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Utilizing undergraduate research to enhance integrative learning.


The Global Conflict and Cooperation learning community established in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) involves students co-enrolling in two or more courses to address a common theme, demonstrating the value provided by undergraduate research to learning communities and integrative learning. The authors describe the structure and approach of this blended research-learning community model and additional pedagogical strategies employed. Assessment findings suggest that the research component supported integrative learning to an unexpected degree. This research-learning community model thus exemplifies the synergistic effects of combining two high-impact practices into a single first-year, first-semester course experience, showing that undergraduate research conducted within learning communities leads to greater effects in both areas.

Keywords: environmental studies, integrative learning, undergraduate research, learning communities, first-year students, high-impact practices

Integrative learning experiences enable college students to gain understanding across the disciplines so that they may address the challenges and complexities facing an increasingly complex and globalizing world (Huber et al. 2005; Laird et al. 2008; Pike et al. 2011). The literature is extensive on the importance of learning communities to integrative learning (Huber and Hutchings 2004; Huber et al. 2005; Kuh 2008; Lardner and Malnarich 2008; Nowacek 2011; Shultz 2013). Although multiple benefits are associated with undergraduate research (see, for example, Husic and Hensel 2011; Lopatto 2009), few studies have examined the role of undergraduate research in supporting integrative learning. One recent study collected assessment data from participants in the interdisciplinary community-connected research practicum at Middlebury College. Findings from this study indicated that the research experience improved student abilities to integrate knowledge from across academic disciplines (Munroe 2016).

Since 2011, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UWEC) has implemented learning communities as a high-impact practice (HIP) to encourage the development of integrative learning. In particular, UWEC linked courses, referred to as "bundles," permit student cohorts to take two or more courses together and then integrate the knowledge and skills acquired in each to address complex problems and issues. During the development of UWEC's bundles, faculty and staff were creating a new liberal education learning core with 11 student learning outcomes (including integrative learning). Three iterations of the integrative learning outcome, elements, and benchmarks were piloted and evaluated. The final iterations of the learning outcome rubrics moved through the university governance process in 2014 for implementation with the 2016-2017 campus catalog. The final integrative learning outcome rubric (see Table 1) provided direction for developing undergraduate research within the learning community and for conducting a qualitative assessment of student assignments.

In fall 2013, the Global Conflict and Cooperation: The Role of Water bundle was developed. The bundle consisted of approximately 25 first-year students who co-enrolled in introductory courses in environmental studies and political science. To encourage integration and build cohort cohesion, the students also met with both instructors for a weekly one-hour seminar to discuss global transboundary water conflicts. Although student evaluations and reflections suggested that the first iteration of the bundle was generally successful, the introduction of undergraduate research over the past two years has truly transformed the nature of the bundle and significantly enhanced the achievement of integrative learning. This bundle experience has thus evolved to reflect the synergistic effects of combining two HIPs into a single, first-year course experience, with undergraduate research conducted within learning communities leading to greater effects in both areas.

This article describes the blended undergraduate research-learning community model that has been implemented as part of the Global Conflict and Cooperation bundle. Several best-practice pedagogical strategies that facilitated the success of the undergraduate research experience are also discussed, such as intentionally guided readings, scaffolded assignments, and design techniques for research posters. The integrative learning outcomes and qualitative assessment of outcomes from this experience are presented, followed by concluding insights, lessons learned, challenges, and potential uses of this model at other institutions.

Infusing Undergraduate Research

As previously noted, an undergraduate research component was introduced into the bundle to encourage greater engagement with the course content. Because those enrolled in the course were first-year students, student teams were created to help overcome any initial trepidation about the research process and to enhance student bonding. The teams would work to produce research posters for presentation at a public "global water" event scheduled for the 11th week of the semester. This event was created so that the students could present their research in a public forum, as well as develop their presentation and communication skills. It also provided the learning community with an opportunity to educate the wider community about the water disputes affecting the countries they were researching. Although the prospect of presenting in public may initially appear daunting to first-year students, they also learned that the assignments and activities incorporated into the course were designed to ensure their timely progress and successful construction of the posters. In addition, students who had previously taken the bundle courses were invited into the classroom to share their experiences, which reassured even the most apprehensive students.

To date, two "global water" events have been organized. In addition to providing the opportunity to share research, these events have brought experts on local, national, and global water issues to campus for presentations and discussion. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the bundle, the invited experts represented a range of disciplinary backgrounds and professions, including politics and local government, environmental sustainability, resource management, and business. The bundle students presented their research posters at the end of the event. Attendees were invited to review the posters and discuss their contents with the student researchers.

