Encouraging Integrative Learning through Pathways and E-Portfolios at Santa Clara University
When Santa Clara University (SCU) began revising its core curriculum in 2005, it identified integrative learning as a crucial element of the university’s identity and mission. It’s not an uncommon learning goal, and many of the requirements SCU has implemented to engage students in integrative and reflective learning—interdisciplinary learning communities, a sequence of courses distributed across disciplines—are features of the core curriculum at many institutions. More unusual is the SCU Pathway, which requires students to integrate ideas from many courses and complete a reflective writing assignment on their own, independent of any one course.
SCU students complete four Pathway courses, organized around a chosen theme, primarily during their junior and senior years, and then write an essay reflecting on the connections between the different courses and disciplinary approaches and on the relationship between their studies and their lives and vocations. Because the courses extend through the upper division, students are able to integrate skills and knowledge developed in their majors and minors with learning from their general education courses. This sort of culminating general education experience is still relatively rare, although an AAC&U member survey indicates that colleges and universities are increasingly looking for ways to better integrate the major and general education—a goal that’s also supported by many of the employers who hire college graduates.
Pilot studies currently underway at the university are also investigating the possibility of integrating e-portfolios into the Pathway process to further engage students in conscious reflection on their own learning. “As the Pathways requirements become more familiar to people, [faculty] are finding ways to enhance the experience,” says Christine Bachen, director of assessment and an associate professor of communication at SCU, who is one of the researchers working on the studies. “With e-portfolios, we think students will take more ownership of their learning experiences, and that’s what we want.”
Pathways to Integrative Learning
Pathways are thematically linked courses drawn from across the university’s curriculum. The Pathway process begins at the end of the sophomore year, when students choose a Pathway that aligns with their academic and/or vocational interests. Twenty-four Pathways are currently offered, with themes including Sustainability, Applied Ethics, the Digital Age, Beauty, and Democracy. Each Pathway must consist of at least ten courses, including a broad selection of entry-level courses so that students from any major or school can participate. Students complete a selection of four Pathway courses; no more than two courses can come from the same discipline, but courses can overlap with other general education requirements or requirements for a student’s major or minor.
Each Pathway is curated by a facilitator who reviews the syllabus of every course to ensure that it’s an appropriate fit. How closely the course must align with the Pathway theme is left to the discretion of the facilitator and the faculty teaching the course, though all courses that are part of a Pathway include a statement indicating this in the syllabus. The real work of integrating the content of those courses and making connections, though, is up to the students in their reflection essays, says Phyllis Brown, associate provost for undergraduate studies.
The reflection essay is the final piece of the Pathways experience and a requirement for graduation. The essay asks students to “describe connections among courses in their Pathways and between the Pathways and their majors; analyze a significant issue from at least two different disciplinary or methodological perspectives; [and] reflect on the learning process itself and on the past and future of their vocational and educational choices” (SCU Pathways website). Students complete the essay on their own time and submit it through an electronic portal; they also submit at least two assignments from Pathway courses that they draw on to demonstrate their intellectual growth.
A coordinator assigns each essay to one of six faculty readers, who score the essays with a rubric based on the three criteria above, as well as overall writing quality. Essays receive a score of “pass,” “exemplary pass,” or “revise and resubmit,” with an indication of which criteria from the rubric were not met. Peer writing partners at the university writing center are trained to provide assistance to students who need it, and those who have received a “revise and resubmit” score more than once are referred to a faculty mentor who was hired specifically to provide one-on-one assistance to students who are struggling with Pathway reflection essays.
Increasing Engagement with E-Portfolios
The Pathways requirement invites students to engage actively with their own learning process and begin to think about their education holistically, Brown says. But while the four classes are distributed across several years, the reflection essay is a one-time assignment, and some students don’t think much about it until graduation is nearly upon them. “The current system simply has students upload assignments and an essay; that can happen just at the time of final submission, and the system provides no opportunity for students to log their ongoing reflections,” says Bachen. To address these issues, Bachen and her co-researchers Andrea Brewster and Susan Parker have developed a study to investigate how students might use e-portfolios to collect artifacts from Pathway courses as they complete them and begin thinking about their courses in an integrative way much earlier.
A number of faculty members are already using e-portfolios to achieve similar ends in individual courses. Rob Michalski uses e-portfolios in his writing course, which emphasizes the integration of multiple sources and perspectives to make an argument in writing. Michalski asks his students to write a final reflection essay about their growth as writers, supported by a portfolio of previous assignments and drafts. He had used this assignment before moving to e-portfolios, but “it was an assignment for the course rather than a portfolio used to organize the course as a whole.” Moving to an e-portfolio system, where students uploaded their work as they completed it and received feedback periodically, changed the dynamic. “By encouraging them to think of their own work as an archive of materials, and to make a different argument from that of the individual pieces contained in the archive, they took the reflective process more seriously and I was getting better results in the writing my students were producing.”
