help faculty gain a shared understanding of the definitions and requirements of the work and enable them to acquire skills to support students as they engage in signature projects, integrative learning, or capstones.

Consortium institutions have adopted two broad approaches to faculty development as it relates to signature work. Schools that included signature work as part of significant curricular reform tend to have more deliberate and comprehensive approaches to faculty programming. Elizabethtown College, for example, requires multiple signature learning experiences and has developed specific advising training to assist faculty in helping students choose the “purposeful life work” or “signature learning” (SL) experiences that are hallmarks of their new curriculum. In addition, the college has applied for grant funding to provide faculty development for courses that will include community-based learning or community-based research, as well as for interdisciplinary offerings which may fulfill the SL requirement. Similarly, as Clark University designed their curricular framework, Liberal Education and Effective Practice (LEEP), to include culminating capstones and signature/experiential projects, they recognized the need for significant professional development. Clark used existing structures and tools—digital resources, shared tools, and ongoing learning communities—to build capacity to mentor both types of experience. For instance, a faculty learning community—organized to work on redesigning capstone seminars to be more integrative—provided a forum for faculty from five disciplinary areas on campus to discuss and design culminating courses and to create artifacts and tools to help others design future culminating capstone courses. The use of existing structures to address faculty development needs is also apparent in Connecticut College’s scaling efforts. Having approved a new Connections curriculum, Connecticut College planned its annual three-day Camp Teach and Learn activities to include a variety of workshops and activities related to the new Connections pathways model. In 2016, the inaugural year of Connections, Camp Teach and Learn included topics like global engagement and citizenship, redesigned first-year seminars, and the creation of ConnCourses—all components of the newly approved curriculum.

A handful of participating institutions did not undergo significant curricular reform but were interested in ensuring that students experienced integrative, signature, or capstone learning in the context of existing campus offerings. At these institutions, efforts have been less centralized, and the emphasis has been on defining and optimizing learning experiences in specific domains. At Augustana College, for example, Senior Inquiry has become a general education requirement for all students. Faculty development has emphasized creating signature experiences that are well-defined and consistent across majors. As a result, the college has created a committee that will provide guidelines, review, and approval for signature courses. Similarly, Nebraska Wesleyan University has worked on fortifying its capstone experiences by ensuring that they conform to institutional definitions of signature work, but it is still refining its faculty development programming. At Bates College, signature learning occurs in a variety of settings, and the focus has been on optimization of thesis, capstone, community-engaged, or purposeful work experiences. As a result, faculty development has been decentralized and specific to different disciplines and majors. For example, some faculty learning has occurred in the context of existing department and program reviews, during which faculty read and evaluate thesis work according to goals and objectives developed by the unit. As part of a recent general education assessment, faculty also completed survey questions on dimensions of thesis performance for their seniors, providing additional feedback and faculty conversations on the thesis requirement. Selected capstone courses have also been evaluated and reviewed. For community-engaged work, Bates College's Harward Center for Community Partnerships has developed programming to assist entering faculty in developing community-based components for their courses. Similarly, for the college’s purposeful work and internship programs, faculty have worked with staff to develop infusion courses, in which career-related topics could be introduced to existing courses. The college is still considering integrative components such as eportfolios, structured reflection, or course-based assignments for these various experiences.

Beyond the Faculty
Many of the consortium schools have located signature work within the major as a capstone requirement and thus have focused professional development on faculty. Other schools have involved a wider group of mentors and have cultivated not only faculty leadership, but also the leadership of others in academic and student affairs. Sharing the responsibility for student learning requires a common vocabulary and collective understanding of the goals of signature work among both faculty and staff. For these reasons, some institutions have also created professional development mechanisms for staff involved with signature and capstone work.

The efforts at Connecticut College to bring faculty and staff together are examples of professional development that go beyond the faculty. First, the Joy Shechtman Mankoff Center for Teaching and Learning conducts a conversation series six to eight times each semester around emerging issues in teaching and learning. Over the past several years, the focus has been on the new Connections program. Connecticut College leaders indicate that in the past, the series was pitched for faculty with a focus on in-class innovation and learning pedagogy, but they also note that as their curricular framework encouraged more coordinated efforts of staff and faculty, the series has included both groups. Second, Connecticut College’s Camp Teach and Learn workshop, recently focused on elements of the Connections framework, bringing faculty and staff together to learn more about the redesigned first-year seminars, including team advising, 100-level ConnCourses, and the new pathways programs.

Clark University has another example of professional development that extends beyond faculty. As noted above, through grant funding for professional development, Clark has booted up a series of learning communities involving faculty to redesign the capstone experience in order to conform to new signature work and capstone requirements. A second learning community included both faculty and Clark’s LEEP Center staff (academic support services), and it focused on the development of resources for both project-based and experiential learning. For instance, the staff liaison from the study abroad program worked alongside a faculty member to develop a capstone course after students returned from study abroad experiences in Asia, and in another case, faculty in the learning community developed tools and resources around issues of community engagement. Over time, these development activities became part of the programming at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Clark, with faculty and LEEP Center staff sharing their learning and resources at the annual professional development day with faculty and staff from across campus.