To ensure that the research conducted was integrative, the students' research posters encompassed two disciplinary perspectives of the water crises facing countries around the world: environmental studies and world politics. Course materials and discussions helped the students understand that, as the countries under study shared transboundary water resources, no single country could solve its water problems alone. Even if environmentally sustainable water policies were implemented domestically, countries would still need to cooperate with their international neighbors or face the prospect of violent conflict and massive refugee flows. Yet, if countries managed to negotiate mutually agreeable water treaties, these would be meaningless unless sustainable water policies ensured the availability of water to share into the future. Any solution to these crises would therefore have to be integrative: students would need to address both environmental sustainability and international cooperation.

Students chose the country they would research from the following list of options: China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and Turkey. The selected countries provided a truly global representation of the problem and exemplified those international relationships with the greatest potential for violent conflict.

To reinforce the need for integration, student teams were required to divide their posters into four principal sections: an introduction, a sustainability section, a world politics section and an integrated solutions section. For the sustainability section, teams were expected to research the domestic problems facing their country's water supply such as water scarcity, pollution, and environmental damage. For the world politics section, students were expected to explain if and how their country shared its transboundary water resources with its neighbors. For example, students had to determine if treaties were negotiated among countries and, if so, whether the principles of international law concerning shared water resources were included as well as what rights and responsibilities were established.

To familiarize the students with the elements and expectations of a research poster, a software specialist from UWEC's Learning and Technology Services provided them with an introduction to poster design. Course instructors then followed up with several two-hour poster assistance sessions outside the regular class time. Students and instructors worked collaboratively to develop the design and content of their posters.

Intentional Course Design around the Undergraduate Research Core

With the undergraduate research exercise serving as the core of the bundle experience, additional course components were developed so that the students could become conscious and intentional integrative learners. These were needed to ensure that the students had the necessary introduction to the course material and that they would begin their research and presentation practice early in the semester. Therefore, four other assignments were developed in addition to the group poster presentations: facilitated discussions, article summaries, a reflection paper, and an individual paper. The discussion facilitation assignment encouraged bonding within the small groups and facilitated early progress on the research process. Each group prepared a 20-minute presentation to the class on their selected country's water issues, including three key components in a slide presentation: a map of the country/region that included all shared water resources, a brief overview of major water issues faced by the country, and some tentative solutions that incorporated sustainability and ways that these resources could be shared with other riparian countries. Presentations were scheduled for weeks 4 through 7 of the semester.

The article summaries component required students to read and summarize one short article about water issues facing the country from a selection of articles provided online by the instructors. Students were also required to generate two discussion questions based on their chosen article to ask the group(s) presenting that week.

The reflection paper assignment was designed to enhance the students' appreciation for integrative learning and to share how they had developed as learners over the course of the semester. In week 13, students received assignment instructions to incorporate three main components into their reflection: making connections between the course content and the student's experiences, grappling with the ethical and moral dilemmas of the issue, and reflecting on integrative learning.

The fourth and final component of the class, the individual paper, presented an opportunity for students to show the integrative learners they had become. The paper took the form of a policy memorandum to the president of the United States. For the paper, the students were expected to draw heavily on the research they had conducted in their groups as well as demonstrate their individual abilities, knowledge, and personal opinions. Finally, given the reality of limited U.S. resources and time, students were required to identify the paramount foreign policy that the president should support on a global level as well as in relation to their particular region/country. The assignment instructed students to be conscientious in explaining why they selected particular policies.

Qualitative Assessment

Since 2013, 75 students have participated in the water bundle. Student teams produced and presented 16 research posters during the 2014 and 2015 fall semesters to approximately 40 members from the campus and local community each year. Students from the 2015 cohort also presented their posters during the annual campus-wide student research day.

The faculty instructors reviewed a sample of student research posters and reflective writing assignments to determine the relationship of this course-embedded research experience to student problem-solving across disciplinary boundaries. Student work was also assessed for mastery of the three elements of the integrative learning outcome (see Table 2).