Bachen, Brewster, and Parker are hoping e-portfolios might have a similar effect on students’ Pathway work. Starting next quarter, they will run an experiment comparing the final essays of students who upload and submit their Pathway work through e-portfolios with those who use the current online portal. Students using the e-portfolios will receive regular prompts via e-mail to upload assignments and respond to a series of questions about what they have learned in a course, how it connects to other courses, and how it might connect to other life experiences.
A small number of students are already pretesting the use of e-portfolios with their Pathways and sharing their insights with the research team. Alexandra Disney, a sophomore completing the Democracy Pathway, works on her Pathway through an e-portfolio once or twice a week. The format, she says, encourages regular, progressive work on the project. “It’s nice to be able to sit down and work on this for half an hour and jot down notes on a platform I can access from anywhere with a computer.”
Sean Roe echoed many of her sentiments, and added that working with the e-portfolio is itself a useful learning experience. Roe, a junior, is currently using an e-portfolio for his Sustainability Pathway work, and has also used an e-portfolio in a previous course focused on sustainability. “I continuously aggregated my work and at the end I was able to shape it—I deleted some artifacts and highlighted others—and used the portfolio itself to make an argument about [sustainability]. It’s not just a file-sharing service—it’s a specific way to show everything you’ve done, and by doing so make an argument or advocate for something…. That’s very different from just making an argument in an essay, and more effective, I think.”
The e-portfolio study will include two experimental groups, each with between eighty and one hundred students, divided evenly between juniors and seniors. One group will use the e-portfolios as described above. The second group, in addition to using e-portfolios, will also participate in oral reflection sessions, meeting in small groups to discuss their Pathways and other aspects of their learning. The group sessions are modeled in part on Melissa Peet’s generative knowledge interviews. A faculty member facilitates the session and lays out the activities and discussion questions, which are modeled on the prompts for the Pathways essay. Students then break away to meet in pairs—preferably with partners completing different Pathways—before meeting in groups of four, and then for full group discussion.
“We see varying the group sizes as creating an opportunity for students who work better in pairs to shine and those who prefer larger discussions to do that, too—but it’s also creating a scaffolding effect, building upon the small conversation and testing ideas in progressively larger groups … we’re hoping that each level of discussion will elevate the level of discourse,” Brewster says.
Students from both experimental groups will submit their final Pathway reflection essays through their e-portfolios, which will be compared with the control group of students using the current online portal. Faculty evaluators will compare the essays with not only the SCU Pathways rubric, but also the VALUE rubric for integrative learning developed as part of AAC&U’s LEAP initiative. “We’re looking for evidence of integrative learning and interdisciplinary learning, and how portfolios can be used in the process to help students create more structure in connection with those Pathways,” Brewster says.
Even if the study yields positive results, it will take some time and further research before SCU determines whether to incorporate e-portfolios as part of a core requirement like Pathways. But Bachen and Brewster are pleased with what they’ve seen in smaller pilots and with pretest students like Disney and Roe. Although they received no instructions on whether or how to customize their e-portfolios (all students receive a standard template branded with SCU colors), Roe and Disney both immediately customized their portfolios (available here and here) with different photos and aesthetic elements as well as additional information about their studies and related activities at SCU. Roe created a new banner with a sustainability theme (his Pathway), and Disney created a landing page with a description of the Democracy Pathway and embedded a YouTube video of a cartoon about democratic elections. “With blogging and Facebook, my generation already uses social media and the Internet as a way to reflect on our lives—it’s become natural to us,” she says. The e-portfolio, she adds, is both easy to use and aesthetically pleasing—“It’s nice for both viewer and user.”
Both students expressed interest in building e-portfolios to use on the job market. “How do you discern between job candidates, when so many people are so qualified?” Roe says. “I think a lot of employers would find it attractive to have this new way to showcase what you’ve accomplished.” AAC&U’s latest survey of business leaders supports this point—more than four in five employers said an electronic portfolio would be useful to them in ensuring that job candidates have key skills.
That awareness of a broader audience for their work shows another potential benefit of e-portfolio use, Brewster says: "Students can increase their digital competencies, their media savvy, their ability to express themselves to different audiences.” The students are not just showcasing the skills they’ve already developed, Bachen adds—they are actively building new skills and demonstrating them through the use of the e-portfolio. “The original web-based system doesn't encourage them to create a whole out of the parts—they just upload the parts. What we’re seeing is students creating a more integrative whole, even without that being a requirement.”