Designing Integrative/Interdisciplinary Assignments

An emphasis on integrative learning can help undergraduates put the pieces together and develop habits of mind that prepare them to make informed judgements in the conduct of personal, professional, and civic life.
– A Statement on Integrative Learning, Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)

A great strength of learning communities is their potential to foster integrative and interdisciplinary learning, an essential skill in education and the workplace. The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AACU) names “integrative and applied learning” as one of four essential learning outcomes. Realizing the potential of LCs to serve as a place where students develop integrative thinking skills required a shift in focus.

Early conversations about LCs focused at a macro-level on what courses could be combined. A slight shift in focus, to the actual substance of what students are learning in LCs, led to the development of this heuristic for designing integrated learning. Widespread use of the heuristic, and multiple variations of it, began to highlight the importance of good assignment design.

In 2006, the Washington Center organized an action research project in partnership with Veronica Boix-Mansilla (Principal Investigator, Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education). The National Project on Assessing Learning in Learning Communities (2006-2008) brought together 22 two- and four-year institutions to design integrative/interdisciplinary assignments using this definition of interdisciplinary understanding, by Boix-Mansilla. Project participants used the Collaborative Assessment Protocol for Looking at Student Work to assess students’ responses to these assignments.

When Faculty Assess Integrative Learning reports on the project. So too, does this special issue of the Journal of Learning Communities Research.

A subsequent project, Reaching College Readiness (2009-2010), funded by the College Spark foundation, involved faculty from five Washington state community colleges who designed assignments that contextualized college readiness within disciplines and fields of study in the context of precollege and adult basic education. Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding Approach provided the foundation.

Reinforcing the centrality to student learning of good assignment design, the Degree Qualifications Profile project has established a searchable, peer-reviewed Assignment Library. They also list resources that support the creation of good assignments.