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Inside Iowa State
January 7, 2000

Faculty starting to integrate courses across college lines

by Anne Krapfl
Iowa State's learning communities are taking on a new look as faculty members begin to collaborate on course content. What started mostly as a function of the registrar's office -- getting learning community students into the same class sections -- is beginning to expand into faculty teaching roles. Faculty from different departments whose students are linked through a learning community are integrating their curriculums, sharing class sessions and attending classes taught by the other.

For example, Tom Polito and John Schafer, agronomy faculty members who team-teach a junior-level soil management class, paired with David Roberts, English, who teaches a junior-level proposal and report writing class. The agronomy class is built around a real-life farmer-client, for whom class members assess soil and water components of the farm operation, make recommendations for improvement and present their findings in reports. Fall semester began the second year of integrating the two classes.

"We looked at our syllabi and asked ourselves, 'What are we trying to accomplish?'" Polito recalled. "It makes sense to imbed the writing in a subject matter course. Sometimes, Dave teaches during the agronomy time slot, or we simply swap times if that seems to work best that week.

"I think integrating the courses mostly alters the timing of what we teach, not so much the content," he added.

The idea behind integration is helping students learn to piggyback skills, says English faculty member Charie Thralls and a Miller fellow last year in Iowa State's Center for Teaching Excellence.

"Our graduates will have to be able to use skills in combination. Educationally, students experience them separately," Thralls said. "This is about using skills collectively for problem solving."

Writing: the common thread
Integrating courses requires extra time and it requires money. The university's three-year, $1.5 million commitment to learning community initiatives helps with the latter; some faculty say the additional time they put in has important pay-offs.

"The first time through (fall 1998), it was darn near like doing double time," Roberts said. "It's fairly labor intensive from our point of view, but this teaching experience is marvelous. Because it's so realistic, students have a much stronger commitment to the report writing, and that's a tremendous advantage."

Many of the early course integrations that have occurred pair an English composition course with a science course. This spring, for the first time, Roberts and Schafer will link an introductory level soils course and freshman composition.

Steve Mickelson, agricultural and biosystems engineering, sought an English teacher last fall to pair freshman composition sections with two of his freshman courses, engineering graphic design and principles of ag systems technology. He and English Ph.D. candidate Patty Harms shared class time and integrated their course material, especially as it related to writing and technical problems. They will do the same with two more 100-level agricultural engineering courses this spring, and Mickelson is preparing a proposal to expand the pairings next fall into sophomore-level classes.

"All our students need the English coursework and I think it improves the writing experience for them by making it discipline-based," he said. "We're only halfway through the year, but our students are excited about it."

All kinds of learning community models exist and the links among them vary tremendously, said Corly Brooke, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Some involve out-of-class experiences, whether academic or purely social. One concern is that learning communities not become a series of activities without a real strategy for improving student learning.

"We'd like to promote the curriculum ties and the notion of building connections among faculty across colleges," Brooke said. Staff in the center can assist faculty members with models that promote "connected learning," she said.

But is it working?
In combination with a "living" community at Maple Hall and a peer mentor system that involves upperclassmen, Mickelson said he sees a difference already.

"In the fall of '96, we lost half our freshman class. It was apparent we were doing a poor job of helping our students," he recalled. "I'm interested in retaining students, especially the freshmen and sophomores."

Freshman retention this year is nearly 90 percent, he said, and the department is at an all-time high for number of students enrolled.

Polito said he believes one reason the junior-level learning community is working is that students have blurred the line between the two courses. Students have told him they can't tell which class some of their notes are from. He also gets comments such as "This classis so much work."

Polito's team has hired a graduate student to compile two years' worth of students' final reports for client-farmers and assemble a panel of readers to compare the reports, prior to and following course integration. They hope -- actually, expect -- to see improvements in the quality of the reports.

English faculty see course integration as beneficial to their students, too.

"This allows me to eliminate most of that necessary fiction -- fake case studies, things like that -- that surround college writing courses," Roberts said.

Most agree that learning communities and integrated coursework aren't the solution to all teaching dilemmas.

"First of all, this presents such a culture change to faculty, and it takes time to work through that," Thralls said. "And it's not a solution you apply uniformly. But my experience is that it's helpful to look for spots where it could enhance the undergraduate experience."

Polito said the junior-level learning community was an unanticipated solution. "We were trying to improve student learning. We didn't set out to design a learning community, but the solution to our problem turned out to be a learning community that immerses the two classes. We think it's working."

Mickelson said the higher student retention rates in his department are making converts among his colleagues. "The faculty are starting to buy in to this. We're seeing more interaction among our freshmen and our faculty, even among some of the naysayers. And if our freshmen feel they can talk to faculty and to upperclassmen, they're going to stay."

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