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Integration of learning: Why it matters

-Lynn Vos

(The image is free under the Creative Commons license and available at )

The following is an excerpt from my PhD - An examination of integrated teaching and learning approaches in marketing education

In marketing education, the question of what to teach is an epistemological debate of long standing. Educators (and researchers) deliberate over whether to focus on teaching students how to do marketing (practical/applied) (Walle, 1991; Hulbert & Harrigan, 2012; Koch, 2013) or whether to focus on teaching about marketing (marketing as theory, as social function, and from a critical perspective) (Pharr & Morris, 1997; Catterall et al., 2002; Hill & McGinnis, 2007). (This debate is not unique to marketing. See for example, Parker & Pearson (2013) on management education).

The impetus for many studies on what knowledge and skills a marketing graduate should possess comes from a growing weight of evidence that graduates are not meeting the expectations of employers, that marketing careers are more complex, have uncertain tenures, and are characterised by knowledge that is growing exponentially but, given the vast number of information sources and formats, in a fragmented manner (e.g. Kedia & Mukerjee, 1999; Ackerman et al., 2003). For example, Catterall, Maclaren and Stevens (2002) portray the modern marketing environment as offering little career stability, where knowledge and technology advance rapidly, and where globalisation has led to greater economic, social, and political instability – all of which increase the complexity of problems and decision making. In these circumstances, they argue, students need the skills and aptitudes to manage change, to solve difficult problems, to think cross-functionally, to reason critically and to make sound judgments. However, Catterall, Maclaren and Stevens (2002) contend that, despite the wealth of literature related to developing these skills, management and marketing educators have not sufficiently adapted what and how they teach, still emphasising the ‘how to’ of practice above the knowledge and skills needed for a more complex world:

….management education subscribes to an instrumental view of knowledge whereby the educators’ task is to proffer a variety of models and techniques that equip managers with useful knowledge [to manage. But this emphasis on the] ‘how to’ of marketing management fails to meet the needs of managers who work in the increasingly uncertain and complex world….characterized by ambiguity, uncertainty, diversity, disorganization, rapid change, the erosion of traditional divisions, questioning of received truths, and the undermining of established forms of expert knowledge (p. 185 -186).

Other researchers describe the operating context for marketers and managers in similar terms and what stands out in their discussions is the boundary spanning, cross-disciplinary nature of many management problems (e.g. Crittenden & Wilson, 2005; Schlee & Harich, 2010). To deal with problems that are ill-structured, require knowledge from other disciplines, and are difficult to demarcate and contextualize, Catterall, Maclaren and Stevens (2002) call for students to have greater ‘cross-functional thinking skills’; Pappas (2004) for ‘meta-cognitive skills’; Spiro, Coulson, Feltovich and Anderson (1988) for greater ‘cognitive flexibility’ and Perkins and Salmon (1992) for more sophisticated ‘transfer of learning’ skills where the student can skilfully weave prior learning from a range of different contexts with new ideas.

A theory of learning that incorporates these skill definitions while adding specific recommendations for curriculum design and pedagogy is ‘integration of learning’ or IOL. Barber (2009), who has done much to advance the field, contends that when problems are complex and ambiguous, managers need to draw upon multiple areas of knowledge and skills, “from multiple sources and experiences; applying theory to practice [across] various settings; utilizing diverse and even contradictory points of view; …. [and understand] issues and positions contextually” (p.6).

Early research into IOL was championed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching who were concerned that undergraduate education is highly fragmented and does not prepare students for the complex decision making required to solve many of today’s problems (Huber & Hutchings, 2008). They argued that graduates who can make connections between “disparate information and meaningfully synthesise concepts are better prepared for success in the…evolving knowledge economy of the 21st century” (Barber, 2009, p.1). Building on earlier work by the AAC&U and the Carnegie Foundation, Barber (2009) developed the umbrella term ‘integration practices’ to mean the structures, learning, strategies, and activities that span at least three ways of making connections: the ability to make connections across multiple contexts (intecontextuality), across ideas within a discipline (intradisciplinarity) and across domains and disciplines (interdisciplinarity).

Marketing educators regularly expose students to material and assessments that require integration and indeed the marketing education literature provides many examples of ways in which courses or programmes can be made more integrative (e.g. DeConinck & Steiner, 1999; Elam & Spotts, 2004; Craciun & Corrigan, 2010). Most of these examples demonstrate Barber’s (2009) integration practices even though they do not use his terms. For example, when students complete a client project (e.g. Elam & Spotts, 2004) they are operating, according to Barber’s definition, intercontextually (context of the classroom and context of the client’s workplace). To propose solutions to clients’ problems, the students need to gain a deep understanding of their operations, culture, and current approaches to marketing and link this knowledge with ideas, theories and frameworks learned in one or more marketing modules (intradisciplinarity), plus perhaps apply accounting and finance principles learned in another module, thus adding an element of interdisciplinarity.

The benefits of integrative learning experiences are highlighted by Elam and Spotts (2004) who provide evidence that marketing students will gain a deeper level of understanding of new material (by linking new material with previously learned information); better retention (as students rehearse old material to link it with new ideas); and, in working cross-functionally across a range of activities, gain real-world professional experience. However, they and others who champion integrative activities do not explore the challenges associated with their use in the classroom.

Using findings from neuroscience, Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000) have demonstrated that for successful integration to take place, a number of prior and current conditions must exist: the student must have adequately mastered and not simply memorised the original concept(s); have adequate time to learn and process the old and new information; receive regular tutor feedback and engage in “deliberate practice” (p. 59) that includes monitoring and reflecting on one’s learning practices. Furthermore, the more the original information was overly contextualised, the more the student will find it difficult to transfer the knowledge to new contexts (Bransford et al., 2000). For example, learning about profit and loss accounts where only accounting problems are used for examples can make it difficult for students to transfer this learning to a marketing context.

A number of other factors affect transfer and integration, thus Huber, Hutchings, Gale, Miller and Breen (2007) argue that the ability to integrate ideas successfully is a relatively sophisticated skill and students need many opportunities for both guided and unguided practice during their university education. However, higher education tends towards compartmentalisation where programmes are made up of stand-alone modules that often appear as independent subjects, thus “[f]aculty should be intentional and explicit about opening the doors to broader integration” (Barber, 2014, p. 12) of subjects and content. Barber goes on to say that his “research has found that there is a lack of mentors or guides involved in students’ integration [as]there are few instances in [my research] that show involvement or influence of faculty members or educational administrators in this process” (Barber, 2014 p. 13).

In addition to mentors, Huber, Hutchings, Gale, Miller and Breen (2007) propose that the curriculum be redesigned to include specific opportunities and guidance for integration. They suggest adding in curricular “enriching activities” (p.48) or what Kuh (2008) calls ‘high impact practices’, such as internships, cross-disciplinary courses, final year projects/dissertations, among other initiatives. They also recommend experiential learning activities such as simulations that allow students to make connections between theory and practice and between ideas learned in other contexts and disciplines. However, as noted, the literature has yet to provide rich examples of evidence-based practices or issues related to their use in the classroom.

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