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Assessing Early Integrative Learning
In fall 2003, the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University implemented a revised core curriculum that created a more collaborative learning environment, one built on a foundational course: Core Seminar (COS), The Idea of the Human. This course introduces students early in their academic careers to the methodology of open-ended inquiry in pursuing questions and answers that transcend any particular department or discipline. It not only makes liberal learning a shared activity for students, but also provides faculty with unique interdisciplinary development opportunities and an engaging teaching laboratory. This article traces how AAC&U’s integrative learning rubric in particular has helped the campus navigate the intricacies of involving faculty in assessing experiential learning effectively in the larger context of understanding how students think. The course provides faculty an opportunity to shape assignments and design assessments through a portfolio review process. Students also use the integrative learning rubric to frame their own final self-reflection essay.
The mission of this campus is, in part, to “open the doors of the city and the world to men and women of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who wish to achieve the satisfaction of the educated life and to serve the public good.” The Long Island University student body is 71 percent female and 20 percent male and composed of 39 percent black, 27 percent white, 22 percent Asian and Pacific Island, and 14 percent Latina/o students. One of its greatest strengths is the diversity of its students and faculty, mostly residents of surrounding urban communities. Our core curriculum builds on the multiplicity of languages and cultures students bring with them. It situates them in the context of a unique metropolitan area, one that mirrors their breadth with exceptional cultural resources. The core curriculum review and redesign process has helped contextualize general education by using the city itself as a primary laboratory for learning and for fuller student development.
The second of three required writing-intensive courses, COS falls between first-year English and a departmentally designated writing/research course in the major. Its objectives include writing with clarity, information literacy, critical analysis, posing new questions, and understanding process. Above all, it aims to provoke students to see themselves in relationship to others and to the world. At the heart of this course is a challenge: to think differently about familiar topics, and to think deeply about unfamiliar, even uncomfortable ones. The course reader provides material from disparate fields, assembled into three sections: social commentary, scientific inquiry, and artistic expression. All selections raise questions about language, insight, and the construction of meaning around an organizing theme, the idea of the human.
Students bring their own distinctive experience into the mix, and because of the seminar format—cross-section joint sessions, small-team deliberation, and explorations off campus—they are encouraged to think critically throughout the course. Students explore one another’s neighborhoods to see and hear with fresh eyes; they read philosophical and theoretical works so as to question their world and themselves; and they write so as to sharpen their thinking. Small-team structured field experiences lead them into new sites and settings. Presentations of their findings, often in workshops with students from other sections, hone their listening skills and presentational prowess. In library sessions students explore their own preliminary questions, and learn to tailor them into topics worthy of in-depth consideration. They learn to measure their impressions and their findings, to pose more complex questions, and to refine their own thoughts.
Because students write about the entire process (in journals, response papers, and research projects) and compile their own portfolios, they accumulate a compendium unusually rich in knowledge, insight, and reflection. A final essay, in which they examine their own evolving thought process, is a prime occasion to consider interconnections of all sorts, including between theories of the human condition and the immediate dramas and demands of life they experience and represent in their classroom dialogue. COS provides undergraduates an intellectual compass that points to how the lives and selves they construct are the outcomes of fashioning a deep, implicit model of life (Brunner 1990, 138), and does so within their first two years of college. Core Seminar engages students to make creative contributions in the classroom by providing learning strategies to help them connect intellectual pursuits with personal queries focused on who they are and who they are becoming. A requirement for all students, this course is also an integrative learning opportunity for faculty. Instructors from all disciplines, from theoretical to practical domains, may teach it. As Carol Geary Schneider noted (2008), when faculty move toward “engaging students in the implications of knowledge,” they are “pulled toward more integrative designs for learning and the equal interest in getting students out in the field to test these skills against real problems” (3).
COS Faculty and the VALUE Rubrics
Faculty accustomed to teaching within their own disciplinary frameworks are unused to shifting perspectives to cofacilitate with others an open-ended inquiry into problem-based discourse. COS faculty interested in teaching agreed to participate in a semester-long faculty seminar. Readings from many intellectual viewpoints are the substantive texts for what amounts to a parallel “course” they take. Seminars, focused on how to ask questions, on designing and sequencing assignments, and on cross-disciplinary inquiry into abstract problems, become the ‘training ground’ where faculty experiment with modalities unfamiliar to them and create new communities of discourse that later function as collaborators once they begin to teach COS.
The COS field explorations students undertake yield alternative insights which challenge their assumptions; they review, analyze, and reflect not only on their own observations but on information derived from informal interviews with neighborhood residents and workers beyond their classroom reading. Creating the assignments that send students out into the world to pursue these “street laboratories” requires careful and intentional conversation, a skill faculty hone during their own extended seminars and workshops.
The use of VALUE rubrics at every stage of this process has sharpened faculty debate, and made more acute the questions they raise about provocative or contradictory readings, including assignments that might generate thoughtful reflections and help students explore alternative ways of thinking. Intensified faculty intentionality results in the dynamic development of greater integrative capacities among students, as early results from our use of the integrated learning rubric suggest.
The continuing focus on VALUE rubrics in preparation and planning phases of faculty discourse has begun to develop both a shared language of inquiry and a sense of the architectural elements of assignment design that help produce results the rubrics then measure. An example of this interconnection can be discerned in the box below.
The course we have described is complex. It calls for assessment strategies that measure experiential learning, as well as levels of reading comprehension, clarity of communication, and analytical thinking. Embracing rubrics for written communication, critical thinking, reading, and integrative learning has proven a powerful catalyst for students and faculty alike. Instructors use the rubrics to frame planning workshops, in norming sessions with participants from diverse disciplines, and in workshops focused on designing assignments. In all of these sessions faculty have utilized VALUE rubrics to build a vocabulary of critical consensus, which they then translate into critical terms for students to use as guides in peer editing labs and discussions. COS Faculty Surveys indicate that instructors find increased comfort with discursive teaching and greater agility when designing courses that invite students to integrate their learning directly applicable to the disciplinary courses they teach. There is evidence that this rubric process has already resulted in transference of critical approaches in a variety of disciplines emanating from calibration sessions.
