"Barber's Facilitating the Integration of Learning is on of the few books that delivers more than its title promises." - Nancy Budwig

James Barber’s Facilitating the Integration of Learning: Five Research-based Practices to Help College Students Connect Learning across Disciplines and Lived Experiences (Stylus 2020) is one of the few books that delivers more than its title promises. The middle section of the book, chapters 4-8, does what the title describes: it offers five practices educators can implement to help college students integrate their learning. However, the book goes beyond that in two ways. First, Barber adds an informative and in-depth discussion of integrative learning in the first section of the book. Second, he examines ways to assure that integrative learning is a central feature of the student experience, considering both how to create an integrative curriculum and how to document and assess integrative learning as part of a broader effort of iterative improvement.

That higher education has become increasingly fragmented in the US is a theme that has repeated itself multiple times in higher education circles. As Barber notes, after an extended period of a common curricular experience for all students, around the late 1800’s as disciplines became the norm, curricula became more and more specialized. This specialization took place in numerous ways, including curricular disintegration (with the invention of the college major). In addition, academic affairs and student affairs have too often lacked integration in university structures. Historically, we have heard repeated calls for the importance of more integrative learning. Much focus has been placed on consideration of a common integrated academic core (general education) that all college students would take (Boyer 1987). Other work described by Barber focused more on experiential and engaged learning, following progressive and constructivist views of learning and development (Dewey 1938; Freire 1970; Piaget 1972). Most initiatives have led to significant discussion but modest results, leading to new calls being put forward by others. One of the most robust and enduring efforts at emphasizing the importance of integrative learning has been by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC 1991; AAC&U 2015; Budwig and Jessen-Marshall 2018; Budwig and Alexander 2020). These efforts capture Barber’s attention as he outlines the landscape of current thinking in higher education on the importance of integrative learning to student success.

 Based on data collected as part of the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, Barber describes in Chapter 2 how he analyzed more than 900 longitudinal interviews with a cohort of 315 undergraduate students attending six different colleges invested in liberal education. This led Barber to develop the integration of learning model based on his analysis of how the college students interviewed in the qualitative study made meaning of their college experiences. The three major components of integrative learning include students’ ability to 1) find commonality between different experiences (connection), 2) apply an idea or skill learned in one context to another (application), and 3) combine in new ways two or more ideas or skills to gain new knowledge (synthesis). As the final part of understanding integrative learning, Barber describes the importance of reflective practice, noting the importance of structuring reflection, without which he argues integrative learning cannot take place.

The second part of the book, the longest of its three sections, shifts focus to educators, who according to Barber, are not simply classroom instructors but anyone from whom a college student learns on campus. To this extent, his model of learning starts from a systems perspective appropriate to his philosophy. The five chapters are each dedicated to a specific practice (mentoring, writing, encouraging juxtaposition, hands-on experiences, and embracing diversity and identity). In addition to providing a brief explication of each of these five practices or experiences, Barber reviews how each links up to the integrative learning model (connection, application, synthesis) and discusses specific strategies that can be useful as educators aim to scaffold students’ integrative learning. Barber clearly articulates that he does not divide this section of the book in light of specific contexts (classroom, internship, athletics), but rather notes his desire to highlight cross-cutting practices used across contexts.

The final and shortest section of the book turns to examine holistically how one can weave the practices together into a curriculum, whether it be at the level of a course, a major, a single club or organization. Central in this section of the book is discussion of ways to bring individual practices into larger wholes, and simultaneously how one can document and assess such learning for formative and summative purposes.

The three sections of the book, along with the accompanying appendices (that offer more information about the learning, development, and meaning making, as well as further information on the students featured in the interviews) provide the reader with a compact and well-written book. Under one cover the author connects, applies, and synthesizes prior and current work about learning and development as well as how to facilitate it in an easy-to-read format absent of jargon, yet filled with research-based practices relevant to anyone involved with students and learning and development on college campuses.

Framed in developmental and learning science theory and research

The book is noteworthy in its framing in terms of modern theory and research within the growing fields of developmental and learning sciences. Rather than getting lost in the minutia of findings from prior research, Barber uses his vast knowledge about human learning and development to arrive at conclusions about practices to improve integrative learning. What is distinctive is that Barber adopts a relational developmental systems approach, and a deep constructivist approach to learning, and the author places practices (and not competencies) at the center of both development and learning. Each of these are critically important to finding new solutions to the persistent calls for more integrative learning experiences on our campuses. We turn to each of these now.

