- This phenomenological study explores the effects that an interdisciplinary program of study at a community college has on students once they transfer to a four-year institution. Interdisciplinary approaches have been proposed as a way of meeting the complex thinking skills needed for 21st Century learning. Because interdisciplinary learning is complex, it is difficult to assess; the literature on interdisciplinary learning has identified assessment as a key area where few empirical studies have been done. Complex learning requires complex and various approaches to assessment; thus, exploring student perceptions of their learning as the result of an interdisciplinary program is one way of beginning to assess the experience of interdisciplinary learning and to identify themes worthy of further study. In addition, interdisciplinary learning has been proposed as an approach for contextualizing and revitalizing general education requirements, but few studies have been done on the effectiveness of doing so. Because the primary focus of community college transfer degree programs is general education, a community college interdisciplinary program offers an opportunity to explore the effectiveness of interdisciplinary learning as a vehicle for enhancing the experience of general education requirements and for developing complex thinking skills. The literature on interdisciplinary learning also engages the question of whether interdisciplinary approaches are appropriate for first- and second- year students or should be reserved for upper division work. Since one of the primary goals of community college transfer degrees is adequate preparation for a four-year degree program, exploring the experiences of students from a community college interdisciplinary program once they are engaged in a four-year program can begin to answer the tricky question of assessment when it comes to interdisciplinary learning and its efficacy in delivering and contextualizing general education requirements and outcomes to first- and second-year students. This research was guided by the question: How do students who graduate from a community college interdisciplinary program use and experience that learning when they transfer to a four-year school? The framework for this study is Boix Mansilla and Dawes Duraisingh's (2007) empirically grounded framework for the assessment of interdisciplinary learning, which defines three domains of interdisciplinary understanding: disciplinary grounding, integration, and critical awareness. Interview questions were designed to have students reflect on their learning in these areas and on their ability to apply interdisciplinary learning to their four-year program course work and to complex real world situations. The study conducted interviews with students who graduated with an interdisciplinary Associate of Arts degree from Skagit Valley College, transferred to a four-year program within Washington State, and completed at least 30 credits. Qualitative, semi-structured interviews were conducted until a point of saturation was reached. Subjects were coded for anonymity and analyzed according to themes that emerged around the framework that guided the interview questions. While Students perceived that interdisciplinary approaches at community college benefited their learning at the college and at the four-year program, especially in the areas of critical thinking, writing, research, and making general connections among classes, student perceptions of disciplinary grounding, integration, and critical awareness varied and seemed to be affected by the type of major the student was pursuing. Student interviews indicated that disciplinary grounding achieved through interdisciplinary courses at the community college might be limited and might need more development through stand-alone disciplinary courses or interdisciplinary courses that offer more than introductory level disciplinary content. While students reflected that they developed strong interdisciplinary habits of mind through their coursework at the community college, their abilities to describe integrative understandings that they achieved at the four-year institution varied. While all students found themselves applying interdisciplinary perspectives to complex problems at school and outside school, their articulations of their critical awareness in applying such approaches tended toward descriptions of general approaches rather than rich discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of the disciplines and of the logic they used in bringing those disciplines to bear on complex problems. Overall, student responses indicated that interdisciplinary approaches at the community college have potential to be used effectively to engage students in general education requirements and that such approaches have real world, as well as academic, applications. However, it appears that sustained support through programmatic, integrated, and incremental interdisciplinary learning approaches at both the community college and four-year program might be needed in order for higher-level interdisciplinary outcomes to be achieved.
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