Peer Review

Integrative Learning: A Room with a View

The College of San Mateo (CSM), one of California’s 110 community colleges, sits atop a hill above San Francisco Bay. The campus architecture, a 1960s rendering of classical columns and flaring cornices, invokes lofty educational ideals.

We have many faculty here dedicated to those ideals. But teachers eager to try new pedagogies can be frustrated by the continuation of such severe architectural structures right into classrooms equipped with cramped rows of unwieldy desks. This rigidity may also characterize the college’s organizational structures and human cultures. They are conjoined, sometimes uncomfortably, in serving the untidy needs of today’s students. The external imperatives of a statewide system further constrain pedagogical innovation. Like the stern buildings and overgrown landscaping that block the expansive campus views, this organizational architecture and cultural landscaping can also obscure the glorious panoramas, glimpsed by some faculty here, of integrative learning.

That magnificent view—of what teaching and learning can be when disciplinary barriers are disassembled and when faculty and students collaborate in making all kinds of connections—is indeed breathtaking. Make no mistake, though: integrative learning is hard work. Often, for students and faculty alike, it is joyous work. But it can also be discouraging and contentious. The story of integrative learning at the College of San Mateo, we believe, is worth telling.

The College of San Mateo—Who We Are

Although CSM is located in an affluent area, its 11,000 students, diverse in both ethnicity and age, are typical of many community college students across the country. We value and celebrate the diversity that makes our classrooms interesting and frequently gratifying places for teaching. A recent demographic snapshot also begins to suggest some of the challenges we face, across all demographic lines, in engaging, teaching, and retaining these students. The majority of our students (72.2 percent) are part time, often working long hours at jobs. Our classrooms include working adults, often with families. A majority of students also come to us lacking college-level skills in writing and mathematics. Almost half of our enrollment (48.1 percent) consists of students with fewer than fifteen units completed, a fact that reveals a need to increase students’ engagement with the learning process. Anecdotally, teachers also report that students often lack clear goals and consistent motivation; in fact, they don’t know how to be students. They have widely varying technological skills and resources at home. They may be unwilling, for a variety of reasons, to avail themselves of the resources available on campus to help them succeed. In short, it’s not easy to engage and teach our students.

A few faculty at CSM first became involved in learning communities, over a decade ago, out of a sense that there must be a better way to teach. Our first learning communities were what we now call “hard linked”: two different classes with a common cohort of students, taught by two teachers who intertwine their curriculum in various ways to foster intellectual and social engagement. Pedagogically, the results were often spectacular. A few examples include ASSET Development, an elementary algebra class paired with a study skills class that nearly doubled the success rates of students in elementary algebra and significantly increased the persistence rate all the way through the remedial mathematics sequence; Writing in the End Zone, a basic-skills-level writing class paired with the football team’s required physical education section that has become a model for helping athletes succeed; and Tools for Thought, an intermediate algebra class paired with freshman composition in which mathematical modeling and reading about contemporary environmental and social issues gave students new understandings of the world they occupy. Such learning communities, we know, often dramatically changed the academic lives of the students and realigned the long-settled pedagogical foundations of the teachers. But those classes were reaching relatively few students and existed on the margins of a predominantly fixed, traditional educational experience.

The Integrative Learning Project

Nevertheless, those early learning communities led to CSM’s participation in the Integrative Learning Project (ILP), held from 2004 through 2006. (www.carnegiefoundation.org/programs/index.asp?key=24) Twice a year for three years, this initiative, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, brought together ten institutions that were already exploring a variety of integrative strategies. CSM’s goal while participating in the project was “to construct an overriding vision of integrated learning at the college through institutionalizing the learning communities program.” Unlike the other teams involved, CSM’s three-person ILP team consisted of only faculty members, with no administrator.

The three faculty members in the ILP, the authors of this article, began to see that integrative learning is not limited to hard-linked learning communities—that it means helping students find connections of all kinds to make their learning meaningful and intentional. We learned about e-portfolios at LaGuardia Community College, capstone courses at Philadelphia University, and integrative core programs at Portland State, to name just a few examples. At the same time, our hard-linked learning communities program struggled against a slew of problems that had institutional origins: budget cuts, low enrollments due to inadequate information delivered by online class schedules and crippling online registration problems, lack of counselors’ support, and a pervasive “just-check-the-boxes-for-transfer” culture that worked against unfamiliar course configurations. We tried long and hard to solve these problems, but failed in every case.

