The Environment and Co-op Curriculum
Northeastern University has had a century-long commitment to experiential learning, particularly through its Cooperative Education (Co-op) Program. This program differentiates Northeastern from most other institutions of higher education by providing undergraduate students with unique experiences that, upon graduation, set them apart in the eyes of employers by providing them with the skills and attributes that are critical for success (Northeastern University, Employer Skills Gap Survey, 2016).
As a result of a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the Research Institute for Experiential Learning Science is investigating the impact of recent curricular revisions that were introduced to the Co-op Program to further leverage the impact of the experiential learning model on student learning. The Northeastern model of alternating between coursework and Co-op placements enables students to gain critical knowledge and skills in the classroom that can then be put into practice while on Co-op. Then, once back in the classroom, the experiences students contribute to the course from their Co-op placements create a fertile foundation to continue to build their skills and abilities. While this alternating pattern provides the opportunity for integrating the experiences, not enough students leverage this opportunity to the fullest. Instead, many students tend to view “the real world” of Co-op as separate from the academic environment of their courses.
The Co-op curriculum revisions were designed to empower students to become agents of their own integration by providing the theoretical framework and intentional opportunities to be self-directed learners. These fundamentals are established in a Co-op preparation course that all students take prior to their first placement.
The curriculum revisions expanded the focus of the course from one that was mainly driven by professional skill- building to one that now teaches students to: (1) develop tools to be “mindful” (Langer, 1997), including awareness and impact of growth versus fixed mindsets (Dweck, 2006) with which they approach different aspects of their lives; (2) identify extrinsic and intrinsic motivators that guide their decisions (Pink, 2011); and (3) provide the grounding to understand cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, Collins & Duguid,1989), a theory of learning that focuses on both content and process.
Guided Inquiry Reflections
Once the theoretical foundation has been established, students are provided with the scaffolding necessary to begin integrating the learning gained in each environment. To create these opportunities, the curriculum now requires students on their first Co-op placement to respond to a total of four Guided Inquiries (reflections): three at different points throughout their placement and one upon their return to coursework. These Guided Inquiries are an effort to ensure that students recognize the meaning of their experiences (Ash & Clayton, 2004) by becoming mindful of their learning through the developmental arc of their Co-op experience. These four reflection prompts call attention to the experiences in which they are currently engaged, the past experiences that connect to what they are currently doing, and the experiences that they foresee having in the future based on their deepened and new learning from Co-op. This approach achieves one of the main goals of Northeastern’s Co-op Program: to create self-directed learners who will continue to engage in work-based learning when they graduate. Furthermore, by explicitly prompting students to draw their academic learning into their Co-op experiences through the Guided Inquiries, the stage for the development of adaptive experts is set. That is, students possess the content knowledge of an expert through their academic classes and display specific cognitive dispositions that augment and enhance their ability to effectively utilize and extend their content knowledge, (Fisher & Peterson, 2001).
The Current Study
The current revisions to the Co-op curriculum only require students to respond to Guided Inquiries during their first Co-op experience. At Northeastern, 35% of graduates have three Co-op placements. Ideally, this process of reflection through Guided Inquiry prompts should be part of each placement that students have throughout their undergraduate career. Utilizing a mixed methods design, this study is investigating the longitudinal impact that reflections have when engaged in only during the first Co-op placement as opposed to repeated opportunities to intentionally reflect throughout each of the placements. Specifically, the current analysis project is seeking to evaluate the extent to which Guided Inquiries throughout all Co-op experiences lead to the further development of (a) self-directed learning; (b) adaptive expertise; and (c) intentional integration of learning across different environments.
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