Guiding Principles For Creating Seamless
Learning Environments For Undergraduates
About Campus, 1996
Some Things We Should Forget
Jim Banning, the ecological psychologist, once said that "walls have memories" to explain why it
is that strangers can come together in certain places (e.g., gymnasiums, libraries, churches,
synagogues mosques) and know how to behave with little or no instruction. Through trial and
error, people learn what's expected in certain settings and situations and act accordingly. But the
reasons and assumptions that guide what we do are rarely examined or discussed. Our limited
experience with identifying guiding beliefs makes it hard to change the way we think about our
roles and responsibilities and how we interact with students, faculty, and one another.
Now, however, business, government, and education leaders all say that the rapid pace of
change makes it imperative that professionals in every field periodically examine what they do
and how they do it. The Student Learning Imperative (1) is a clarion call to reevaluate previously
adopted philosophical and theoretical positions from a new, better informed perspective. In the
inaugural issue of About Campus, Pat Cross (2) gently suggested that faculty and student affairs
professionals heed this message by trying on "new lenses for learning" which would allow them to
"see" how working together to connect in-class and out-of-class experiences could enhance
In this paper I advance seamless learning as a transitional paradigm for higher education in
general and student affairs in particular. First, I discuss the concept of seamless learning (3) and
some of the pressures that make it increasingly important that students connect what they are
learning in class with their lives outside the classroom, and vice versa. Because the dominant
instructional paradigm and its student affairs counterpart are inadequate for this task, I offer some
ideas for why and how student affairs and faculty must work together.
The Seamless Learning Environment
The concept of seamless learning implies that undergraduate activities and experiences
traditionally assumed to be unrelated--such as courses and out-of-class activities or on-campus
and off-campus experiences--can be intentionally arranged to be mutually supporting, thereby
promoting higher levels of student learning. Institutions committed to seamless learning create
links between institutional structures (e.g., academic and student affairs) and processes (the
curriculum, experiential learning) in order to take advantage of mutually supporting experiences
that complement the institution's educational mission and students' personal goals, such as
community service, work, and family. In some contexts, a more appropriate transitional metaphor
than the "seamless" image may be a tapestry of previously unconnected experiences carefully
stitched together by policies and practices that require students to, for example, reflect on their
experiences and apply what they are learning in class to their lives outside the classroom and
The warrant for this position comes from the studies of Alexander Astin (4), Ernest Pascarella and
Patrick Terenzini (5), and others on the impact of college on student development. This research
shows unequivocally that students change as whole, integrated persons as a result of engaging
in a broad range of academic and nonacademic activities, inside and outside the classroom, on
and off the campus. Both intellectual development and social attitudes are, for example, affected
by interactions with peers. Moreover, student learning and personal development are enhanced
when institutional policies, programs, and practices are mutually supporting and complement
students' needs and the institution's educational purposes. The key task, then, is to design
institutional policies and practices that engage students in a variety of learning activities and to
cultivate an institutional ethos that promotes involvement in educationally purposeful activities in
settings in addition to the classroom.
This research-based view is at odds with the dominant paradigm which values classroom learning
and cognitive development exclusively. In the dominant paradigm out-of-class experiences and
the acquisition of personal and practical competencies are--at best--a healthy diversion from the
stress-inducing rigors of serious academic work and--at worst a distraction from the primary
purposes of higher education. It is unfortunate that this view persists because getting students to
apply what they are learning in class and to integrate knowledge across fields is essential.
Students want assurances they are acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to be productive,
responsible citizens. Employers want college graduates who have the skills required for the
workplace of the 21st century. These skills are precisely those that are emphasized in the
seamless learning paradigm.
Seamless Learning: The Gateway To Providing Skills and Competencies For Tomorrow's World
Peter Drucker (6) recently observed that the social transformations of the past century have
radically altered the work force, political structures and processes, and group relations. Virtually
every type of organization has been affected--business, military, health care, and education. No
one knows for certain what tomorrow's world and work places will look like. But there seems to be
an emerging consensus on certain qualities. Organizations will be smaller than in the past, as
evidenced by the recent downsizing of AT&T, IBM, and the armed forces among other behemoth
entities. Personnel deployment and changes in organizational structures will appear chaotic
contrasted with intentionally planned. Planning cycles will be very short, drawing on "real time"
information to meet changing client needs and conditions in the external environment. Flattened,
horizontal organizations will mean fewer managers; consistent with the principles of learning
organizations, employees will be directly involved in decision making that affects production or
services. The training needs of managers will change as traditional functions (marketing,
accounting, finance) prove insufficient to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Employees
will need skills that enable them to work within and across different types of organizational
clusters (cross-functional units) and contribute directly to improving products and processes.