Our portfolio review session was a two-day workshop analyzing random samples from the previous year. Nine raters from seven disciplines read fifty-four portfolios—10 percent of those submitted. Participants identified which elements of the course each rubric measured. Faculty planned field activities and joint sessions, sequenced with specific reading and writing assignments. What emerged from these deliberations were faculty creating student centered assignments. Students’ work has become much more creative, collaborative, and responsive to the world in which they live. It has begun to reflect a deeper understanding of the “Idea of the Human.”
COS students are mostly in their second or third term, admitted with fairly common literacy challenges that require intervention. Therefore, it was particularly surprising to us when we reviewed end-of-term data using the integrated learning rubric to learn that students performed on a higher than anticipated level. On the criterion of transference, the work reviewed showed that nearly 17 percent of students placed into level 3: “Adapts and applies skills, abilities, theories, or methodologies gained in one situation to new situations.” In this student group, 35 percent reached level 2: “Uses skills, abilities, theories, or methodologies gained in one situation in a new situation to contribute to understanding of problems or issues.”
On the criterion of students making connections between “relevant experiences and academic learning,” 50 percent of the portfolio work reviewed was clustered at level 1: “Compares life experiences and academic knowledge to infer differences, as well as similarities, and acknowledge perspectives other than own”.
These rubric results provide COS faculty and other stakeholders with evidence that the goals of the course, which are aligned with the campus’s core curriculum goals, are congruent with nationally articulated learning outcomes (Rhodes 2010). The results of this initial assessment are early benchmarks important for all institutions that expect integrative learning to emerge among students’ upper-level accomplishments.
These results help us see how students incorporate unmediated experiential learning into deeper transference and comprehension. In fact, students welcome the opportunity to integrate life experience, course work, and texts early in their undergraduate experience, if invited to do so. Howard Gardner, speaking about the importance of integrative knowledge in his work Five Minds for the Future (2008), believes that “in the 21st century, the most valued mind will be the synthesizing mind: the mind that can survey a wide range of sources, decide what is important and worth paying attention to, and then put this information together in ways that make sense to [itself] and, ultimately, to others as well” (18).
The significance of integrative learning is that it reflects multidimensional understanding. The use of the integrated learning rubric permits us to measure student growth from experiential learning. Until now, however, we have not had an instrument to help us effectively measure adaptation to new situations, transference to solve problems, and insight into perspectives other than their own; the VALUE integrated learning rubric is such an instrument.
The VALUE Integrative Learning Rubric and Making Connections
For some time now faculty have been using field explorations and cross-disciplinary discussions about which students have written reflective essays. Their writing has clearly indicated how many connections they are capable of making. The VALUE integrative learning rubric seems to provoke in students a higher degree of consciousness of their own learning.
The fact that almost one thousand students now take this course each year, in an undergraduate population fewer than six thousand, means that there is a growing community of discourse among students themselves that is a powerful incentive for involvement in experiential and crossdisciplinary inquiry. Our use in particular of the VALUE integrative learning rubric has produced a faculty conscious of the parameters of open inquiry, whose deliberately designed assignments have resulted in students’ synthesizing disparate material relatively early in their undergraduate work.
Assignment for COS that Promotes Integrative Learning—(Biology Faculty)
A popular gambit that my colleague ( Nursing Faculty) and I use to promote integrative learning is a field exercise for our last joint session entitled “Power Dynamics and Social Interactions.” The assignment’s ostensible focus is to observe how humans interact with each other and/or with animals in a particular setting and to explore the concept of ‘power’ within the context of those interactions. The ultimate goal, however, is to encourage students to make connections between observations culled from their fieldwork and (1) a series of short readings distributed at the joint session; (2) longer readings and COS class discussions spanning the entire semester; (3) material covered in other courses at LIU or elsewhere; and (4) students’ own personal experiences—including those involving family or friends—related to issues of power and vulnerability within varied social situations. We try to provide the impetus to move students beyond simple and more obvious direct association to ones of greater complexity and sophistication.
Students must choose one of the following venues and observe an interaction between two or more individuals for a period of three to fifteen minutes: park or playground; restaurant, department store, or shopping mall; subway, bus, or other public transportation; dog run; or any local zoo. Prior to undertaking fieldwork students receive a series of comprehensive questions to which they must submit written responses on the day of the joint session. The questions are wide-ranging and demand factual information, e.g. demographic data like number, age, and gender of participants, as well as more qualitative and impressionistic judgments regarding body language, dominance status, and levels of emotion. In the joint session the combined classes are divided into several smaller groups, each one responsible for choosing a single member’s observations that most closely relate to a short assigned reading (i.e. a selection from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or from Steven R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Each group appoints a representative who presents key findings to the constituents of the entire assembly, who pose new (unanticipated) questions to the group and compete to make further connections.
Bruner, J. 1990. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gardner, H. 2008. “The Five Minds for the Future.” Schools: Studies in Education 5 (12): 17–24.
Rhodes, T. L., ed. 2010. Assessing Outcomes and Improving Achievement: Tips and Tools for Using Rubrics. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Schneider, C. G. 2008. “From the President.” Peer Review 10 (4): 3.
Bernice Braid is the director emeritus of University Honors; Gladys Palma de Schrynemakers is the associate provost—both of Long Island University Brooklyn; Alan W. Grose is the director of academic affairs at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.