The second summer, facing what seemed like humiliation at the collapse of our ILP project, the three of us huddled in a closet at the Carnegie Foundation in 2004 to resuscitate integrative learning on our campus. Based on the wildly popular “Movie Night,” a monthly cross-disciplinary event created by faculty in the philosophy and psychology departments, we invented (as far as we know) what we call the “Confluence Model.” This learning community configuration fits more comfortably within the constraints of our campus and has an impact on the experiences of vastly more students. It solves the frequent enrollment problems of our hard-linked communities by taking a detour around the technical and cultural barriers on our campus. In a confluence model, any number of stand-alone classes in different disciplines, meeting at the same hour, form a community around a shared theme or reading that relates to significant issues in the world. Classes all meet together five or six times per semester to participate in common experiences that highlight various disciplinary perspectives on the themes, and students have opportunities to engage in interdisciplinary thinking and problem-solving themselves. In the individual classrooms, instructors consciously incorporate integrative and reflective practices.

CSM now offers confluence models aimed at both basic-skills and transfer-level students. Examples include The Tragedy of the Commons, Food for Thought, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and Dead Man Walking learning communities, with even more in planning stages. (collegeofsanmateo.edu/integrativelearning/learningcommunities/) With a two-year cycle of offerings and more than twenty instructors involved, students can experience a rich array of interdisciplinary issues and approaches as they work through their general education requirements. We’ve often integrated counseling visits and reading and library support into these models, although such integration runs counter to institutional practice and structure. The “Friday Forums,” with approximately three hundred students and instructors from different disciplines gathered in a single room, are videotaped and available on iTunes University, under CSM’s “Events—Integrative Learning” site (smccd.edu/itunesu/).

Student survey results collected each semester indicate overwhelmingly positive experiences. Frequent student reflection work also shows that students are succeeding in making integrative connections:

  • I am appreciative of the effort to bring light to this situation that many young adults are not aware of. I really liked the forums because they provided a more engaging atmosphere rather than sitting in the same classroom the entire semester. I also liked that other classes of various subjects were integrated in the forums so that I was able to discuss this topic with a few other classmates. Overall, the experience was educational and certainly very different than traditional class experiences.
  • I liked it because I learned how two different fields could tie together. Makes me realize that everything is tied to one another in some way, or in some degree. I would enroll in another one because I want to find more links between different subjects.

What We Learned

We learned much from the opportunities offered by the ILP, so we were eager to sow more integrative seeds across the campus landscape. In meetings and presentations, we tried to share the vision with our administrators and other faculty members. We tried to think of even broader applications of integrative learning, to bring its rewards to even more students and faculty. In our campus efforts, we also recognized the value of the leverage we had gained through the association with a national project.

In 2006, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching announced its CASTL Institutional Leadership Program. By then, we knew that students’ gains in seeing and making connections often occurred in their writing, and we knew that we needed to be involved in the CASTL Program to further integrative work on our campus. Thus the Writing Across the Curriculum Initiative at CSM, an effort to move writing instruction and support into classes that do not normally “teach” writing, became the basis for our participation in the CASTL Leadership Program, 2006–2009. Aimed at supporting the growing numbers of students who were writing below college level in our transfer-level courses, our initiative’s central research question asked the following: Can WAC function as a teaching and learning tool for below-college-level writers who are enrolled, along with more advanced writers, in discipline courses with no writing prerequisite? We wondered if WAC, using strategies such as carefully constructed and scaffolded assignments, individualized support for students in a writing center environment, clear feedback in grading rubrics, and collaboration and consultation between discipline experts and writing experts, could become a way to encourage the growth of critical thinking and integrative skills in basic-skills and developmental writers. Could WAC provide a solution for a system that allows underprepared students to enroll in classes that require college-level skills and then watches them fail or drop out in alarming numbers?

Launching the WAC program (collegeofsanmateo.edu/integrativelearning/ wac.asp), even more than the learning communities program, required us to start building cultures of collaboration and evidence in areas where none had existed before, at least on this campus. Writing, we discovered, can be a battleground in which each discipline has a weapons cache of opposing ideas and long-held resentments. About fifteen faculty members from mathematics, philosophy, sociology, biology, English, and ESL spent nearly a whole semester meeting every week, just talking, building respect for the different writing needs of each discipline and for each other. When we had established a congenial atmosphere, we quickly built what have proven to be useful and innovative tools and strategies, and we moved into implementing them in the WAC classes the following semester.