Aligning Organizational Supports and Structures

Schools that already had capstone requirements in the major noted that they did not need any new advising or mentoring structures, though several schools noted a need to focus on issues of faculty workload and resources, especially as increasing numbers of students double major and take on more than one capstone project. Other schools have considered new ways for advising to take place, such as Connecticut College’s team approach to first-year advising that involves faculty and staff. Clark University also has developed a multi-tiered system of advising that involves both faculty and staff in co-advising roles. All students enroll in a first-year seminar called a “First-Year Intensive,” and the instructors typically act as the students’ faculty advisor until they declare their major, at which point students transfer to a faculty advisor from that major. In addition, all students have advisors in the LEEP Center, which provides not only student advising but also academic support services. Piloted in the 2017–18 academic year and launching to all students in 2018–19, students will have two required advising meetings with an advisor in the LEEP Center. Each student will be required to visit the LEEP Center for a “sophomore check-in” when they declare a major and “senior checkout” when they are cleared for graduation. Sophomore check-in is the advising point most relevant to Clark’s implementation of signature work, as students will be guided to think about how they might fulfill the LEEP Culminating Capstone, and they will work with their LEEP Center advisor to put a plan in place to ensure that they are sufficiently prepared to complete the capstone successfully. For senior checkout, students work with their LEEP Center advisor to confirm their LEEP Culminating Capstone plan and construct an actionable plan for after graduation.

New Organizational Structures and Oversight to Facilitate Quality Signature Work
As consortium schools focused on practices to develop the whole student, and as these schools engaged in practices that help students develop an understanding of complex problem-solving through tighter integration of the curricular and cocurricular experiences, new organizational mechanisms sprouted up on the various campuses to help guide this work. At least four methods for scaling have been noted across the universities and colleges in the consortium.

First, some schools have developed new committee structures or revised existing ones. For instance, Bates has a new Academic Affairs Council that is charged with not only academic oversight but also curricular planning and resources. Other schools, such as Augustana, have developed new oversight committees recognizing the need to go beyond departmental reviews. For instance, Augustana has developed a mechanism of joint jurisdiction whereby a faculty general education committee oversees the general education curriculum, while the Educational Policies Committee (EPC) oversees the design of majors, and together they consider Augustana’s capstone requirement of Senior Inquiry. Nebraska Wesleyan University has formed a Signature Work Initiative Task Force that provides the administrative structure for working with departments on further developing the capstones in concert with the priorities of the Signature Work Initiative. The task force consists of the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the associate provost for integrative and experiential learning, and representatives from each academic division; this allows connections to the divisional structure of consultative meetings.

A second method of ensuring oversight of the integrative learning that capstones and signature work require has been the decision at some schools to create new administrative positions. For instance, Elizabethtown has a modified academic affairs structure that now includes an assistant dean for academic achievement and engagement who oversees some of the signature learning experiences. Similarly, Nebraska Wesleyan has an associate provost for integrative and experiential learning.

A third method to facilitate the scaling of signature work has been the expansion of programming on campus that provides necessary infrastructure to facilitate quality experiences for students. Many campuses have built summer programs that allow for signature work. Some other examples include the expansion of career development through the Blue Jay Flight Path Career Program at Elizabethtown, which is designed to connect students with internship opportunities and mentoring. The mentoring will include fostering students’ intentionality around the selection of particular signature learning experiences. Elizabethtown also has reorganized some support offices like study abroad to expand opportunities. Connecticut College has used its interdisciplinary offices and centers as part of its Connections pathway program to provide added opportunities, as has Clark University through its various research centers where students can apply to be employed on or off campus in signature work opportunities both during the semester and over the summer. Similarly, Bates College’s new Purposeful Work program provides funded internship opportunities for students during the summer.

Finally, to enhance integrative liberal learning and support high-quality signature work, some institutions have developed totally new organizational structures. For example, four years ago, Clark reorganized its structure and created the LEEP Center by bringing together offices including academic advising, career services, community engagement, innovation and entrepreneurship, study abroad, and the writing center. The idea was that the staff in the existing offices would support LEEP implementation by providing a second layer of advising that complements traditional faculty academic advising by (1) helping students link together the curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular pieces of their undergraduate experience; (2) designing innovative programming to prepare students for the realities of their cocurricular and applied experiences; and (3) connecting students to people, opportunities, and organizations that might serve as mentors or catalysts for experience and support. While the LEEP Center has been working with students across these three areas through individual appointments and group programming, the center is taking steps to ensure that support for the LEEP Culminating Capstone and other key initiatives are scaled appropriately.

Challenges in Scaling Signature Work

Almost all of the schools noted that seed grants have played a role in early interest in aligning course work and signature experiences for students. While grants (whether internally or externally funded) have kick-started the work, two issues arose at many of the schools in the capstones and signature work project consortium. These issues include finding the time for mentoring student signature work and aligning reward structures with signature work.

One challenge that schools have regularly noted is the fact that capstone and signature work is labor intensive. The mentoring that goes into defining and developing signature projects can be quite demanding for the mentors and goes beyond typical class teaching loads. Schools that have had students working on individual signature projects have struggled with issues of staffing as this work is scaled. Because the mentoring takes significant time and is not evenly distributed, some schools are struggling to find enough mentors, and some mentors are concerned about keeping up with the intensity of the work that often goes beyond contractual obligations. Those schools that have been at this for longer periods of time have found it helpful to initiate programs that allow for groups of students to work together and/or to be part of larger mentoring programs, and they have found ways to build the oversight of signature work into normal faculty workloads.

A second challenge at many schools is the fact that rewards and processes are not always aligned with faculty and staff investments in signature and capstone work. Many schools note that although signature work is highly valued and central to the schools’ strategic plans, they struggle because the promotion, evaluation, and reward structures at these schools have not always revised evaluation criteria or found other ways to reward the efforts of those faculty and staff who engage in such work. The group has strongly encouraged implementing policies and procedures in ways that are a better match for the efforts faculty and others engage in related to signature work.



Ferren, Ann, and David Paris. 2015. Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Nancy Budwig, Professor of Psychology, Clark University; Senior Fellow, Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the
Global Commons, AAC&U; and Kathryn Low, Interim Dean of the Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Bates College

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