Review of the reflective writing assignments revealed that students appeared to make explicit connections between academic understanding and their life experiences. For example, regarding element 1, students reflected on the impact of the seminar on their water-use behaviors (see Table 2). These represented deeper connections between the disciplines and their own experiences, as the students expressed a desire to change their habits and lifestyles. For the second element in the rubric, almost all students readily made connections across the disciplines when reflecting on the challenges of global water resources. During the research process, students developed strategies or solutions to the water problems in specific countries. In several instances, students stated that they could not formulate reasonable approaches without incorporating and linking understanding from both disciplines (see Table 2). Finally, to determine whether students could apply learning from both disciplines, the actual strategies proposed in their research posters were examined. As indicated in the examples in Table 2, students moved seamlessly between the disciplines to promote strategies that addressed both the political and environmental facets of water resource challenges.


Although only two iterations of the newly designed bundle have been taught, the early qualitative evidence is compelling. First-semester, first-year students worked together to produce interdisciplinary solutions to a complex global problem and presented their research in public. Students became conscious of their development as integrative learners within months of starting their college careers and were keen to find further opportunities to use their newfound skills.

These outcomes resulted from two interrelated factors. The first was the intentionally designed integration of two HIPs: learning communities and undergraduate research. The former provided the context in which integration across the disciplines was encouraged, whereas the latter served as the mechanism through which it was most effectively achieved. Although undergraduate research may not be necessary to achieve integration, this bundle clearly demonstrated the synergistic effects of combining both HIPs in a single experience and the deep, integrative learning that resulted. Further iterations and continued assessment will contribute further evidence of its impact. These data can then be compared to bundles that are not oriented to research for evidence of its greater efficacy.

Although it is well known that water scarcity and pollution are global problems that require integrative solutions, it was imperative that the instructors remained intentional and consistent in explaining the need for integration throughout the semester. The intentionally designed, complementary course components and assignments supported systematic integrative thinking throughout the course and provided substantial added depth to the learning process.

The second essential factor in the success of the water bundle was the investment made by faculty and the institution. A Department of Education Title III Strengthening Institutions grant awarded to UWEC in 2010 supported the initial development and teaching of the bundles, as well as the creation of the assessment rubric. This grant, which concluded in 2015, required the institution to focus on improving student retention and time to graduation through transformation of its general education curriculum into a new liberal education core. The grant provided significant faculty stipends for professional development and for the creation, pilot stage, and assessment of learning communities such as the water bundle.

Local funding has not been forthcoming, which means continued efforts to teach bundles, in addition to normal teaching loads, may not receive additional financial support. Although class preparation time was reduced with the introduction of the research exercise, the time and effort required to make the whole experience successful were significant. For example, the "global water" event was an integral part of the student learning experience. As students knew within the first few weeks of the course that they were working toward a public presentation, they could focus their attention on this goal and thus forge the learning community's identity. There was a palpable shared sense of achievement once students presented their research posters and fielded questions from the audience. Nevertheless, a limited budget (provided by participating academic departments) meant that planning and producing the event required significant time and effort.

As a corollary to the organization of the "global water" event, students expressed a greater degree of personal satisfaction in presenting actual paper posters, rather than presenting their work on large computer monitor screens. This posed an interesting ethical dilemma within a course designed to increase awareness of the environmental impact (especially water usage) of producing such manufactured and nonrecyclable products. Finding additional funds for paper posters required some resourcefulness, but given the relatively small size of the class (involving only eight posters) and the contribution to the students' sense of achievement, the investment was worth the effort. However, electronic presentations will be considered in the future to test these assumptions.

Another element of the course that had a positive impact on student learning was the poster assistance sessions. In these two- to three-hour sessions held outside of class time, instructors collaborated with student groups to create content and design for the research posters. These sessions fostered a sense of community between the students and faculty, as the students realized that faculty were working with them to achieve their goals. Although students were told at the beginning of the course that faculty were as much a part of the learning community as the students, these preparatory poster sessions demonstrated the truth of this concept.


As Olson-McBride and colleagues highlight (2016), National Survey of Student Engagement data suggest that participation in HIPs early in a student's academic career prepares him or her to become a more engaged, intentional learner. This experience often fosters participation in further HIPs, which helps to consolidate and improve upon these developments. The Olson-McBride et al. article shows solid work about the vital role of undergraduate research in engaging academically at-risk freshmen.

This article is further testimony to the beneficial impact of undergraduate research as a HIP in first-semester, first-year classrooms. In addition, it adds to the literature by demonstrating how undergraduate research can be used within learning communities to strengthen integrative learning. In this sense, the water bundle may act as a model for combining two HIPs into one experience. The resulting synergy is evident in assessment results and faculty testimonials--particularly the latter area, which indicates a degree of bonding between students and faculty as a result of the research process that echoes a study abroad or domestic immersion experience. It is also a model that can be replicated at any institution with the requisite faculty and institutional commitment.


