Academic advisers play an important role in making general education relevant and meaningful to student learning by helping to facilitate the three I's of general education: interdisciplinarity, integration, and intentionality. This essay argues that the “advising as learning” model of academic advising embodies the kinds of advising practices that can contribute to the promotion of the three I's. It specifically examines the integral role that quality academic advising plays in individualized major programs. In doing so, it explores how such advising assists students with embarking on an intentional path of study that draws meaningful connections across multiple disciplines in accordance with both their learning goals and those established via general education imperatives. Finally, the essay concludes with some suggestions as to how such advising practices can be extended into other academic programs.

Academic advising is often recognized as playing an integral role in guiding students through the requirements of general education programs and in helping students navigate a university's curricular terrain in their pursuit of fulfilling those requirements. However, the role of the adviser need not be confined strictly to such logistical matters; in fact, academic advisers can and do help students gain a deeper appreciation of the goals of general education imperatives—an appreciation that goes well beyond filling out checklists of general education requirements or assisting with seeking out courses with open seats. Yet there has been little examination of the ways in which advising contributes to students' understanding of the merits of general education, as well as how advisers can encourage students to hone their abilities to synthesize and apply the knowledge and skills they are gaining from courses taken through general education. Specifically, academic advisers have the potential to help facilitate what might be referred to as the three I's of general education—that is, those aspects of learning often associated with improving the quality and impact of general education programs for undergraduate students: interdisciplinarity, integration, and intentionality.

The role of the academic adviser in helping to facilitate interdisciplinary, integrative, and intentional learning is especially important in distribution models of general education (not to say that advisers do not play the same or an equally important role in core models, but the prevalence of distribution models and their lack of structured, prescribed requirements merit particular attention). Indeed, as Menand (2010) contends, general education programs are reflections of an institution's “overall educational philosophy, even when the faculty chooses to require nothing” (p. 23). That “nothing” may reflect a lack of agreement on core content, but it also often means that an emphasis is being placed on exposure to topics across (and between) disciplines and the development of certain skill sets cultivated by this exposure; these might include critical thinking and problem solving, writing and communication, and information literacy.

However, that emphasis is not always overt or made explicitly clear to the student. Thus, one commonly understood problem with the distribution model is that it often leaves to the student the responsibilities of drawing connections across courses and synthesizing the consequent knowledge gathered from those different, often disparate, fields of study. Hothem (2013) refers to this model as the “cafeteria approach,” and he recognizes this central concern for student learning: “A common form of general education in American colleges and universities is the so-called cafeteria approach, where students take a smattering of courses outside their major and so, by dint thereof, are considered to be generally educated. Whereas such a smorgasbord may expose students to subjects and ways of thinking beyond their majors, it does not actively encourage students to make cross-disciplinary connections and ultimately supports disciplinary exclusivity” (p. 85). Fostering interdisciplinary, integrative, and intentional learning helps students to make those connections; furthermore, these three I's also help to cultivate the disposition and skill set necessary to make general education purposeful and meaningful to their undergraduate experience.

Many authors grappling with these very same issues recognize the need for a comprehensive institutional strategy that involves new pedagogical approaches, intentional curricular designs, and faculty development, but they often overlook, or only gesture toward, the role that academic advising can play in that strategy (Huber, Hutchings, Gale, Miller, & Breen, 2007). In this essay, I specifically look to how the “advising as learning” model of academic advising can foster an approach to general education predicated upon the three I's of interdisciplinarity, integration, and intentionality. In doing so, I will draw upon my experiences advising in a nontraditional degree program—an individualized major in which students can design their own curricula. Such a program is unique in that it empowers students to develop their own learning goals and to strategically create their own course of study in line with those goals. Throughout the process of proposing, designing, and executing their plans of study, students must work with an academic adviser to consider how general education requirements fit with their personal academic and professional objectives, as well as how they fit with the overarching mission of higher education and the university's learning priorities.