Drucker estimates that knowledge workers will compose at least a third of the work force by the
year 2000. A knowledge-based society requires that people be able to communicate effectively,
understand their organization's strategic goals and values, and be able to work well with others.
John Abbott, director of Britain's Education 2000 Trust, says that economic and social problems
will become increasingly abstract and complex so that workers and consumers alike will need to
use a systems approach and collaborate in order to conceptualize and solve problems. The
information needs of many fields are changing so rapidly that many employers are less interested
in how much a college graduate knows and more concerned about whether one has the skills to
obtain new information and apply it in productive, creative ways. Carol Twigg, vice president of
Educom, reported that the Big Six accounting firms, for example, are seeking employees who can
learn on their own--who can ask the right questions, know how and where to find and critically
evaluate the answers, and adapt to changing circumstances (7 ). James Ogilvy says we should
think of the undergraduate experience as a period of skill acquisition rather than a rite of passage
from ignorance to knowledge (8).
The most important attribute for success in the work place of the future will be an acquired
orientation that values learning new ideas and concepts and applying this new knowledge to
different situations. Drucker, Twigg, and others argue that this ability for continuous learning
requires that learners "construct" knowledge, as contrasted with absorbing information offered by
a teacher. Pat Cross believes knowledge construction is more likely when learners engage in
metacognition; (9) that is, reflecting on what one is learning in the context of current
circumstances and prior knowledge. This requires that the learner situate present experience in
one's own frame of reference and test new knowledge in various settings with different types of
problems. This approach is consistent with what the British call "deep learning." (10) Deep
learning leads to independent thinking and skills in understanding and applying knowledge, as
contrasted with surface learning which emphasizes primarily information acquisition. To foster
deep learning, learning activities must be designed to take advantage of the learner's motivation
and intrinsic interests, and employ active approaches, such as peer interactions and problem-
Skills and competencies needed for continuous, deep learning cannot be taught only in the
classroom, or be developed solely by faculty or student affairs professionals. Indeed, higher-order
thinking and problem solving skills grow out of a combination of direct, real-life experiences, often
when interacting with others and active involvement in classroom activities. Deep learning is
fostered by asking students to solve actual problems, to apply what they are learning from their
classes, laboratories, and studios to their lives outside the classroom (including civic and
community problems and concerns), and to seek insight into the challenges and problems of their
lives outside the classroom by introducing them into class discussions and other formal learning
Out-of-class learning experiences most likely to result in deep learning are those related to the
work place, community, family, and other activities that ask students to devote considerable effort
over a sustained period of time. Some of these experiences (using resources wisely, making
decisions, and mediating misunderstandings) are those that are traditionally considered the
domain of student affairs, such as student government leaders and residence hall advisors.
Employment is the learning opportunity used least toward these ends. At all but several dozen
selective colleges and universities the majority of undergraduates work 10 or more hours per
week, on or off the campus. Yet faculty and student affairs professionals do not systematically
require students to reflect on their employment experiences, or how what they are learning in
their classes can be used on the job, or what they have experienced in the work setting can be
used to understand course material.
The changing character of the work place suggests a different kind of "higher" education is
needed, one that cultivates in students a capacity to continually discover, synthesize, and apply
new information to emerging problems, and to reflect on the process. These skills are best
acquired through a mutually supporting combination of in-class and out-of-class experiences, the
goal of seamless learning. All this suggests that colleges and universities should focus on
arranging learning activities that will provide students with knowledge and skills to be self-
directed, life-long learners. For many faculty and staff, this means that they will have to change
not only what they do, but also how they think. In other words, a transformation is needed in how
we think about and approach our work with students.
A potentially transforming shift in beliefs and action is underway in the academy. In many
colleges and universities the dominant instructional paradigm is under scrutiny as faculty
members and student affairs staff determine how to emphasize learning as contrasted with
teaching or instruction. The learning paradigm focuses on what students do, not what teachers or
student affairs professionals do. Being learner-centered demands that students assume
responsibility for their performance and introduces different conceptions of the desired learning
and personal development outcomes, suggests more productive uses of classroom time, and
legitimates alternative venues for learning (e.g., community service, employment).
Information technology is one force driving this revolution. Because virtually unlimited knowledge
is now available electronically, instructional effectiveness will be determined by one's ability to
help students discover appropriate resources and, as James O'Donnell says, guide those
"wading through deep waters of the information flood." (11) In addition to being content experts,
instructors must be able to design and evaluate learning experiences inside and outside the
classroom that actively engage students and encourage them to integrate new knowledge with
their experiences. This does not diminish the importance of the teaching role, though it changes
its character dramatically.
