Active learning, collaborative spaces, real-world connections, a purposeful focus on “soft skills,” and a grounding in liberal arts and sciences all combine in Jefferson’s Nexus Learning approach to develop and support work-ready graduates. “Nexus Learning is based on a suite of strategies that ensures our graduates are prepared to succeed in their professions or graduate school,” says Jeffrey Ashley, PhD, chemistry professor and director of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Nexus Learning at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University). Nexus Learning appears to be on target in this mission, with 97 percent of undergraduates working in their disciplines or accepted to graduate school within four months of graduation.
Philadelphia University and Thomas Jefferson University merged in July 2017 to create the new Jefferson, which offers more than 160 programs in 11 Colleges, including the Sidney Kimmel Medical College and the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering, and Commerce.
The Core Competencies of Nexus Learning
Nexus Learning is based on eight areas of competency. The starting point is to set the vision and goal by developing a strategic plan that supports the mission of the University. “Although mission statements are high-altitude descriptors of what an institution values, they are typically very generic in the way they are pitched. What backs up the mission is the strategic plan,” he says.
The next step is taking inventory of best practices in teaching and learning strategies. This means asking faculty to write detailed narratives outlining how they teach, their strategies, and preferred modalities. A learning action team, made up of faculty members and other stakeholders, looks for themes in these narratives to identify the best ways of teaching to meet desired student outcomes. “These are stories from the pages of faculty members about how they teach within the classroom, the studio, the laboratory, the co-curricular experience, the study-away experience, all of that.” The information from faculty members is then sifted and sorted through, says Ashley, “to come up with categories that exemplified our teaching culture and what we value.”
The best practices narratives provide the basis for the two other core competencies: communicating the need and creating the infrastructure for an ideal learning environment. The need is for student work to be project-based, team-focused, and, often, industry-sponsored. The ideal learning environment includes opportunities for active and engaged learning, and collaborative and real-world experiences. This often means bringing leading industry experts into the classroom as partners in student projects. “Having a real client, in the students’ eyes, makes all the difference,” says Ashley.
Another key aspect is providing faculty development opportunities to support and guide faculty as they strive to embed Nexus Learning in the learning culture. “This wasn’t a top-down directive from the provost’s office saying, ‘You will do Nexus Learning.’ Nexus Learning was envisioned from the ground up,” says Ashley. There are faculty engagement discussions, on-boarding for new hires, workshops, and grants to reinforce and reward using these strategies. “One of the paramount things is financially supporting faculty members with a little bit of seed money to support them in their exploration of innovative teaching methods,” says Ashley. Faculty also submit an activity report each year to reflect on the process and how they have built Nexus Learning into their courses and curricula. “It’s a way for them to say, ‘This is how I teach,’ and then people value that, disseminate it, and celebrate it,” says Ashley.
T-Shaped Learners and Soft Skills
The focus is to develop “T-Shaped” learners, a concept developed by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, where students’ core study within their major discipline represents the vertical leg of the “T” and their “soft skills,” or abilities not directly related to their major, are the top of the “T.” Soft skills are those identified by employers across various industries as considered most valuable for new hires, the top five of which are communication, organization, writing, customer service, and Microsoft Excel. While students frequently have mastered these skills during their undergraduate years, there is an awareness gap, which means students don’t always have a way to show competency in these areas or communicate their skills to potential employers.
Three initiatives—the Hallmarks Program, the DEC (Design, Engineering, Commerce) Curriculum, and providing a variety of innovative learning spaces—are designed to bridge this awareness gap and support the goal of creating T-shaped learners with a range of soft skills.
The Hallmarks Program helps students demonstrate their achievement in four key skills areas: to question, adapt, contribute, and act. During their four undergraduate years, students take courses within their major, participate in co-curricular activities, and build an e-portfolio to show mastery of these skills. “If you are doing it, demonstrate it. We want to have students own the acquisition of these soft skills and demonstrate that to employers. We require our students not only to engage in courses that develop the soft skills, but to document them,” says Ashley. Students can use this portfolio to show potential employers competency in specific skills. It also gives them confidence to talk about the skills they have learned.
The DEC core curriculum targets students who are majoring in design, engineering, and business, and brings them together in one building, the Lawrence N. Field DEC Center. In this way, students can easily collaborate between disciplines and academic years to broaden their awareness, knowledge, and skills. For example, a business major, a fashion design major, and an engineering major might come together in one class, co-taught by two faculty members of different disciplines. Topics in the DEC curriculum include design processes, business models, system analysis, and research methods.
In year four, students participate in one of two types of capstone experiences. Both require students to collaboratively work on a project using the DEC core skills and knowledge gained during their first three years. In one version of the capstone experience, students with the same major work together on a project. In the other, students from multiple majors—such as design, engineering, and commerce—work together on a project. In both cases, the projects are often industry-sponsored.
Finally, Nexus Learning utilizes flexible learning spaces to support the program goals and optimize the DEC core curriculum. “We have these pedagogies that are active, collaborative, and engaged. That is really hard to do in conventional spaces,” says Ashley. In most cases, creating innovative spaces does not require new construction. It is possible to do a room-by-room overhaul of existing space to add functional maker spaces, design studios, multi-purpose labs, and classrooms that can easily serve more than one program. “You can do Nexus Learning in a box, but it is optimized when you have spaces that are flexible and allow for collaboration and activity,” he says.
By Mary Beth Rohde