What is Integrative Learning?

Fostering students' abilities to integrate learning--over time, across courses, and between academic, personal, and community life--is one of the most important goals and challenges of higher education. The undergraduate experience is often a fragmented landscape of general education, concentration, electives, co-curricular activities, and, for many students "the real world" beyond campus. An emphasis on integrative learning can help undergraduates find ways to put the pieces together and develop habits of mind that will prepare them to make informed judgments in the conduct of personal, professional, and civic life.

pdf A Statement on Integrative Learning

Making Connections

Developing the ability to make, recognize, and evaluate connections among disparate concepts, fields, or contexts is what integrative learning is all about. Breadth and depth of learning remain hallmarks of a quality liberal education. Yet, today, there's a growing consensus that breadth and depth are not enough.

As Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, argues, educators are "taking seriously the fragmentation of knowledge, not just in [their] courses, but through the knowledge explosion in the world around us. Many of the most interesting educational innovations clearly are intended to teach students what we might call the new liberal art of integration. Not only do these innovations invite students to integrate learning from different sources, but they also provide models, frameworks and practice in actually doing so." (Schneider 2004, p.7)

To be sure, there's a sense in which all learning is integrative, if only because new ideas must somehow connect to prior ones. When educators single out integrative learning as deserving special attention, however, they are usually talking about larger leaps of imagination rather than smaller ones--about linking domains and ideas that are not typically connected. As a student in a Mathematics and English learning community at the College of San Mateo observed, integrative learning means "tying things together that don't seem obvious."
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Varieties of Integrative Learning

Integrative learning comes in many varieties. Some of the most commonly cited include: 1) connecting skills and knowledge from multiple sources and experiences; 2) applying theory to practice (and back again) in various settings; 3) utilizing diverse and even contradictory points of view; and, 4) understanding issues and positions contextually. Many educators are also concerned with helping students link affective and cognitive learning--or, as some say, "head, hand, and heart."

Interdisciplinary study is perhaps the most familiar vehicle for integrative learning. But integration is also important within disciplines, whether it's learning to see culture in a Balinese cockfight, as one might in anthropology, or learning to bring ethical considerations to bear on real-world problems in engineering.

With the increasing popularity of service learning, study-abroad, field experiences, internships, and other community-based programs, students today have more opportunities than ever to make connections between different forms of knowledge and experience, bringing together perspectives and commitments from personal, academic, and community life.

Developmental Considerations

Most theories of intellectual development construe the ability to integrate knowledge from different sources or contexts as a relatively sophisticated skill, which develops over time and requires considerable effort and experience to attain.

For example, Benjamin Bloom placed synthesis near the "top" of his "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives." And William Perry thought that the capacity for synthesis develops as students progress through varieties of dualism (in which knowledge is basically right or wrong) and relativism (in which a variety of legitimate ways of seeing the world are recognized), to, eventually, commitment in the face of uncertainty. (See Bloom, 1956; Perry, 1998; Kneffelkamp. 1998; and Shulman, 2002.)

Details of particular typologies aside, developmental considerations suggest that college teachers learn to recognize what efforts to integrate look like at different degrees of sophistication, in order to encourage students and help them along. Students, too, need to understand the nature and advantages of integrative learning, and should have opportunities to practice the "integrative arts" throughout their college years.

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Intentional Learning

The idea that integrative learning depends on students to make their own connections is hardly a new one. Indeed, traditionally, the burden of integration has fallen primarily on the learner, with campuses assuming that bright students would have the wit and grit to pull the pieces together as they moved through their studies. What's new, perhaps, is a conviction that ''intentional learning," as called for in AAC&U's Greater Expectations report (2002), is a capacity that colleges and universities can and should help all students develop as a key to integrative learning.

Several core insights lie at the heart of this conviction. Intentional learners have a sense of purpose that serves as a kind of "through line," as playwrights might call it, connecting the sometimes far-flung and fragmentary learning experiences they encounter. They approach learning with high levels of self-awareness, understanding their own processes and goals as learners and making choices that promote connections and depth of understanding. They know how to regulate and focus their efforts as learners--how to make the most of their study time, to practice new skills, to ask probing questions. They are, if you will, on the road to lifelong learning. In a nutshell, intentional learning entails the development of a pedagogical intelligence on the part of students--of "cognitive processes that have learning as a goal rather than an incidental outcome" (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1989, 363).

link Link to Pat Hutchings' essay, Building Pedagogical Intelligence

Why Now?

There are many good reasons for emphasizing integrative learning, including a new appreciation of its importance to contemporary life and thought. Students headed for professional careers will still need specialized expertise. But with flexibility and mobility as watchwords in today's economy, few college graduates can expect to spend a whole career with the same employer or even in the same line of work. Further, the role of interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange is growing both within and outside the academy. In government, industry, medicine, and higher education alike, problems are vetted and solved by bringing together people who are trained in different fields. Finally, because of changes in knowledge and communication practices, including technological advances and globalization, all of us are faced with information that is more complex, fast moving, and accessible than ever before, challenging the integrative and critical capacities of experts and novices alike.

This is true of civic life as well. We no longer live in a world where it is easy to feel in control or empowered to affect what's happening in one's own neighborhood, much less in the nation or the world. Yet at the same time, our personal choices, even the food, clothing, and cars we buy, have immediate consequences for those far away. To participate responsibly as local citizens, then, people must also be citizens of the world, aware of complex interdependencies and able to synthesize information from a wide array of sources; distinguish between sound and misleading analogies; learn from experience; and make connections between theory and practice.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2002). Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bereiter, Carl and Scardamalia, Marlene. (1989) Intentional learning as a goal of instruction. In Knowing, Learning and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser, ed. L. Resnick, pp.361-92. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bloom, Benjamin S. and collaborators. The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay, 1956.

Perry, William G. Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Knefelkamp, L. Lee. Introduction. In Perry, W. G., Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Schneider, Carol Geary. Changing Practices in Liberal Education: What Future Faculty Need to Know. Peer Review, Spring, 2004, 6 (3), 4-7.

Shulman, Lee S. Making Differences: A Table of Learning. Change, Nov/Dec, 2002, 34(6), 37-44.

Links to

pdf A Statement on Integrative Learning, developed jointly by the Association of American Colleges and University and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2004.

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

link Building Pedagogical Intelligence, by Pat Hutchings. Perspectives. Stanford, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, January 2005.

link Peer Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, Spring 2005 (Special Issue on Integrative Learning)

pdf Building Habits—and Habitats—for Integrative Thinking, by Pat Hutchings. Plenary Address. Association of American Colleges and Universities Network Conference on Integrative Learning, Denver, CO, October, 2005.

pdf Integrative Learning as an Intellectual Art, by Mary Taylor Huber. Closing Plenary Panel Remarks, Association of American Colleges and Universities Network Conference on Integrative Learning, Denver, CO, October, 2005.