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In medias res: Integration & Disintegration in the First Semester

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The Catalyst Project Presented by: Sara B. Varhus, Rhonda Mandel & Linda Rae Markert. In medias res: Integration & Disintegration in the First Semester. “A local motion keepeth bodies integral, and their parts together.” --Francis Bacon.

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the catalyst project presented by sara b varhus rhonda mandel linda rae markert
The Catalyst Project

Presented by: Sara B. Varhus,

Rhonda Mandel & Linda Rae Markert

In medias res: Integration & Disintegration in the First Semester

“One can think reflectively only when one is willing to endure suspense and to undergo the trouble of searching.”

“To formulate requires getting outside of (the experience), seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another. . . .”--John Dewey

“Integrative learning is the next new campus initiative to come from Culkin Hall. . . . While vaguely defined, this is probably something that we are already doing in our department; consider how you might implement integrative learning in your work.”

-- Minutes of a recent department meeting



Students at Fr. Orientation

Catalyst Project Team

Advisory Board


First Choice Students

Intellectual Issues Students

Capstone Students

  • The reflective exercise
  • Our findings
  • Integrative assignments and the “first year project”
question one
Question one

Summer: looking back at your high school years, reflect on how your experiences as a student have influenced your interests, goals, beliefs, and/or general outlook.

Fall: as you complete your first semester at SUNY at Oswego, reflect on how your early experiences as a college student have changed or influenced your interests, beliefs and/or general outlook.

question two
Question two

Summer: Describe a recent assignment for one class in which you used skills, knowledge and/or methods that you learned in other classes. Described how you applied your learning in this course or assignment.

Fall: Describe an exercise or assignment you were asked to complete this semester that required or enabled you to use information and/or strategies you learned in other classes. How did you go about integrating your learning for this exercise or assignment?

question three
Question three

Summer: In college you will be taking classes in your major, general education courses, and courses that you choose simply because they interest you. What do you think is the value of the variety of courses that you will be taking?

Fall: During this fall semester, you have taken classes in your major and general education, as well as elective courses that interested you. What do you see as the value of this variety of courses you are now completing?


“I did well in almost all subjects, but it was. . . History, music and language that I became passionate about, instead of going through the motions in subjects such as math and sciences.”

“It’s like dating. . . . You date various people looking for ‘the one.’” High school was a series of classes, which you sample, hoping to find something you enjoy doing. When you find that one thing, you know it’s what you want to pursue in college.”


“I’m learning to take in information now with less judgment or expectation and have found that I’m actually learning better, and more by being more open to information.”

“Taking a variety of courses, especially during your freshman year, helps to introduce you to the many different aspects of the world and allows you to make connections between what you know and what you have yet to learn.”


“In my design class. . . I had to be creative and look at something/object in a different and creative way. In all my other classes I have to approach what I am learning open-minded and with a willingness to think about concepts/ideas in a different way.”


“The value of this integration into a variety of courses. . . . Has allowed me to understand what is out there in the world that is very different from my perceived own understanding.”

“Being forced to read books and learn new ideas and opinions has made me more intelligent towards school work and the role school plays in society. My beliefs have become less cynical and optimism rests inside me.”

catalyst project and ilp
Catalyst Project and ILP
  • Promoting intentionality
  • Developmental issues and integrative processes
  • Personal motivation and integration
  • Social dimensions in integration
2004 freshman cohort at suny oswego
2004 Freshman Cohort at SUNY Oswego
  • Applied = 7466
  • Admitted = 4242 (57%)
  • Enrolled = 1390 (33%)
  • Breakdown by Discipline
  • Undeclared =306 (22%)
  • Business =181 (13%)
  • Education =326 (23%)
  • Arts & Sciences =577 (42%)
firstchoice fall 2004
FirstChoice Fall 2004
  • This is the first semester that ALL incoming freshmen were enrolled in a First Choice course where the enrollment was capped @ 19 and instructors had received training relative to adding activities in their classes to assist students to be successful in college
  • At the end of the first term, faculty members of these small classes were asked to have their students respond to nearly the same set of questions they wrote about during summer orientation
  • One additional question was added which asked them to tell us about what they had learned about being a college student during their First Choice course
analysis of responses
Analysis of Responses
  • What changes have occurred during this first semester & what trends seem to be emerging?
  • CHANGES in how they perceive that their academic experiences have influenced or changed their interests, goals, beliefs or general outlook
  • CHANGES in their attitudes/opinions about the “value” of the variety of courses they will be/have taken at SUNY Oswego
  • Data will be presented for all four questions, but Rhonda Mandel will spend more time analyzing the descriptions students give of the types of assignments they remember completing in high school or have just completed during their first term as a college student
  • Categories (our rubric) were not pre-defined – after multiple reviews, as a team we derived them ourselves as we discovered recurrent themes and trends in the responses from both surveys
question one1
Question one


