Integrative Learning from First to Final Year at Wellesley College
When Wellesley College joined AAC&U’s project on Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning, the faculty and administrators started out by conducting an inventory of the college’s existing integrative learning practices. They found that the Massachusetts liberal arts college was giving students a good start at integrative learning in the first year, with interdisciplinary seminars and a grading policy that encouraged students to explore courses and topics they might not have pursued otherwise. The college also found a good foundation for extending learning throughout the undergraduate experience, from first year to senior year, and began working to expand these opportunities to more students and develop a more comprehensive integrative learning assessment plan.
Integrative First-Year Experiences
Wellesley students tend to be driven to succeed from the moment they arrive on campus, especially when it comes to their grades. It’s an admirable trait, but it can actually make it more difficult to encourage students to pursue a more integrative form of education, says Robbin Chapman, associate provost and academic director of diversity and inclusion at Wellesley. “You want good grades, obviously, but you don’t want that to be the sole motivation for how students engage with a particular class or topic,” she says. “For first-year students coming in, we want to shift the focus from students’ grades … to giving them an opportunity to engage intellectually and explore more—to take different courses and think about different directions.”
“Shadow grading” is a new policy that lets faculty create a lower-stakes environment that they hope will encourage this sort of exploration. With shadow grading, students will receive no course grades in their first semester at Wellesley. Faculty still grade students’ assignments—the grades are still an important source of feedback for students—but they are not included in the calculation for grade point averages. In addition to taking courses and producing assignments they might not have if they were concerned about earning high grades, students also are able to learn how to balance cocurricular activities and manage their time without being punished for falling behind because they overcommitted themselves—another common problem for ambitious students, Chapman says.
One avenue for exploration that students might pursue if they’re less concerned with grades is the first-year seminar program. First-year seminars are small, discussion-based courses that, while housed within the departments, are organized around topics or issues rather than disciplinary content or methods. The education department offers Play, Literacy, and Democracy, which examines the importance of play in preparing young students for democratic participation; while environmental studies offers a course on Food, Agriculture, and Sustainability; and a French faculty member teaches Shipwrecks, Outlaws, and Wonderlands: Reading and Writing the Adventure Story.
Although topics for first-year seminars change each year depending on which faculty members sign up to teach them, each course includes a focus on writing skills, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking. Because class sizes are kept small, faculty are able to have more individual interaction with students and encourage them to pursue their particular areas of interest and aptitude.
Integrative Learning in the Major
Students also benefit from the attention of multiple faculty members, as some of the seminars are now team taught. Team-taught courses usually involve faculty members from different disciplines, who together can create a course that any single department would not have the expertise to offer. The Science and Culture of Blood, a first-year seminar offered this semester, is taught by faculty members from chemistry and anthropology, while Einstein and the Dark Universe combines physics and astronomy.
Team teaching is particularly popular in and appropriate for first-year seminars, given the dual focus on writing and quantitative reasoning in these courses, but an increasing number of faculty are choosing to pair up to teach upper-division courses, too. “We don’t promote a focus on team teaching at any one level,” Chapman says. “It’s still experimental, and we want to see how students vote with their feet [by registering for courses].” Proposals for team-taught courses are rigorously vetted, first by a newly created committee and then by the full curriculum committee and the faculty senate. The reviewers are looking for “courses that fill a gap, something we couldn’t have offered because we didn’t have a department, or that bring together something interesting from two different departments,” Chapman says.
Internships, community-based projects, and other applied learning experiences offer the chance for Wellesley students to practice integrative learning. Fieldwork by itself, while valuable, it not necessarily integrative, Chapman says—structured reflection is a necessary component. Most courses with experiential learning components require students to reflect in writing on their community or fieldwork experiences and how they relate to different aspects of their classroom studies. Students also frequently present on their experiences through panels and poster sessions, and the process of engaging with other students and faculty members helps reinforce the connections they are making.
While integrative learning is often associated with the joining of multiple fields or disciplines, the Calderwood Seminars on Public Writing focus on integrative learning within the major. Funded by and named for a donor with an interest in writing, these senior-level courses approach disciplinary content through the creation of book reviews, newspaper articles, podcasts, and other forms of media targeted at nonspecialists. The courses are disciplinary in nature and offered within the various departments and programs, but they require students to think in different ways than they have in their other major courses, says David Lindauer, whose economics journalism course provided the blueprint for these seminars. “There’s no better means to understand an article or lecture than being asked to write 800 words about it and explain it to nonspecialists … If you can explain to someone why a journal article [in your discipline] is important in plain English, without relying on jargon, that requires a command over the material.”
While every instructor teaches his or her course a little differently, all seminars follow more or less the same classroom mechanics, Lindauer stays. Students are divided into two groups—call them A and B—who will alternate between being writers and editors on any given week. If during the fourth week of class students are working on book reviews, students in group A will write reviews, then share them with a peer editor in group B, who will give comments to the writer. After revising the draft, the writer will post it to a course website or discussion board, and all students in the class will then read all the book reviews and offer feedback. During the next week, the students in group B will write and submit reviews to the students in group A, who will edit them while also rewriting their own reviews based on the group feedback from the week before.
Some courses use a set of common texts that all students write about, while in others students choose a “beat”—a specialized area in which they have a particular interest—and each student chooses her own texts. Either way, the process involves ceding a lot of control of the class to students, which makes some faculty members nervous, Lindauer says—“they do the work first, and you have to figure out what to do with it second.” The model works in part because the courses are for seniors, Lindauer says. “We want to emphasize they’ve learned a lot in their majors, and now they have a voice about them that someone in their first or second year would not.”
Judged by faculty- and student-reported learning, the Calderwood writing seminars have been a huge success. “Many students have commented on finding their voice as an economist or a biologist through these courses,” Lindauer says, and faculty have been enthusiastic about the program. Similarly, many faculty members have embraced team teaching—despite the logistical hurdles involved in designing a new course and securing approval from two different departments—and report positive outcomes for their students. But, despite these documented individual successes, assessing integrative learning on the institutional level poses special challenges.
Wellesley has been looking to other institutions, such as Wagner College and Clark University, to see how they have succeeded in assessing integrative learning across the institution at different levels of student achievement. Wellesley also sent a team to AAC&U’s 2013 Institute on Integrative Learning and Assessment. Wellesley’s institutional researcher was part of that team, and following the institute she helped to design assessments for several individual programs in order to gather baseline data. But it’s much more difficult, Chapman says, “to assess the quality of the connections students make—how do they add up to something meaningful?”
One potentially useful tool is e-portfolios, she says. The idea would be to have students, looking back on the learning artifacts they’ve collected in their portfolios, write a narrative reflection that pulls together the different threads of their learning. Wellesley faculty are considering several different rubrics faculty might use for assessing student learning through the e-portfolios, including AAC&U’s VALUE rubric for integrative learning.
For now, the college is working to expand faculty engagement with the various integrative learning programs already present on campus. That shouldn’t be too hard, Chapman says. From the beginning, the college’s discussions around integrative learning have been inclusive and attentive to the needs of faculty members as well those of students. “When we do things that better serve our students, a collateral benefit is that they better serve our faculty,” Chapman says, and as a result “faculty are more receptive to doing things that are different from what they’ve been doing… we’re reaching a tipping point.”