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Integrative learning has been identified as a primary goal for university graduates in the twenty-first century. The word “integrative” has been part of higher education scholarship for at least the past ten years and increasingly since the 2007 Report by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, a document that includes integrative learning as one of the main objectives of higher education for the new century. Honors programs and colleges offer excellent opportunities to accomplish this objective along with an interdisciplinary and international perspective. In this article, we present current scholarship on integrative learning in the context of an innovative, international program that explicitly sought to address this outcome and that had both experiential and international components. We also discuss the qualitative assessment measures used in the program, which generally indicated that students learned to connect skills and knowledge, were able to make connections and reflect on them, and demonstrated ability to address real-world problems.
In the spring of 2007, the University of New Mexico Honors Program offered a new and highly experimental program to its students. The “From the Rockies to the Andes” program comprised two linked courses (Biogeography and Social Science) that compared arid zones on two continents. This program explicitly aimed to address the four essential learning outcomes identified in 2002 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) that students must achieve to be prepared for the twenty-first century: knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world; intellectual and practical skills; personal and social responsibility; and integrative learning. The first and second objectives are the most universally accepted as the responsibility of American universities and are most easily aligned with the curricula of academic disciplines and professional programs. Some educators and community leaders may feel more contentious about the third objective, believing it not to be within the province of education. We disagree strongly and believe that all good teaching must at a minimum model all of the first three objectives; however, they are not the focus of this article.
Here we focus on the fourth objective, which requires some explanation and is the most difficult to achieve. Our experience in “From the Rockies to the Andes” has led us to reexamine its meaning and implementation several times. Carol Schneider defined integrative learning as “a shorthand term for teaching a set of capacities (arts of connection, reflective judgment, and considered action) that enable students to put their knowledge to effective use” (1). We would add to this definition the 2007 National Leadership Council’s description of integrative learning as “achieving synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies,” which is “demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems” (3).
The program we offered in 2007 and 2009 provides a special opportunity to examine efforts to achieve this fourth objective in a setting that went beyond a single course but did not encompass an entire curriculum. UNM is a large, public, metropolitan research university with more than 27,000 students. The honors program has existed within this university for nearly fifty years. It is an interdisciplinary program that allows students to engage in courses and experiences beyond their disciplines and that is deeply committed to experiential learning and international experiences. The program also has an unusual grading system (A, Credit, No Credit) that encourages students to take classes outside their comfort zone.