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300-level Integrative Courses: A Pilot Project

Our award-winning General Education program is based on five clusters of integrated learning outcomes. Symbolized in our new logo, this model has a long history. In fall 1997, when General Education: The Human Community launched, students fulfilled their cluster requirements by selecting multidisciplinary, faculty-designed sequences of courses called packages. As enrollment grew, packages became difficult to scale, so the course sequences were slowly “unpacked” and grouped into areas, tiers, or tracks. The goal of integration remained intact, however, and the program initiated this pilot project to reinvigorate it. 

What is integrative learning?

The AAC&U website describes it as an approach or disposition towards learning that stresses higher order cognitive processes like synthesis, application, analysis, and reflection. Starting in the 1990s, integrated learning was promoted via capstone courses in the major; such courses appear in early studies on high impact practices, for example, and typically required integration of knowledge and skills within a single discipline. Other kinds of integrative experiences in the major include internships, practica, and senior projects like theses. As research demonstrating the benefits of these experiences for students grew, faculty on many campuses began to argue for integrated learning in general education programs or core curricula. Such courses often take the form of first-year seminars that blend writing, critical thinking, communication, and research, but they may also be found at the upper level (in capstones) or in pathways designed to break down disciplinary silos and encourage curricular coherence. Like integrative learning in the major, integrative learning in liberal education programs encourages students to synthesize what they have learned, apply that knowledge to real-world problems, work collaboratively with others, and prepare for post-graduation transitions.

Why is this pilot happening now?

The General Education program’s 2011-12 APR noted several ways in which we could improve and remain a leader. Two of the team’s recommendations have already been adopted: removing the G to correct erroneous perceptions about the rigor of courses in the program and courses in the major; and reorganizing and consolidating the program’s administrative structure. A third recommendation concerned a junior-level course that would help students connect knowledge and skills across the clusters, apply them to real-world problems, and serve as an integrative, liberal-learning experience. Just as recommendations from departmental APRs are shared with their faculty for consideration, so the General Education program has invited university faculty to consider this one.

Why are integrative courses a good idea for JMU?

  1. They benefit students.
    1. Integrative courses are typically small (25-40 seats), incorporate hands’ on or applied projects, and promote faculty-student interaction. National studies show that students demonstrate improved written and oral communication skills (beyond intro-level), enhanced ability to collaborate with others, and increased sense of self-efficacy for learning among other things. (NILOA, NSSE, Kuh)
    2. Integrated learning helps students better prepare for life after JMU. Recent studies show that the major is no longer a guarantor of lifelong job security and that the skills most needed for post-graduation success are the cross-cutting ones associated with general/liberal education programs (AAC&U “Falling Short?,”  2015; AAC&U, “More than a Major,” 2015;  Georgetown CEW, “What’s it Worth,” 2011). Data collected in JMU’s own 2016 Gallup-Purdue study showed that only 36% of JMU alumni said they were employed in a field “closely related to their major; the other 44% said they their jobs were either “somewhat related” or “not at all related.” A similar study of JMU alumni conducted by CAP revealed that, four years after graduation, only 55% percent of alumni were employed in the field in which they majored. We also know from queries of JMU student data that most undergraduates do not complete their general education requirements in two years; rather, they pursue it across all four or five years. In other words, our students do not experience general education in isolation from their major, minor, or other degree requirements.
    3. Such courses will ameliorate problems stemming from enrollment pressures, changes in progression standards and pre-professional programs, and the complexities associated with the increasing volume of transfer students.
  1. They benefit faculty.
    1. Integrative courses enable faculty to showcase their expertise, innovate curriculum, and reach a broader population. There is tremendous curricular energy on campus, but it is also a time of limited resources and rising enrollments in some areas. By collaborating in this project, individuals, units, and programs can reach new audiences and have a greater cumulative impact.
    2. Integrative courses offer faculty a way to transcend traditional boundaries, promote innovative pedagogies, and pursue engaged learning that aligns with university-wide initiatives like diversity and inclusion; environmental stewardship, ethical reasoning, community engagement, or civic engagement.

What is the timeline?