Fit with developmental science

Any discussion of student learning and development carries with it a theoretical framework even if it often is not explicitly discussed. While readers might not realize it, Barber has adopted an approach to human development that has been called relational developmental systems (RDS) paradigm (Overton 2013). Barber’s commitment to three features of an RDS view of development strengthens his advice. These features include a commitment to student agency, learning as a process, and holism.

A first feature of an RDS view of development, and what distinguishes it from other views often adopted regarding college learning, is the importance of agency. Agency is central because it implies that students play an active role in their learning to the extent that they interpret and give meaning to how they frame, choose, and act in response to their environments. Humans bring to all learning the ability to experience and construct the world based on prior knowledge. Students do not “receive” knowledge, and knowledge is not transferred from expert to novice, but rather the development of knowledge depends on the active constructive efforts of students.

A second assumption central to the RDS paradigm is that development is a process. Rather than looking at outcomes and milestones, for instance whether individuals “have” certain capacities or not, those adopting a process orientation examine development by seeking to understand pathways en route to more advanced functioning. Such knowledge is critical to understanding how to assist learners build knowledge over time.

Third, the RDS paradigm undergirding Barber’s model assumes that human development and functioning must be viewed holistically. Holism rests on the belief that to understand human functioning, one must embed what we know about individual development (be it biological, cognitive, or social) within larger contexts. Human development is situated and to only study isolated parts is to miss the rich ways human development takes place. Barber for instance employs a holistic approach when he argues for the need to consider students’ constructive efforts to make meaning across the various contexts within which they experience college (both academic and otherwise).

As I have argued elsewhere, how one frames development critically impacts the solutions one finds to improving learning (Budwig and Alexander 2020). While the framing Barber applies may “make sense” it is an emerging perspective, and not one that frequently has been utilized by those focusing on improving higher education outcomes (see Budwig and Alexander 2021/in press).

Fit with new directions in the learning sciences

Barber (2020, 1) begins his book with the claim that “the ability to integrate learning across contexts is a crucial outcome of higher education.” Learning and cognitive scientists would argue that the kind of processes described by Barber under the header of integrative learning (including his discussion of connection, application, synthesis) are all part of a broader approach to learning that has been called deep learning. Deep learning involves relating new knowledge in light of prior conceptualizations, tying disparate knowledge into larger conceptual frameworks, and actively seeking patterns; this is in contrast to simply acquiring disconnected facts and procedures (Sawyer 2014). According to learning scientists, deep learning relies on significant constructive efforts on the part of the learner, especially through reflection. While few would debate that deep learning or integrative learning is a central habit of mind to be cultivated in college, in actuality for all the reasons Barber notes, much learning is anything but. Academic learning too often reinforces superficial learning, and the fragmentation across major and general education and between academic and student affairs areas does not take full account of the potential for students to reflect on the connections across their college experiences.

Integrative learning as a practice

Barber views integrative learning as a practice, something students and others do, rather than something that lives in the brains of students. The emphasis on practice is especially important for the kinds of recommendations Barber makes regarding facilitating integrative learning. His views on practice, combined with his holistic and process-oriented approach to development and learning described above, suggest individuals learn and develop within everyday natural interactions when engaging in authentic practices. Integrative learning is not viewed as an outcome, but as a form of interaction to be engaged in by the learner whether in a classroom or other setting. Mentors, teachers, coaches, and others can facilitate learning through a variety of environmental supports. We might add that it is essential over time for the scaffolding provided by others to gradually back off, with students taking on increasing agency for learning and development (Budwig and Alexander 2020). Barber powerfully illustrates ways a variety of individuals on campus, interacting in different arenas, can play a facilitative role in student learning. Unfortunately, Barber’s analysis of interviews with students suggests such facilitation often does not take place.    

Will engaging in Barber’s practices facilitate the integration of learning and lead to an integrated curriculum?

Barber has outlined a set of five practices that educators on campus can engage in with students that will facilitate students’ integration of learning. While we can quibble about whether the particular practices are the only practices or the best practices for enhancing student learning across coursework and lived experience in college, there is no doubt that Barber is on the path for improving students’ educational experiences. His treatment is succinct, theoretically and methodologically rigorous, and at the same time practical with just the right level of detail for individual educators to make use of. Anyone who picks up the book and gives it a careful read will be transformed as an educator to think freshly about their interactions with students, as well as their learning goals and ways to meet them.

