Peer Review

Fostering Integrative Knowledge and Lifelong Learning

Like many other institutions, we have been working to develop new ways to educate our students to be flexible lifelong learners and leaders capable of responding to a world of constant change. We want to provide a foundation for intentional, critically engaged lifelong learners, people who can identify what they are learning and understand why it is relevant to their lives. We recognize that in order to learn for life, students will need to know how to consciously learn from their life experiences. They must learn how to pay attention to subtle “a-ha” moments, recognizing the insights and dissonance that often accompanies new learning. They will need to know how to work effectively within diverse teams and groups, balancing the needs and views of others while also staying engaged with their own intentions and sources of curiosity. To do this, they will need to be able to reflect critically on their decisions and actions, recognize the strengths and limitations of their own and others’ perspectives, and continually seek feedback from others and the environment. This seems to be a tall order.

Although the mandate for integrative and lifelong learning extends to nearly all fields and professions, we have found very little is actually known about how to facilitate this type of learning. The literature is not yet clear, for example, on how the term “integrative” applies to different types of learning environments. Reward systems for faculty and university staff, still firmly rooted within disciplinary and institutional silos, make it difficult for them to work across their differences to create more integrative experiences. Moreover, one of the biggest challenges to educating integrative and lifelong learners is the fact that much of the knowledge, skills, and capacities people gain through informal learning is tacit and therefore unconscious and invisible. Research shows that the more a person becomes competent or expert in a given task or area, the more likely it is that her knowledge will recede into a tacit or unconscious realm (Polyani 1966). Although tacit knowledge is directly linked to the development of effective leaders, experts, innovators, and reflective practitioners, this type of knowledge is largely ignored in most higher education curricula (Sternberg and Horvath 1999).

Research conducted with University of Michigan (UM) students in 2005–2006 demonstrated the need to address these gaps. Focus groups with UM undergraduate student leaders showed that although most reported having “extraordinary” learning experiences at UM, they could not describe what they had learned, why it was valuable to them, or how they might apply the knowledge and/or skills they had gained once they left the university (Leskes and Miller 2006). Although these students felt quite positive about their UM experiences, they could neither articulate nor share what they had learned with others. In response to these and other gaps, we have spent several years developing, testing, and validating several methods for fostering integrative and lifelong learning through the use of integrative teaching methods supported by e-portfolios. To evaluate these methods, we have also created a multidimensional assessment instrument using criteria from a number of the VALUE rubrics, which were developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

The Mportfolios Project

This work has been part of the larger campus-wide Mportfolio Project, which was formally established in 2008 as a way to coordinate various integrative learning and e-portfolio efforts across several UM campuses. As a joint effort between the University of Michigan–Dearborn School of Education and the division of student affairs and UM Libraries in Ann Arbor, the Mportfolio project seeks to create pedagogy, technology, and assessment methods that support students in knowing and demonstrating what they are learning within both formal and informal learning environments, applying their knowledge to the world around them, and integrating learning with their own passions, goals, and sources of curiosity. Mportfolio is now imbedded in an ever widening variety of diverse learning environments on both the Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses including schools, departments, and co-curricular programs serving diverse undergraduate, professional, and graduate students in fields including business, social work, health care, honors undergraduate education programs, and engineering.

Two integrative learning methods developed on our campuses thus far are referred to as The Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process and Generative Knowledge Interviewing (Peet et. al 2011). These methods consist of a series of learning modules, interactive exercises, and reflective writing prompts that help students to integrate their learning within the context of a larger institutional culture that strongly emphasizes peer-to-peer learning, leadership development, and deep engagement with the world beyond the classroom. These methods support students to work together in learning how to

  • identify, retrieve, and document their tacit knowledge—the unconscious insights, frames of reference, and intuitions they’ve gained from key learning experiences beyond the classroom;
  • connect their tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge—the theories, methods, and concepts they are learning in their academic courses;
  • integrate their academic learning with their personal passions, goals, and sources of curiosity;
  • identify how they can use their knowledge, skills, and capacities to address problems of the world around them; and,
  • create an integrative knowledge MPortfolio—a dynamic illustration of how their knowledge, skills, purpose, and goals are continually expressed and re-created in everyday life (for an example, visit

Using the VALUE Integrative Learning Rubric

The AAC&U VALUE rubrics have played an essential role in our efforts to assess the multiple dimensions of integrative and lifelong learning that are facilitated through these methods. In 2008, several members of the UM Mportfolio research team participated in the AAC&U VALUE initiative. Our role was to test, validate, and provide feedback on the initial integrative learning rubric created by other campus teams. We applied the integrative learning rubric to students’ integrative knowledge e-portfolios to assess how well the rubric’s criteria fit their work.

The process of using the integrated learning rubric proved extremely valuable. It helped us recognize and articulate the tacit (unspoken) criteria and assumptions we were using in facilitating the Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process, allowing us to clarify how, why, and when we were prompting students to connect and synthesize their learning. We immediately recognized how our interpretation of integrative learning was both similar to, and yet different from, that of other campuses. Like others, we were using “integrative” to mean helping our students to synthesize learning from various experiences and understand the relevance and potential application of that learning to the world beyond the classroom.