Huber, Mary Taylor, and Pat Hutchings. 2004. Integrative Learning: Mapping the Terrain. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Huber, Mary Taylor, Pat Hutchings, and Richard Gale. 2005. "Integrative Learning for Liberal Education." Peer Review 7(3/4): 4-7.

Husic, Diane, and Nancy Hensel. 2011. Transforming the Curriculum to Tackling Global Grand Challenges: The Role of Undergraduate Research in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Kuh, George D. 2008. "Why Integration and Engagement Are Essential to Effective Educational Practice in the 21st Century." Peer Review 10(4): 27-28.

Laird, Thomas F. N., Daniel Chen, and George D. Kuh. 2008. "Classroom Practices at Institutions with Higher-Than-Expected Persistence Rates: What Student Engagement Data Tell Us." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 115: 85-99. doi: 10.1002/tl.327

Lardner, Emily, and Giles Malnarich. 2008. "A New Era in Learning-Community Work: Why the Pedagogy of Intentional Integration Matters." Change Magazine 40(4): 30-37. doi: 10.3200/chng.40.4.30-37

Lopatto, David. 2009. Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning. Tucson: Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Munroe, Diane. 2016. "Interdisciplinary Community-Connected Capstone Courses: A Model for Engaging Undergraduates with Public Policy." CUR Quarterly 36(3): 11-20. doi: 10.18833/curq/36/3/2

Nowacek, Rebecca S. 2011. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Olson-McBride, Leah, Holly Hassemer, and Jerry Hoepner. 2016. "Broadening Participation: Engaging Academically At-Risk Freshmen in Undergraduate Research." CUR Quarterly 37(1): 4-10. doi: 10.18833/curq/37/1/3

Pike, Gary R., George D. Kuh, and Alexander C. McCormick. 2011. "An Investigation of the Contingent Relationships between Learning Community Participation and Student Engagement." Research in Higher Education 52: 300-322. doi: 10.1007/s11162-010-9192-1

Shultz, Norah. 2013. "Learning Communities as a First Step in an Integrative Learning Curriculum." About Campus 18(4): 26-29. doi: 10.1002/abc.21128

Karen Mumford

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire,

Karen Mumford, Stephen Hill, and Laurel Kieffer, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Karen Mumford received her PhD in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota and is an associate professor at UWEC's Watershed Institute. Her teaching and research integrate the disciplines of ecology, health, and policy in the development of approaches that protect human and ecological health. She participated in the development of a campus-wide plan for promoting integrative learning and assisted in testing and refining the campus integrative learning assessment rubric. She also assisted in the development of assessment procedures for two environmentally themed minors.

Stephen Hill received his PhD in international studies from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and is a professor of political science at UWEC. His teaching and research focus on international relations theory, peacekeeping, and conflict resolution. Hill is a campus-wide leader in the use of learning communities as part of classroom pedagogy; he has also collaborated with UWEC's Housing and Residence Life to implement the global living learning community. He assisted in the development of the campus-wide integrative learning assessment rubric.

Laurel Kieffer holds an M.S. in educational psychology and has served as a lecturer in the women's studies program at the University of Wisconsin since 1999. From 2010 to 2015, she served as director of the Title III Strengthening Institutions grant. Kieffer coordinated the development and testing of the liberal education core learning outcomes, facilitated faculty development workshops, and managed "bundle" learning communities.
Table 1. Integrative Learning Outcome: Apply Knowledge, Skills, or
Responsibilities Gained in One Academic or Experiential Context to
Other Contexts

Element                             Benchmark not met

Student demonstrates a developing   Does not effectively identify own
sense of self as a learner          viewpoint, values, or understanding
by connecting academic knowledge    between academic knowledge
to own experiences.                 and own experience.
Student makes connections           May present examples, facts,
across disciplines.                 or theories from more than one
                                    discipline, but does not effectively
                                    tie them together or show
                                    Confines analysis to one discipline.
Student applies skills, knowledge,  Does not effectively use, adapt,
or methodologies gained             or apply skills, knowledge, or
in one academic or experiential     methodologies gained in one
context to a different academic     academic or experiential context
or experiential context.            to a new context or may do so
                                    at a superficial level.