Educators who work with Barber’s practices will, without a doubt, be better at promoting integrative learning. Nevertheless, I believe more work is needed in order to transform university spaces to optimize this work and create the integrated curriculum necessary to prepare students to live lives of meaning and purpose. First, work going on through the Association of American Colleges and Universities on the LEAP initiative (Budwig, Michaels, and Kasmer 2015; Ferren, Anderson, and Hovland 2015; Ferren and Paris 2015) provides a wealth of evidence that facilitating leadership for integrative learning is both difficult and rewarding work campuses must intentionally engage in. The Association of American Colleges and Universities worked with 14 campuses already engaged in designing more integrative student experiences from 2012-2014, bringing them together to facilitate cross-campus exchange and to learn from these campuses’ efforts. In addition to developing a resource guide to practices of integrative learning, Ferren and Paris report on a set of principles and practices for educators in order for this work to be successful, including for instance aligning policies and procedures, building institutional capacity, and initiating and sustaining campus change. As Budwig, Michaels, and Kasmer (2015, 19) put it reflecting on their own attempts to integrate learning on campus:

“The primary lesson we have learned is that without significant attention to thinking freshly about mechanisms of campus leadership for this work, and without significant attention to professional development in support of campus leaders learning to be more intentional and integrative themselves, these important initiatives will fail.”

Budwig, Michaels, and Kasmer 2015

My own experience as part of a campus team and subsequently joining AAC&U to facilitate campus leadership for integrative and applied learning leaves me with some recommendations for making Barber’s five practices, and any other ways of promoting integration of learning, stick. Just like the undergraduates interviewed by Barber, educators will do better if they are provided opportunities to practice and reflect, professional development and support for this work, and policies and procedures that assist making this a main part of campus life and not something carried out based on individual whim. Robust professional development can enhance the quality of individual educators’ practice, while also enhancing the quality of the lived experiences students have on campus pertaining to integrative learning.

In summary, Barber’s book provides a wonderful opening into a robust consideration of how individual faculty and other educators can facilitate students’ integration of their learning. The book balances solid foundational considerations with practical tips and tools that are easy to implement. I would argue though, that as individual educators learn to apply the principles of integrative learning, their efforts will be improved in the same way student learning and development takes place. That is, they will need an environment that provides the space for each individual educator to construct meaning in ways unique to their own experiences; they must have time to reflect on ideas; and they will need ample support and room to practice with the assistance of others. Just as Barber suggests educators play an important role in student learning, I believe educators who are provided with environments rich in mentoring, tools, and support will authentically learn and develop in their own ability to facilitate integrative liberal learning that we know is so centrally important for the educational outcomes we desire for our students. Therefore, I strongly endorse that campus leadership consider ways to build communities of practice where faculty and other educators can join together to learn, reflect, and improve the practices they engage in as they assist students in becoming integrative learners.


AAC (Association of American Colleges). 1991. The Challenge of Connecting Learning. Eric database. (ED328137), 1991.

AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2015. “The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems.” Liberal Education 101 (1/2): 16-21.

Barber, James P. 2020. Facilitating the Integration of Learning: Five Research-based Practices to Help College Students Connect Learning across Disciplines and Lived Experience. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Boyer, Ernest L. 1987. College: The Undergraduate Experience in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Budwig, Nancy, and Achu Alexander. 2021/in press. “Exploring the Conceptual Frameworks Guiding Developmental Research and Practice in Higher Education: Some Challenges for Transdisciplinary Work.” Human Development 65 (1).

Budwig, Nancy, and Achu Johnson Alexander. 2020. “A Transdisciplinary Approach to Student Learning and Development in University Settings.” Frontiers in Psychology 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.576250.

Budwig, Nancy, and Amy Jessen-Marshall. 2018. “Making the Case for Capstones and Signature Work.” Peer Review 20 (2): 4-7. https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2018/Spring/Analysis/.

Budwig, Nancy, Sarah Michaels, and Lisa Kasmer. 2015. “Facilitating Campus Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning.” Peer Review 16/17:19-22.

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. Macmillan.

Ferren, Ann, Chad Anderson, and Kevin Hovland. 2015. “Interrogating Integrative Learning.” Peer Review 16/17:4-6.

Ferren, Ann, and David Paris. 2015. Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Transl.). New York: Continuum.

Overton, Willis F.  2013. “Relationism and Relational Developmental Systems: A Paradigm for Developmental Science in the Post-Cartesian Era.” Advances in Child Development and Behavior 44: 21-64. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-397947-6.00002-7

Piaget, Jean. 1972. The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books.

Sawyer, R. Keith. 2014. “The New Science of Learning.” In The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, edited byR. Keith Sawyer, 1-18. Cambridge University Press.

Nancy Budwig is a professor of psychology and past associate provost at Clark University in Massachusetts.

How to cite this CEL Review:

Budwig, Nancy. 2021, January 26. “Designing Environments Where Integrative Learning Can Flourish.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog). https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/designing-environments-where-integrative-learning-can-flourish.