Common Intellectual Experiences: Engage Outside of Your Major

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In these programs, students enroll in two or more common courses centered around fun themes such as ‘peace studies,’ ‘the digital community,’ or ‘law and order’. By enrolling in these course clusters, students are able to explore a topic of interest in more depth than they would be able to do in a single class.

Often times, these courses span several disciplines. Their structure also varies: it could be one course team-taught by faculty from different disciplines, or a course taught by a single instructor.

Rather than replace a traditional major, common intellectual experiences allow students to customize their academic degree with different courses and topics that are interesting to them. Common intellectual experiences also provide a way for students to bridge disciplinary studies and make intellectual connections that may not be possible in a traditional major-centric field of study.

These experiences also frequently involve original research, participation in a learning community, or capstone projects.

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Examples of Common Intellectual Experiences

There are a wide range of programs that incorporate common experiences. Some take place within the classroom, while others bring the learning to the students’ residences or take them off-campus and involve the community.

  • Living learning communities: In these communities, students share a wing or floor of a residence hall and take one or more courses in common, and may also engage in service-learning or community-based activities. 
  • First-year reading experiences: These learning experiences encourage incoming college freshmen to read certain books before their first college semester, then attend discussions or other events focused on the shared readings. 
  • First-year seminars: First-year seminars have one or more courses shared by all freshman participants in single student cohort, which can help first-year students build relationships in- and outside of the classroom. 
  • Core curricular programs: These programs require all students to take a prescribed set of courses across one or two college semesters.

A core curriculum is the development of core competencies necessary for career preparation. The core curriculum varies by school, but generally are designed around several or all of the following aspects:

  • Writing intensity
  • Oral communications
  • Critical thinking
  • Information/technology literacy
  • Quantitative reasoning
  • Ethical inquiry
  • Global perspectives
  • Economic literacy

Core curriculum may also require multi-disciplinary experiences and collaborative assignments to learn to work in groups.

Although many common intellectual experiences are designed for first-year students, many universities incorporate elements of the concept throughout students’ entire degree programs.

What Can Students Expect? 

One form of common experience now found at many universities is a core curriculum. The older concept of a core curriculum involved a generic set of educational requirements (general education)—essentially a series of boxes to check off as a student progressed through a four-year degree. Today, many schools supplement basic course requirements with other kinds of requirements that cross academic disciplines. These might take the form of interdisciplinary programs, writing intensive courses, required participation in a learning community, mandatory research, or a capstone experience.

Another type of common experience provides students with a set of shared courses that focus on a theme, such as environmental issues, technology, ethics and morality, or other broad topics. These types of learning experiences frequently appear in programming for first-year students, and they encourage the students to engage big questions from a variety of perspectives inherent in the various disciplines, which can improve critical thinking skills. In a class dealing with alternative energy, for example, students might investigate basic engineering, economics, geology and environmental impact, and international politics.

In programs that involve a shared semester curricula, students often participate in collaborative projects, interdisciplinary seminars, or research opportunities. Some programs include service learning or community projects that allow students to work together outside of the classroom as well. By bringing students from different backgrounds and majors together, they learn to view issues from a variety of perspectives and how to effectively operate as a team.

How do common intellectual experiences improve student outcomes?

Students who share courses or other academic experiences tend to have an easier time acclimating to a new campus and have greater rates of academic achievement throughout their college careers. They are able to forge friendships and study groups, and become accountable to each other for class attendance and performance. These social networks in turn lead to improved student retention rates.

Many faculty report higher student engagement for students enrolled in one of these programs, likely due to the interaction students have outside class. Academic achievement also improves, with students earning higher grades in the courses that are part of these programs.

Many common intellectual experiences enhance a student’s course of study by bringing them together across disciplines and introducing them to ideas and methodologies they might not encounter within their own majors. Liberal Arts majors might address issues with technology, and science students might take courses dealing with medical ethics. This provides students with deeper satisfaction and better critical thinking skills for their own academic programs.