Integrative Learning as a Developmental Process: A Grounded Theory of College Students' Experiences in Integrative Studies

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Brown Leonard, Bonne Jean
McEwen, Marylu K.
The purpose of this grounded theory study was to learn how students in an explicitly integrative learning environment make meaning of and understand integrative learning. The research questions that guided this study included: Do students experience integrative learning? If so, how do students experience integrative learning, and which experiences do students identify as contributing to their ability to integrate? What challenges and successes do students experience with integrative learning? Consistent with constructivist grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2000, 2006). I developed an emerging theory about students' experiences with integrative learning that is grounded in the data. I interviewed 10 students enrolled in an Integrative Studies program at a university in the greater Washington, DC region. Students in this study defined integrative learning very broadly. To capture the range of learning described by students, I created a continuum of different forms of integration that vary by complexity: application, comparison, understanding context, and synthesis. A developmental theory of integrative learning emerged from this study. Students engaged in the least complex form of integration, application, by finding their coursework personally relevant and applying what they learn to their own lives. Through class discussion and reading students identified multiple perspectives, which led to integration as comparison. When different perspectives are in conflict, students began to engage in integration as understanding context. Context is an important consideration when evaluating competing claims and evaluating arguments. By reconciling conflict, students may reach the most complex form of integration: synthesis. Students needed to wrestle with the ambiguity and complexity and resist automatically adopting an externally provided solution from a trusted authority figure. Students in this study rarely if ever reached synthesis, but they agreed that it was an ideal. Students' level of cognitive complexity as well as their pattern of Integrative Studies course work affected students' progress with integrative learning. By listening to student voices, I learned about the Integrative Studies program as students experience it and compared it to faculty expectations. This study both celebrates program strengths and offers recommendations for improvement. I discuss the implications of this for future research and higher education practice.