Personal Growth 30.6% 19%

More Motivated 13.8% 5.5

Less Motivated 1.2% 2.9%

No Change 1.8% 11.9%

Less Confident 0% 1.5%

Learned Keys to

Academic Success 9% 23.5%

More Confident 7.5% 11.1%

Learned About

my Interests 35.8% 22.9%

question two1
Question two


Skills Transferred 47.3% 49%

Academic Concepts

Transferred * 37.6% 31.8%

Personal Growth * 7.2% 2.8%

Used Skills Learned

Outside of Class * 5.3% 2.7%

No Transfer of Information 2% 6.4%

No Response .6% 7%

question three1
Question three


Value for the Future 19.7% 8%

Negative Value .003% 10.7%

Means to Discover

Interests, Likes &

Dislikes &

Exploration 33.4% 35%

Breadth/Diversity 39.2% 39.8%

Personal Growth 6.7% 3%

No Response .005% 3%

question four
Question four


Negative Lessons 7%

Academic Growth 15%

Personal Growth 37%

Realized Keys to

Academic Success 41%

observations about changes during this first semester after reviewing the data
Observations about changes during this First Semester after reviewing the DATA
  • Students’ focus on personal growth issues is much stronger during their summer orientation session. In all three questions, students’ responses illustrated a shift away from relating expressions of individual growth, examples of learning about interests and personal drive – in favor of discovering keys to being successful college students and gaining confidence in their academic abilities.Pre-College = Personal Issues Post- Freshman Semester = Academic Issues
When asked to reflect on the “value” of the variety of classes taken in college, most believe there IS value and the number of students describing this as a means to acquire breadth/diversity or discover interests, likes & dislikes remains consistent over time at just over 70% of the cohort.
With regard to their recall about academic exercises and assignments, almost all students are able to identify “something” they have done where they believe integration has occurred. However, the transference of skills is the largest category for the entire cohort and there are slightly fewer students who, at the end of the first term, are able to articulate examples of activities where they have transferred academic concepts – slightly more of these first semester freshmen also tell us that they do not see “any” transfer of information.
looking ahead
Looking ahead. . .
  • We are now thinking about interventions that might enable a greater percentage of SUNY Oswego’s undergraduate students to integrate their learning experiences and acquire higher level integrative thinking competencies….
  • Rhonda Mandel will now discuss the characteristics of academic assignments and exercises we believe challenge and engage students in their learning and thinking.
general observations from the students reflections on integrative projects
General Observations from the Students’ Reflections on Integrative Projects
  • Although almost all students could present an example of integration, they differed in amount and degree
  • The majority of students connected a positive affect to the experience
    • Excitement about the project
    • Pride in their accomplishments
    • External affirmation in grades and comments
classifying for levels of integrative complexity
Classifying for Levels of Integrative Complexity
  • Categories
    • Skills Integration
      • Simple realizations that skills can be taken from one class to another
      • (ex. Use calculus in physics)
    • Multiple skills integration
      • One project integrates many skills
      • Usually a project in a single course
classifying projects for levels on integrative complexity
Classifying Projects for Levels on Integrative Complexity
  • Content Connections – Student is making the connections
    • Contextual grounding
      • One course is used as grounding for another (ex. place a novel in a historical context)
      • Usually involves connecting two courses
    • Content applicability
      • Student makes the connection across courses
      • Can involve multiple courses
levels of integration
Levels of Integration
  • Global
    • Student makes connection from one or more courses to a concept that applies to many courses
  • Personal Connections
    • Student makes a connection to his/her personal life
  • “Cosmic”
    • Student comes to the realization that everything is connected
    • “Students achieving oneness will move on to Twoness” – Woody Allen
types of projects
Types of Projects
  • “Soup-to nuts” projects: Students take the projects from question formation to oral presentation
    • Term papers
    • Science lab projects
  • Simulations
    • Can be “soup-to-nuts” but center around real life issues related to a class
    • Used most often in business classes and in political science classes
  • Forced Integration Projects
    • Problem explicitly asks students to integrate material from a variety of classes
types of projects1
Types of Projects
  • Public policy issues: Students are asked to research all sides of an issue
    • Ex. Legalization of marijuana, homelessness, censorship
  • Projects with creative products
    • Ex. Films, sculpture
  • Internships or field placements
  • Projects that relate personally to the student’s growth and development
How Can We Use What We Have Learned about Integrative Assignments?

The First Year Project!!

two main principles
Two Main Principles
  • Since our first year program is composed of a variety of different courses, a set of principles for faculty in developing first year projects seems most feasible
  • First year projects should be developmentally appropriate for the level of student.
  • Students should have some input into the choice of topic within appropriate guidelines
  • The integrative nature of the project should be made explicit to students
  • There should be some presentation component to the project
  • Projects should provide a challenge to the students but not be so challenging as to be daunting
  • Projects should focus as much on process as on product
  • Students should keep a reflective journal throughout the project
special thanks to
Special thanks to:
  • Patricia Michel, our research associate, for providing us with the early categories which enabled us to build our models
  • The summer orientation faculty who graciously allowed us to usurp their session at orientation
  • The FirstChoice instructors who collected data for us after the first semester
  • The Advisory Board members who consulted with us about the first year project
  • All the incredible students who provided us with the rich data that allowed us to make this analysis
  • The Catalyst Project”
  • Sara B. Varhus,
  • Rhonda Mandel,
  • Linda Rae Markert,