Catalyst Project explores integrative learning

The Catalyst Project — SUNY Oswego’s effort to help students make connections among all their courses — has already involved well over a thousand students and faculty on campus. Next month, a survey of all freshmen has the potential to show if the project has produced any early results in student attitudes and experiences.

That’s a possibility, because the project involves students by periodically asking them questions — questions that are making them think and reflect in ways they otherwise would not, said Associate Provost Rhonda Mandel.

Funded by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the project got under way last January when Oswego’s project team attended a meeting of the teams from all 10 campuses selected for the project. Oswego’s team consists of Mandel, Dean of Education Linda Rae Markert and Dean of Arts and Sciences Sara Varhus.

Integrative learning “has to do with connecting knowledge and experience in different domains,” Varhus told a campus group last month, explaining that it entails both the connections that professors make for students and the connections that they make for themselves — as well as their ability to go on making connections throughout their lives.

Since January, the team has administered questions last spring, on a pilot basis, to students in 20 first-year, intellectual issues and capstone courses and then over the summer during Orientation to incoming freshmen as a writing exercise.

“The purpose of these questions was to have students thinking even before they get here about integrating material across courses,” Mandel said.

The questions ask students to reflect on how their experiences as a student have influenced their interests, goals, beliefs and general outlook; to describe an assignment in one class where they used skills, knowledge or methods learned in other classes and explain how; and what value they see in taking a variety of classes that includes general education courses, classes in their major and electives.

“Students wrote a ton,” Mandel said. “For the most part, students took the questions very seriously.”

The team has just hired Pamela Michel as a research associate to manage and analyze all the data that the project is generating.

In December, all students in first-year courses will be asked to answer the questions again, in light of their first semester experience. A sample of students in intellectual issues and capstone classes will also be surveyed.

This year’s cadre of first-year students will address the questions twice more during their time at Oswego, Mandel said, to see how their thinking has changed: when they complete intellectual issues courses and after they have participated in the capstone experience.

“We believe that these reflections will be a Catalyst for our students to become engaged and self-aware,” Oswego’s team wrote in a presentation at a Carnegie meeting this summer.

The project can also serve as a catalyst for campus change, by suggesting how to go about creating an environment that facilitates integrative learning, Mandel said.

(Posted: Nov 02, 2004)