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Essential Learning.


Essential Learning puts CMU in a class of its own

Colorado Mesa University has long emphasized an experience-based, personal approach to learning. The institution’s tightly knit culture has also encouraged cross-disciplinary partnerships between faculty members conducting research, producing work and teaching courses. With this in mind, CMU faculty have developed a noteworthy reformation to the university’s approach to general education courses that will highlight these interdisciplinary relationships. Essential Learning is an integrative learning approach that enables students to develop the critical thinking skills they’ll need after college.

“One of the things that a number of professors have noticed is that a lot of students feel like once a class is over — once they turn in that exam — they’re done thinking about it,” said history professor Doug O’Roark, a member of the committee that helped design Essential Learning. “That’s a shame because ideally you should bring the things you learn in those classes [into others]. The methodology you learn in a biology course can be very valuable in a history class.”

The Essential Learning reformation aims to capitalize on the benefits of integrative learning — incorporating multiple methodologies in a course. At the end of a student’s sophomore year, these interdisciplinary classes conclude with the Maverick Milestone, a required class that encourages students to combine different approaches to explore a single subject.

“The milestone course came from a desire to provide a spot in the curriculum where students are, in essence, required to make connections between two different ways of knowing,” said English professor Kurt Haas, chair of the Essential Learning committee. “That’s really the impetus — to treat working across disciplinary boundaries as an essential part of a CMU degree. It creates a sort of capstone where students bring it all together.”

Most milestone classes will be team-taught by two instructors “In theory, there are going to be a number of these courses and they’re all going to be different,” O’Roark said. “One might be a course on disease taught by a biologist and a historian, another might be a course on the Depression taught by a business professor and a music professor. Students choose the one most interesting to them.”

The milestone course will be accompanied by Essential Speech, a one-credit speech lab that will bring students from several different milestone courses together. At the end of the semester, each will present a project assigned in their milestone class. Essential Speech is designed to promote oral proficiency; it also reinforces the new learning model’s integrative approach.

“We’re crafting this curriculum so that when students graduate, they’re fully equipped to deal with the disparate and unexpected problems that come up in life all the time. It’s not about getting a history degree so you can go on Jeopardy and destroy the history category. It’s about graduating students who have been well-trained in critical thinking and problem solving,” O’Roark said.

So what will distinguish the first class to graduate under the new curriculum? “They will have a greater sense of the connections between different ways of knowing and the relationship between their discipline and other disciplines. They will have had more practice in speaking in front of groups. And they will hopefully have a deep understanding of what they learned while they were here,” said Haas.

Both professors said that while many schools see the benefit of an integrative approach to learning, to their knowledge no other institution is approaching it in the same way as CMU. “The word unique might be too strong, but [Essential Learning] is certainly unusual,” Haas said. “It’s really an exciting opportunity for students that they’re not going to get most places.”

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