I contend that the “advising as learning” model embodies the kinds of advising and learning practices that can contribute to promoting each of the three I's associated with general education. But before exploring the relationship between advising and the three I's, it would be useful to first provide a thumbnail sketch of how each I constitutes a fundamental aspect of general education. I will then provide a brief overview of the “advising as learning” model of academic advising, followed by a discussion of how it can effectively nurture the three I's throughout a student's undergraduate career. Finally, I will offer some commentary on how these pieces have been implemented, to varying degrees, in the advising practices of Drexel University's Custom-Designed Major.


There seems to be little agreement as to what interdisciplinarity means or to what, exactly, it refers; Lattuca (2001), for example, catalogs a number of different attempts at defining interdisciplinarity and the limitations/obstacles confronting those attempts. For the purposes of this essay, I would like to invoke a general understanding of interdisciplinarity derived from a definition of interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary studies used by Julie Thompson Klein (2010), in which such approaches “integrate content, data, methods, tools, concepts and theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge in order to advance fundamental understanding, answer complex questions, and solve problems that are too broad or complex for a single approach” (p. 181). Indeed, it seems that such an understanding of interdisciplinarity is at the core of general education programs—an association that dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, where some of the earliest interdisciplinary programs were linked with general education (Klein, 1996, p. 32).

One could argue that the very reason for general education's existence is to expose students to different specialized fields of knowledge and to develop the disciplinary awareness foundational to an interdisciplinary understanding of the world. As Menand notes, the concept of interdisciplinarity is built upon the disciplines, and, in many ways, it reinforces the very existence and purchase of disciplinary knowledge. Again, without rehashing debates regarding what interdisciplinarity actually is or means, I would embrace Menand's assessment as central to understanding the relationship between general education and interdisciplinarity; that is, general education provides students access to a breadth of knowledge across different disciplines, laying the foundation to develop connections across those disciplines.

However, that connectivity—the ability to see how disciplines might inform one another and how information, concepts, and methodologies can be applied across boundaries—does not necessarily sprout forth on its own volition. Rather, it requires the other two I's in order to manifest in any way that might be meaningful and applicable to a student's major and future academic and professional pursuits. So, while interdisciplinarity is embedded in the very disciplinary nature of the general education curriculum, it requires guided work on integration and intentional learning to become activated as, in Klein's words, a means of integrating and synthesizing knowledge to grapple with complex questions and problems. This is, essentially, the job of the academic adviser, but I will return to that after briefly exploring both integrative and intentional learning.


The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines integrative learning in its Integrative and Applied Learning value Rubric 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” (Rhodes, 2010). The most relevant part of this definition to the foundational principles of general education is the curricular context of drawing connections across ideas and applying them in appropriate, and sometimes novel, ways. In fact, as Mahoney and Schamber (2011) note in their study of learning communities and integrative learning, the Association of American Colleges and Universities increasingly places an emphasis on integrative learning as fostering a students' ability to synthesize knowledge across fields and draw connections between their majors and the imperatives of general education. In their account of integrative learning, Huber et al. (2007) focus especially on its function of “developing the ability to make, recognize, and evaluate connections among disparate concepts, fields, or contexts” as a necessary addition to the breadth and depth of knowledge. In order for general education requirements to have meaning and an impact on a student's learning, he or she must be able to link the content of those courses to one another and develop awareness for how that knowledge can be applied to real-world problem solving.