Element                             Benchmark met

Student demonstrates a developing  Connects and compares own experience
sense of self as a learner         and academic knowledge to
by connecting academic knowledge   discern similarities and differences,
to own experiences.                acknowledges perspectives other than
                                   own, and recognize how own values
                                   and understanding are formed.
Student makes connections          Develops basic connections between
across disciplines.                or among two or more disciplines to
                                   convey knowledge or explain problems
                                   or issues.
                                   Uses examples, facts, or theories
                                   from two or more disciplines to
                                   convey knowledge or explain problems
                                   or issues.
Student applies skills,            Applies skills, knowledge, or
knowledge, or methodologies        methodologies gained in one academic
gained in one academic or          or experiential context in a
different academic or              different experiential context to a
experiential context.              academic or experiential context to
                                   convey knowledge or explain issues.

Element                            Benchmark exceeded

Student demonstrates a developing  Analyzes examples of own experiences
sense of self as a learner         or values, drawn from a variety
by connecting academic knowledge   of contexts, to demonstrate a
to own experiences.                deepened understanding of
                                   discipline(s). Evaluates changes in
                                   own learning and understanding,
                                   recognizing contextual factors
                                   (ambiguity, risk, frustrations,
                                   ethical frameworks, etc.).
Student makes connections          Skillfully connects examples, facts,
across disciplines.                or theories from two or more
                                   disciplines to address a particular
                                   issue, problem, or question.
                                   Provides evidence (examples,
                                   facts or theories) from two or
                                   more disciplines to support a
Student applies skills,            Adapts skills, knowledge, or
knowledge, or methodologies        methodologies gained in one academic
gained in one academic or          or experiential context to a
different academic or              different academic or experiential
experiential context.              context to discuss complex issues or
                                   solve problems with sufficient

Table 2. Example Statements from Reflective Writing
Assignments and Research Posters Related to UWEC's
Integrative Learning Outcomes

Element 1: Student demonstrates a developing sense of self as a learner
by connecting academic knowledge to own experiences
 Sample of student reflective writing assignment responses
  * As a Political Science major, the politics of the water crisis were
    very interesting to think about in Realist, Liberal, and Radical
    approaches respectively. It was the environmental sustainability
    perspective that really made me stop and think about my own personal
    actions... I now can perceive my own water use on a global scale;
    whereas before this seminar, I had always thought of water scarcity
    as someone else's problem. I have cut down on the amount of meat I
    eat because it takes an enormous amount of water to produce beef.
  * The seminar has shown me what the true importance of water is,
    especially for those who struggle to obtain the necessary amount in
    order to survive. This knowledge has affected the way in which I
    perceive my own water use.
Element 2: Student makes connections across disciplines
 Sample of student reflective writing assignment responses
  * I now understand the global water crisis from an ecological and
    political angle. I know that water levels are decreasing, water
    is being polluted, and countries are essentially battling for
    control over water in their territory. Being knowledgeable on a
    specific issue in such a well-rounded way makes it much easier to
    propose a more realistic solution to the issue because you
    understand the problem more deeply.
  * Through studying conservation of [the] environment I have learned
    that failure to sustain water globally will lead to losses of
    habitats, endangerment of species and the changing of weather
    patterns. The study of world politics has taught me that the reasons
    for conflict include states' attempts at gaining more power,
    territory, resources and wealth. Without studying both disciplines,
    it is not possible to develop a solution to this issue that will
    solve the conflict.
Element 3: Student applies skills, knowledge, or methodologies gained
in one academic or experiential context to a different academic or
experiential context.
 Sample of student research poster recommendations
  * [Much of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates originate in
    Turkey] and thus Turkey controls water flows to support
    hydroelectricity, agriculture, and domestic water use. Invest in
    more efficient irrigation technology and broker an agreement
    between Turkey, Iraq, and Syria for equitable use of river flows.
    Involve participation of the World Bank or the United Nations to
    facilitate negotiations and provide assistance.
  * Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ensure that the
    two-state solution requires agreement over water [allocation].
    Increase desalination and use of recycled wastewater for industrial
    purposes. [Treat] sewage to then be used for agriculture and to
    reduce sewage into the Jordan River. Request UN intervention to
    review [the] 1995 Oslo II Agreement and to enforce fair
    distribution of water.
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Title Annotation:CUR Focus
Author:Mumford, Karen; Hill, Stephen; Kieffer, Laurel
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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