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The Benefits of Integrative Learning Techniques in Undergraduate Public Administration Classes

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Gregg Buckingham
May 2, 2019

As a practitioner retired from a career at NASA, I worked with many interns. Students often stated, “Now I know how to connect what I am learning to how I will use it in the future.” A central teaching tenet of mine is providing students opportunities in class to do what public administrators do in their professional lives. I help students think of their life experience in a holistic way, linking experiences across classes, extra-curricular activities and everyday life to frame and plan their careers.

On the Teaching Public Administration section’s panel at ASPA’s 2019 Annual Conference, I discussed five assignments utilized in two undergraduate classes: Introduction to PA and Research Methods for PA. The assignments are founded on the idea of integrated learning, defined as “…An understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and co-curriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus.” I collected data and although it was a small sample, it informs my teaching.

The assignment Everyday PA required students to snap pictures during their normal day of public administration-related activities, post them, and then before any lecture, join a facilitated discussion to determine what is, and is not, public administration—and why. The full assignment then involved researching the budget, management of the project, why the project would be in the public’s interest, the revenue that funds it, and how citizens might comment on the activity.

Eighty-five percent of students (n=101) strongly agreed or agreed that the Everyday PA assignment made them more aware of the impact of public administration in their daily life than before they took the class; a similar percentage agreed the assignment helped them become aware of the role public administrators play in society. These were both objectives of the course.

Next, “My PA Profession,” required students to select an open position in the public sector and develop a strategic plan to obtain that position. Strategic planning is one of the topics covered in class. This included a mini-SWOT analysis of students’ strengths and weaknesses, identification of stakeholders, defining a code of ethics and developing an action plan to compete for the position.

Eight-seven percent of students agreed this exercise helped them reflect on their life experiences to date, both in and out of class, to identify their skills and abilities. A similar number agreed it also helped them reflect on the value of ethics in the profession.  

The third assignment linked an honors general education history course with Introduction to Public Administration. This was done in partnership with Dr. Rose Beiler from the UCF History Department. The questions were twofold—might we help public administration students realize the value of understanding the historical context of policy issues; and might we help history students understand how their research might apply to public policy today? A joint non-credit course was established (in addition to our own for-credit courses) where all students could join the conversation. Students in each class developed a PowerPoint on an aspect of immigration policy. Mine looked at today’s immigration issues while the history students discussed 19th century immigration issues. A discussion then ensued as well as a lecture trade by the two faculty members. This was a one-semester pilot, and students seemed to enjoy interacting with students from another discipline. Additionally, confidence in analyzing a policy issue rose in each class. One student stated, “I feel like I have some of the most nuanced stances on immigration now. This class’s laser focus on immigration allowed for a very thorough understanding of immigration.”

The fourth assignment related to metacognition, helping students reflect on and improve their studying habits. Four exercises were used, including a survey on current study habits (developed by Anton Tolman, Ph.D.); an online discussion about how to prepare for exams; an individual response to articles on self-efficacy, use of social media, fatigue and a balanced school/social life; and a pair-share discussion on how to approach writing a research proposal. On the study habits survey alone, about 75 percent of students indicated the exercises helped them reflect on their study habits this semester and how they would study in the future.

The last assignment is personalized learning, which allowed students to work at their own pace on course material, understand their mastery level for each component and focus their time on material that needed the most attention. This project is a partnership with Jungwon Yeo, Ph.D. Again, it encourages students to be reflective and manage their own learning. Over 70 percent of students reported that the software system helped them learn course material better than without the system and stay more engaged with the course.

These assignments and projects further my goal of helping students reflect on and link their experiences to a career in public administration. Continued use of projects that expand students’ thinking about their role in the field and how they might contribute is integral.

Author:Gregg Buckingham, Ed.D., is a lecturer at the University of Central Florida, School of Public Administration. He is in his third year of full-time teaching. [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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