In summer 2016, program faculty received a grant to develop outcomes and rubrics for a 300-level integrative general education course. In 2016-17, the program successfully piloted two courses and hosted the first of a series of formal conversations where faculty discussed this junior-level course idea. Information about the grant and initial pilots appeared on our website, in the annual program newsletters that all program faculty receive, and in all updates to freshman and transfer advisors. In June 2017, five faculty participated in a week-long JMUdesign workshop to develop additional pilots for Fall 2017-Spring 2018.

Information about the pilots can be found here. GenEd Wordpress

Information for faculty interested in developing a pilot can be found at the bottom of this page.

Where would these integrative courses fit?

Here are some possible scenarios:

1)      300-level integrative courses could be added to a single area of the program, such as the Critical Thinking area of Cluster One, where they would be restricted to certain student populations such as transfers or students with >60 credit hours.

2)      300-level integrative courses could replace existing, lower-level courses in a single area of the program, such as the Critical Thinking area, and be required of all JMU students.

3)      300-level integrative courses could be added as options to multiple areas within the program, especially areas where there are few choices, such as Cluster Five.

4)      300-level integrative courses could replace existing, lower-level courses in multiple areas of the program

These scenarios presume a desire to keep the total number of credit hours in the General Education program to 40-41. Additional scenarios are possible, however, they must be consonant with the program’s guiding principles, which have made us a national exemplar.

For more information about and examples of integrative courses see:

American Association of Colleges and Universities, Integrative Learning: Campus Models and Case Studies https://www.aacu.org/resources/integrative-learning especially Jillian Kinzie, “Taking Stock of Capstones and Integrative Learning” at  https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/taking-stock-capstones-and-integrative-learning

Penn State University’s General Education Program Integrative Courses https://gened.psu.edu/integrative-studies-courses

University of Delaware Integrated Capstones
http://sites.udel.edu/gened/sample-page/capstone/

University of South Florida’s Foundations of Knowledge Capstone Courses http://www.usf.edu/undergrad/fkl-for-faculty-and-staff/fkl-capstone-learning-experience.aspx

Grand Valley State University Issues Courses
http://www.gvsu.edu/gened/student-learning-outcomes-79.htm
and “Designing and Implementing an Integrative, Collaborative, Problem-Solving-Based General Education Capstone” at https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/designing-and-implementing-integrative-collaborative-problem

University of Rhode Island’s General Education Program “Grand Challenges” Courses http://web.uri.edu/general-education/

University of Massachusetts, Integrative Experience https://www.umass.edu/gened/teachingAdvising/integrativeExperience/ieFAQ.html

Virginia Commonwealth University Focused Inquiry Courses (First Year Seminars) https://focusedinquiry.vcu.edu/

CAL State-Chico U-Courses (First Year Experience) http://www.csuchico.edu/fye/U-Courses/

University of Iowa Big Ideas Courses
https://teach.its.uiowa.edu/initiatives/big-ideas-courses

Proposing a course:

  1. Courses proposed for a 300-level, integrative General Education experience must meet these four outcomes[1]:
    1. Demonstrate advanced information literacy skills (beyond the MREST)
    2. Communicate using both written and performance formats (beyond SCOM & WRTC)
    3. Engage with complex questions to achieve identified project goals
    4. Apply multiple disciplinary perspectives to a contemporary problem.

2. Preference for courses that address in an intentional, meaningful way one of the university’s current strategic initiatives (Diversity, Environmental Stewardship, Engaged learning, Community engagement, Civic engagement, Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action).

3. Existing courses are eligible for revision and re-piloting; so are new offerings, which will be piloted as experimental courses.

4. Departments sponsoring a piloted course should expect to do so while maintaining their regular commitment to the program (if they have one). 

Evaluating Student Work

While the four proposed integrative learning outcomes are clearly represented across the General Education curriculum, there is currently no vehicle to evaluate student achievement of the new objectives. Rubrics do exist for evaluating student writing assignments, presentations, and critical thinking, and faculty teaching pilots are expected to utilize them as appropriate. In this way, student performance can inform future discussions about viability if the integrative course idea. 

See also course template located here.