Many institutions are restructuring academic and student services in an effort to control costs and
increase student learning and institutional productivity. Faculty are reorienting their approach to
teaching and learning. Therefore, examining the dominant student affairs paradigm is no longer
an intellectual exercise, it is an essential step if student affairs is to continue to contribute to
changing demands placed on postsecondary institutions. The interest among rank-and-file
student affairs practitioners in the Student Learning Imperative (SLI) suggests this process is
underway. Certainly there are self-serving reasons to embrace the SLI: connecting student affairs
functions more closely to the learning mission of the institution will ensure the survival of some
functions. More compelling is that students and institutions need the expertise of student affairs
professionals to create conditions outside the classroom that complement the institution's
educational mission and students' learning and personal development goals.
"Forget Me, Forget Me Not"
Emerging paradigms inevitably clash with existing belief systems. Consistent with the shift from
instruction to learning, the challenge to create seamless learning environments is an invitation to
faculty and student affairs professionals to examine what they do and to determine how to more
effectively respond to students, their learning needs, and the demands of a rapidly changing
external environment. Such a transformation will take considerable time and effort. Moreover, we
will have to "forget" some of what we have come to believe is true and important.
The faculty, staff, and students at George Mason University and Hamline University (this issue)
are trying to alter behavior patterns that discouraged collaboration by working together to help
students integrate their academic program with experiences outside the classroom in ways that
are consistent with students' aspirations and the institution's mission and setting. Among other
things, they have learned that institutional leaders must advance a vision of what seamless
learning looks like in their setting. Another key step is to develop a shared understanding of the
desired outcomes of college and the activities that contribute to those outcomes. A common
language is needed so that faculty, student affairs professionals, and students can discuss the
many potential ways they can realize the vision. What constitutes appropriate preparation for
post-college life? What are the institutional policies and practices that will encourage students to
acquire these skills, knowledge, and attitudes? Is content most important, or the ability to apply
what one knows and to synthesize knowledge from disparate fields? or to know how and where to
find information? or the capacity to evaluate the relevance and utility of knowledge for various
situations and applications? or where and under what conditions certain types of learning occur?
is the 50 minute class hour the most productive arrangement? what do we currently believe that
is inconsistent with these imperatives?
Some colleagues opine that the student development philosophy is sufficient to guide student
affairs into the next millennium. To be sure, some beliefs, principles, and values from this view
must not be forgotten, such as the importance of humanizing institutional environments and
serving as the institution's "conscience" as Margaret Barr is fond of saying. At the same time,
other beliefs that have become associated with the student development movement may be
counterproductive. For example, as with faculty members who use the lecture approach
exclusively, some student affairs staff act as if programming and coordinating functions are ends
in themselves rather than vehicles by which to create learning and personal development
opportunities. Many student affairs staff believe their work should focus primarily on the psycho-
social aspects of the college student experience.
Revisiting assumptions about what constitutes learning and the conditions that most effectively
foster learning is not an esoteric task that should be left to pundits or scholars. It is an essential
stage in the shift from the guiding paradigms that have for decades dominated faculty and student
affairs thought and institutional policies and practices to a shared learner-centered view which
emphasizes the continuous, deep learning skills the future demands.
1. American College Personnel Association (1994). The Student Learning Imperative. Washington, DC: American College
2. Cross, K. P. (1996). "New Lenses on Learning." About Campus, 1(1), 4-9.
3. Kuh, G. D. (1996). "Guiding Principles for Creating Seamless Learning Environments for Undergraduates." Journal of
College Student Development, 37, 135-148.
4. Astin, A. W. (1993). What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
5. Pascarella, E. T., and Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights From Twenty Years
of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
6. Drucker, P. (1994). "The Age of Social Transformation." Atlantic Monthly, 247(5), 53-80.
7. Twigg, C. A. (1995). The Need for A National Learning Infrastructure. Washington, DC: Educom.
8. Ogilvy, J. (1994). "The Information Revolution." On the Horizon, 2(4), 1-2, 4.
9. Cross, K. P. (1996). "New Lenses on Learning." About Campus, 1(1), 4-9.
10. "Deeper Learning, Surface Learning." (1993). AAHE Bulletin, 45(8), 10-13.
11. O'Donnell, J. J. (1996). "The Digital Challenge." Wilson Quarterly (Winter), 48-49.