Peer Review

From the President

Intentional and integrative learning have been themes in our work at AAC&U for decades. But in recent years, the urgency with which college leaders and faculty have embraced these concepts has increased significantly. Our members know that these issues stand at the heart of the task of preparing students for a much more challenging environment. Thus, colleges and universities are working to become more intentional both about the purposes of education and about the practices that help today’s students succeed in college.

The emerging interest in integration and applied learning is captured in the LEAP vision of essential learning outcomes, or liberal education outcomes. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that this theme adds an important twenty-first century dimension to both the philosophy and the practice of liberal education.
One of the indicators of real student progress will surely need to be how well they can integrate and apply their learning from different sources to new problems—unscripted problems and real-world questions. This notion of integrative learning resonates in different ways for different stakeholders in higher education.

Faculty members want students to use their learning to take responsibility for the big challenges that we face as a global community and the problems we encounter in our communities. No significant problem can be solved through the lens of a single discipline. Real-world questions do not come nicely sorted out as “I belong to economics” or “I belong to psychology.” In response, we’re seeing examples of new curricula both in departments and in advanced general education that are organized around big themes and big questions and that deliberately link different courses and disciplines in exploration of the question.

There is much more interest in the academy now in engaging students in the implications of knowledge, not just acquiring knowledge but looking at how it can be used to both understand and solve significant problems, such as environmental sustainability or religious conflict. That pulls you toward more integrative designs for learning and the equal interest in getting students out in the field to test their skills against real problems.

Employers also want to know that students can actually apply their learning to the new questions and problems experienced in the workplace. Employers want to know not just that students can apply and integrate different disciplines, but that they can integrate their academic learning in field-based settings. Above and beyond the lenses of a particular discipline, employers need workers who can, in a systematic way, reflect on what they are encountering in the field and use insights gained in the field to question, to modify, to connect, and perhaps to integrate things they learned in academic settings. When we surveyed recent graduates, another important constituency, they, too, believed higher education should place more emphasis on applied learning in real-world settings. For graduates five to ten years out, more emphasis on how to use knowledge and how to apply it was their top goal for strengthening undergraduate education.

So how does this emphasis on integrative learning change our approach to liberal education? When you look at the four categories of the essential learning outcomes in the LEAP vision, the first three—broad knowledge, intellectual and practical skills, and personal and social responsibility—are updated versions of the most classical goals of the liberal arts tradition. In every era, from ancient Greece, throughout the middle ages, to the nineteenth century, a liberal education has emphasized three elements—(1) the knowledge that leaders need to function effectively in their society; (2) the development of the powers of the mind and cultivation of the capacity for reasoned analysis and judgment; and (3) the notion that we are forming people for society and that it is important that they possess civic virtues and examined commitments that serve the particular society in which they are citizens and leaders. As such, the first three categories are just reframings for our time of enduring liberal arts goals. But the fourth category, integrative and applied learning, is a truly twenty-first century liberal art. Integrative learning marks a notable shift in the practice of the liberal arts from language we used to use—understanding, appreciating, comprehending, remembering to actually being able to do. Students must now know how to apply knowledge and to use it in new contexts.

And that’s where we see the most the energy on campus—new designs that get students out in the field connecting academic and field-based learning, especially in the context of their major fields. This emphasis on integrative and applied learning is helping to build capabilities that we need as a society facing some of the most difficult challenges that we have faced in recent history—fundamentally issues about survival. These critical times will define the future that we will create together and our students’ capacity to integrate will be the key to our success.

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