These tools and strategies continue to serve us well. Creating “Comparative Disciplinary Writing Guidelines” has made the differences in the writing expectations of each participating discipline more visible and has helped us realize why students often feel that writing expectations are confusing and arbitrary in different classes. We now all discuss those differences openly with students. A handout on “Proofreading Symbols” gives us confidence that our paper markings make more sense to students. Our group discussions of diagnostic writing samples, prompts, and grading rubrics contribute to better pedagogical tools in all the classes. Teams of instructors from different disciplines visit classrooms for draft workshops and class discussions of anonymous pieces of student writing. These visits, the pumping heart of the program, are powerful experiences for both students and faculty members. Certainly the importance of good writing in all disciplines is now being conveyed to a significant number of students, and we are all better writing teachers because of the classroom interventions and collaboration. But WAC admittedly remains on the margins of the institution.

Developing Assessment Tools

Gathering evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, has been a concern from the beginning of our WAC Initiative. Although the participating classes enroll students not yet writing at college level, they also enroll many students nearly ready to transfer. So we needed to develop assessment tools that would yield information on the impacts of WAC across the spectrum of students. First, we created an online student survey that asks students to rate their own progress toward our General Education Student Learning Outcomes (what students should know or be able to do by the time they are ready to transfer). Next, we designed e-portfolio templates (using the Carnegie Foundation’s Keep Toolkit) (gallery.carnegiefoundation.org/gallery_of_tl/keep_toolkit.html ) that the students would use to post writing demonstrating their progress toward particular GE SLOs. These templates also required reflective writing that would discuss the reasoning and process behind the student’s posting choices at the end of the semester: Why does this paper relate to that particular SLO? What was learned in and about the process of writing the paper? What challenges remain?

Finally, we asked our college researcher to give us data about student success, broken out by ESL or English placement level (either placement test or successful ESL or English course completion). Later, we added a rubric to analyze students’ writing weaknesses, based on the initial diagnostic writing sample, in the hope that we could understand more clearly what specific writing challenges were correlated with lack of retention or success.

Going into the last year of the CASTL project, we have already learned much about ourselves, our students, and our college. We can now show that both students identified as English-language learners and those already writing at college level gain in skills and confidence from the strategies and support we bring into the WAC classes. However, those identified in the developmental native-speaker English sequence do not demonstrate any gain in the WAC courses, which require significant writing assignments. In fact, the data show specifically that the WAC courses lose or fail students who start with weak grammar skills at a greater rate than do other sections of the same transfer-level courses that may limit evaluation of learning to Scantron testing. It seems evident by now that WAC alone cannot provide adequate support for students who are inappropriately enrolled in transfer-level courses that require writing. We are convinced those classes must include writing assignments to foster meaningful learning. But we do not have adequate systems to support students in such classes; the regular support systems of the college are nonintegrative. In large part, they reside within departments or divisions and are focused on helping “their” students. In reality, “their” students are “our” students; we all teach the same students. A mathematics student with a paper assignment is also an English student at another hour of the day, and he or she needs readily available support that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

What to do? We now recognize that we are poorly positioned to change course prerequisites for two reasons: (1) departmental and college enrollment figures—and subsequent funding—would be at risk and (2) there is a statewide community college culture that too often oversimplifies students’ success as “getting through a program quickly.” We are aware that, because decisions about funding are made primarily along departmental and division lines, integrative learning is seen by many as a new, illegitimate competitor for scarce resources. Our needs for research data are sometimes unmet, as integrative learning, once again, does not fit neatly into the college’s program review structures. Although our institutional-level e-portfolio assessment was lauded at our last accreditation visit, there is no support for hosting even a free, open-source tool on our district’s server. Through our integrative learning initiatives, we have learned much about what our students need in order to succeed, but we also know now that we have not been able to change the college’s larger structures and culture—and certainly not the larger structures of California’s higher education system—to fulfill those needs. So perhaps the dozens of faculty now involved in integrative learning on our campus need to find a metaphorical closet, like the actual one at the Carnegie Foundation, and search for new detours.

Our story may resonate with other campuses trying to make integrative learning a permanent and intentional characteristic of the education they offer. It’s important for them to know that, despite these frustrations, the thirty or more faculty involved at CSM have moved toward a different culture of teaching. Although we come from a variety of disciplines, we tackle common concerns and share interest in each other’s pedagogies. We value a scholarly approach to our profession. We have watched students transformed from reluctant bodies slumped over desks in the back of the classroom to campus leaders, inspired learners, and engaged citizens. Although our experience has been that a few faculty members alone cannot achieve institutional change without large-scale systemic support, we are now watching our campus literally being rebuilt: old buildings are being demolished or renovated and overgrown landscaping is being cleared. The architectural plans show space for an Integrative Learning Center. Perhaps, as the magnificent views of San Francisco Bay emerge and become visible to all, so too will the panoramas of integrative learning. 


Jean Mach is professor of English and director of the Center for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; Michael Burke is a professor of mathematics; Jeremy Ball is a professor of philosophy—all of the College of San Mateo.

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