The areas where our students’ portfolios did not align with the integrated learning rubric also proved valuable. For instance, our students’ portfolios demonstrated several areas of learning that were not represented in the initial integrative learning rubric (e.g. that they were able to recognize tacit knowledge and seek out and synthesize feedback from peers and others), and revealed that these differences were representative of the culture of our institution. This inspired us to create an assessment instrument that would capture the unique dimensions of integrative and lifelong learning emerging on our campuses. To do this, we turned to several other VALUE rubrics, particularly those focusing on civic engagement, creative thinking, team learning, and lifelong learning (see Rhodes 2010).

The result was an instrument that combines UM’s unique definition of integrative knowledge and lifelong learning and emphasizes students’ developing the capacities to reflect critically, tacitly share knowledge, give and receive feedback, and work with others for social change (Peet et. al 2011, 26–28). It uses language from at least four of the AAC&U VALUE rubrics. The instrument is a thirty-seven item pre/post self-assessment survey that addresses students’

  • recognition of their strengths and challenges as learners;
  • identification of their values and beliefs;
  • understanding of their social identities and perspectives;
  • skills in working across social/cultural differences;
  • awareness of how one gains different types of knowledge;
  • adaption of knowledge/skills to new contexts;
  • evaluation of their work; ability to listen and seek feedback;
  • recognition of one’s own passions and sources of curiosity;
  • development of a professional identity;
  • ability to work with others to make a difference;
  • understanding of how one’s actions/decisions affect others.

This instrument was pilot tested during the 2009–2010 and 2010–2011 academic years (usually at the beginning and end of a term in courses/programs) in learning environments using the Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process and/or Generative Knowledge Interviewing. Most recently, the data generated from this instrument demonstrated significant gains on six dimensions of integrative learning for 620 diverse students (including both traditional and nontraditional) from fourteen different academic and cocurricular learning environments across both the Dearborn and Ann Arbor campuses (for a complete description of this research see Peet et. al. 2011). These results validated our conceptual model of integrative knowledge and lifelong learning (see fig. 1), which includes students learning how to

  1. Identify, demonstrate, and adapt knowledge gained within/across different contexts—the ability to recognize the tacit and explicit knowledge gained in specific learning experiences and the capacity to adapt that knowledge to new situations;
  2. Adapt to differences in order to create solutions—the ability to identify and adapt to different people, situations, etc., while working with others to create positive change;
  3. Understand and direct oneself as a learner—the ability to identify one’s prior knowledge, recognize one’s strengths and gaps as a learner, and know how one is motivated to learn;
  4. Become a reflexive, accountable, and relational learner—the ability to reflect on one’s practices and clarify expectations within oneself while also seeking feedback from others;
  5. Identify and discern one’s own and others’ perspectives —the ability to recognize the limitations of one’s perspective and seek out and value the perspectives of others;
  6. Develop a professional digital identity—the ability to imagine how one will use current knowledge and skills in future roles and how one will create an intentional digital identity.

As is shown in figure 1, the gains were statistically significant for all six dimensions of the integrative knowledge and lifelong learning conceptual model. (Peet et al. 2011).

Figure 1. Differences in pre/post composite scores for six factors for integrative learning

Standard Deviation
StStandard Deviation

Demonstrate knowledge gained within and across specific contexts






Recognize and adapt to differences






Understand and direct oneself as a learner






Become a reflexive, accountable and relational learner






Identify and discern my own and others’ ethics and perspectives






Develop a professional digital identity






Note: * = p < .001

Given the fact that there is very little literature to date that fully operationalizes “integrative” or “lifelong” learning, or explicitly connects how different types of integrative teaching methods lead to the development of particular types of integrative capacities in students, we hope that this work will be useful to others.

Moving ahead, the instrument continues to be updated though feedback from UM educators, as well as educators who are using the instrument at other institutions (e.g., Norwalk Community College and Long Island University). In 2010, UM was awarded a FIPSE grant to support the Lifelong Learning Curriculum Transformation Project, the purpose of which is to build a collaboration between UM–Dearborn and UM–Ann Arbor, as well as six other innovative institutions—Boston University, Clemson University, DePaul University, Mercy College (New York City), Oberlin College, and Portland State University. These institutions are working together to create and identify best practices and research that supports integrative and lifelong learning across a wide range of fields, disciplines, and professions in higher education. The AAC&U VALUE rubrics have provided a solid foundation for the University of Michigan campuses and their partner institutions to begin to think about ways to accurately assess student learning processes and changing capacities. The collaborative, with the continuing guidance of AAC&U will continues to explore how higher education can assist learners in becoming integrative lifelong learners, and how that learning can best be assessed.


Leskes, A., and R. Miller. 2006. Purposeful Pathways: Helping Students Achieve Key Learning Outcomes. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Peet, M. 2010. “The Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process: A Program Guide for Educating Reflective Practitioners and Lifelong Learners.” On-line journal MedEdportal (free access through site registration).

Peet, M., S. Lonn, P. Gurin, M. Matney, T. Marra, S. Himbeault-Taylor, A. Daley. 2011. “Fostering Integrative Knowledge Through ePortfolios.” International Journal of ePortfolios, 1(1):11–31.

Polanyi, M. 1966. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rhodes, T. L., ed. 2010. Assessing Outcomes and Improving Achievement: Tips and Tools for Using Rubrics. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Sternberg, R., and J. Horvath, eds.1999. Tacit Knowledge in Professional Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Laura Reynolds-Keefer is an associate professor of education, University of Michigan–Dearborn; Melissa R. Peet is the academic director for the Integrative Learning and MPortfolio Initiative; Patricia Gurin is a professor and the Nancy Cantor Distinguished University Professor Emerita; Steve Lonn is a research specialist—all of University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.

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