High-Impact Learning in International Studies:
Reinventing First Year Student Pathways
at American University

By Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at American University’s School of International Service (SIS). This is the second post in a series of reflections generated by the process of undergraduate curricular reform at the SIS. The first post in the series can be found here

International studies is a broad and diverse field; the subject can be approached from a variety of disciplines, and especially in our unevenly globalized era, defining firm boundaries for the subject is nigh upon impossible. When I became associate dean of American University’s School of International Service (SIS) in July 2012, our undergraduate course offerings were literally all over the map: we had a plethora of engaging courses that had been developed by members of the faculty trying to keep up with recent developments and pressing global issues, but not much firm curricular structure holding everything together. As a result, student experiences were widely varied and highly individualized. The challenge that we faced was trying to bring sufficient order to our diverse offerings that students could be connected to opportunities that would afford them opportunities for growth, but to do so without imposing a strict conformity that would raise barriers to students trying to find their own truest vocations.

To meet this challenge we decided to organize the undergraduate curriculum around three educational experiences, all of which fit under the heading of “high-impact practices” that have all been shown to produce significant results in terms of student learning. The three experiences animating the reformed undergraduate curriculum here at the School of International Service are undergraduate research, anchored by our redesigned sophomore year-long methodology sequence and culminating in a required Senior Capstone class; eight broad “thematic areas” within which to organize our substantive upper-division courses; and a coordinated set of foundational first-year courses that provide students with the critical intellectual habits that serve to prepare them for success in their future studies. The central organizing principle of the entire curriculum is that college education should be a process of choice under constraint, with students steadily gaining the ability to focus their coursework as they progress through their years on campus. As such, the first-year foundational courses are necessarily broader in their scope than are the more specialized courses students may elect as they dive into their chosen thematic areas and pursue advanced undergraduate research projects. In the remainder of this post I want to talk about the first-year foundation, postponing a discussion of our undergraduate research program and our thematic areas for a later post in this series.

The first-year foundation courses at SIS are intended both to invite students into the intellectual community of the school and to equip them with the conceptual, theoretical, and historical vocabulary that they will need to ask and answer questions about our most pressing global challenges. Our World Politics course, which we decided to offer in a large-lecture-and-breakout-sections format in order to help ensure consistency of student experience, begins with the history of the international system and the broad theoretical perspectives that scholars take on that international system, and proceeds to connect the macro features of international life to specific areas of concern to our students. After taking this course in the fall, students take a class in Cross-Cultural Communication in the spring; the nature of this course demands that it be taught in smaller sections where professors can press students towards greater self-reflection. Where World Politics starts with the broad international system, Cross-Cultural Communication starts with the cultural embeddedness of particular individuals and builds outward to confront the issues involved in encountering diverse value-commitments across borders. In a sense, these two courses mirror one another, one working from the global level down and one working from the local level up, meeting someplace in the messy middle where the daily work of international interaction actually takes place. Both courses push students to gain familiarity with the basic concepts they will draw on throughout their studies in SIS, and develop the students’ ability to use those concepts in contentious, but civil, conversations with their classmates about thorny and ambiguous issues.

The other pieces of the first-year foundation are SIS Mentorship, a 0-credit extended orientation type of experience that runs for the first half of the fall semester; and the First Year Seminar, a topical course that allows students to delve into a topic of special interest both to them and to the faculty member. SIS Mentorship features a variety of activities (panel discussions with alumni, opportunities to discuss study abroad options with students recently returned from abroad, etc.) designed to familiarize students with the wide array of opportunities available at American University and in the city of Washington, DC. Each first year student is part of a small mentorship group led by a trained upper-class SIS student, and their mentor helps to connect them to appropriate campus and off-campus resources. Students in SIS Mentorship also attend a number of off-campus events related to international studies, ranging from briefings at governmental and non-governmental agencies to special exhibitions and diplomatic receptions. SIS Mentorship culminates in a simulation exercise in which students role-play a country involved in a complex set of international negotiations, setting the stage for the kind of interactive pedagogy they will encounter throughout the rest of their SIS careers.

Our First Year Seminars, by contrast, are substantial academic courses, not extended orientations to college. Capped at nineteen students, First Year Seminars do not have prerequisites, and they are not components of a substantive focus or thematic area for any student’s subsequent classes—they do not serve as content prerequisites for any other course in the SIS undergraduate curriculum. Hence a First Year Seminar is not really an introduction to a topic that students will necessarily go on to study in depth in their future classes; nor should it be thought of as an opportunity for specialists to sum up their accumulated learning, the way a Senior Capstone experience would be. Instead, a First Year Seminar is an opportunity for students who have very recently been in high school—and hence are not used to taking responsibility for their own learning in an environment bereft of the standardized testing that structured their previous education—to begin to develop those critical intellectual skills and habits of mind that will prepare them to get the most out of their college experience. And it is an opportunity for them to develop these skills and habits while studying a special topic that the professor has chosen because it genuinely excites her or his passion and piques the students’ interest.

The point is that a First Year Seminar, although a “special topics” class, is in some ways not as much about the topic as much as it is about helping students figure out how to approach their college educations. This is why First Year Seminars at SIS have two learning outcomes that have little to do with the specific topic of the seminar:

1. Demonstrate critical thinking as evidenced through both written and oral presentation

2. Interpret issues from multiple cultural and philosophical perspectives

This is not to say that the topic is unimportant or incidental! Students are expected to develop their critical thinking and expression skills, as well as their intellectual breadth—not through abstract and detached discussions about college education, but by diving into intense consideration of pressing global issues. In the course of reading academic books and articles, writing essays and papers, engaging in debates and discussions in the classroom and online, and most of all by being in a small format class with a passionate teacher and scholar, students begin to become the self-aware learners and critical intellectuals who can make the most of their SIS education. In practice, what this means is that the reading assignments in a First Year Seminar feature opportunities for students to confront arguments from a variety of perspectives, including those with which they may disagree; that the discussions inside and outside of the classroom push students to start articulating their own positions on controversial issues and supporting those positions with appropriate evidence and argumentation; and that the writing and other expressive assignments place a premium on stand-taking and forceful but civil contention.

Students choose a First Year Seminar in either the fall or the spring of their first college year at SIS. In some cases, the chosen seminar sets a student off on a completely new path as they move into their sophomore year and start choosing more specialized thematic courses; in others, the student does not stick with the topic of the seminar, but retains the critical habits of mind inculcated by the First Year Seminar experience and takes those into her or his future studies. Together with SIS Mentorship, Cross-Cultural Communication, and World Politics, a student’s First Year Seminar helps to prepare them for the challenges ahead as they make their way through the diverse array of upper-division courses making up the rest of her or his undergraduate program in international studies.


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