One of the major pitfalls of a distribution model of general education is the tendency for students to choose courses because they are known to be easy and require little extra effort; while not focusing strictly on general education, Arum and Roksa's sobering account of undergraduate learning (or lack thereof), Academically Adrift (2011), details numerous accounts of students avoiding courses and professors known to be demanding and difficult. In these instances, very little thought (if any) is given to the value that a course outside of one's major may add to one's education. To counter this tendency, integrative learning through general education must be made apparent to the student—skills and competencies developed through coursework must be highlighted, and their applications to research, vocational interests, and other academic pursuits, discussed. The content of the courses must be contextualized; knowledge does not exist on an island, and the ways in which ideas, concepts, and methods of inquiry can inform other fields should be explored and encouraged. The keys for integrative learning in general education are connection and application—when students draw connections across general education courses and apply them in meaningful ways, they can gain an appreciation for how other disciplines and fields of knowledge enrich their personal and academic growth.


Interdisciplinarity and integrative learning are both key facets of impactful general education programs, but to realize their full benefits, students must invest themselves in their education. This means that they need to make deliberate, informed choices and take an active part in constructing meaning across general education requirements. Doing so helps students develop a sense of ownership that will encourage them to maximize the opportunities afforded to them through general education. This is the essence of intentional learning, and its fundamental tenets include self-direction, goal setting (both academic and personal), self-advocacy, and empowerment.

Encouraging students to think intentionally about their general education helps them identify a purpose for these requirements beyond the simple need of fulfilling them to graduate. Glynn, Aultman, and Owens (2005) elaborate on some the advantages of intentional learning in general education programs: “Give college students in general education programs some degree of control over what they learn and how they learn it. This will foster ownership of learning. Students with some degree of control will take greater responsibility for their own learning and participate more fully in learning activities. They also will be more likely to develop feelings of competence, independence, and self-determination” (p. 164). Furthermore, the authors contend that students who are encouraged to set and pursue their own goals “will focus on acquiring knowledge and developing skills” and that they will advocate for themselves and proactively seek guidance from others (2005, p. 164). Simply put, “when students have the opportunity to help design their educational activities in general education programs, they are more likely to benefit from them” (Glynn et al., 2005, p. 157).

Consequently, the choices that students make when selecting courses in their general education program must be guided by the reflection they undertake in setting goals and learning objectives. Ongoing dialogues with advisers, mentors, and instructors can help inform this reflection by pushing students to articulate their academic and professional goals, as well as the strategies they will employ to reach those goals. Drawing out these types of linkages is critical because, as Glynn et al. (2005) note, it “promotes intrinsic motivation that goes beyond obtaining an extrinsic reward such as a good grade” (pp. 163–64). Ultimately, fostering intentional learning is an important part of a successful general education program because it moves students further away from the kinds of extrinsic rewards that would cause many of them to be attracted to easy “blow-off” courses. Instead, students invested in intentional learning are often imbued with a sense of intrinsic purpose or motivation—they are looking to better themselves personally and academically (often the two are intertwined and inseparable) and are not necessarily seeking to just boost their gpa.

In order to make intentional and integrative learning cornerstones of general education, and to ensure that a student is able to effectively engage in such forms of learning so as to activate the ability to make interdisciplinarity a product of general education, academic advisers must be invested in making the advising process part of the learning experience for students. In other words, academic advisers must increasingly take on the role of educators, and academic advising must become more of a matter of engaging in dialogue with the intent of encouraging students to articulate their own learning goals and objectives. Such advising also entails helping students strategize to develop the requisite skills and knowledge to achieve those goals. Finally, advising methods must encourage students to adopt an intellectually critical attitude toward the disciplines and general education imperatives. This model of academic advising is the focus of the next section.

“Advising as Learning” and the Three I's of General Education

One of the common themes running throughout the three I's of general education is the importance of assisting students in recognizing how different classes and disciplines can complement and inform one another—interdisciplinarity, integration, and intentionality are all, fundamentally, about purposefully drawing curricular and cocurricular connections. The connections that general education intends to foster are significant not just for the worldliness and breadth of knowledge that they impart but also because they help to develop the kind of thinking that facilitates deep learning and student success. Colleges and universities are increasingly taking note of this, and they are creating institutional structures to support the ability to make substantive linkages, as Ann Ferren (2010) notes: “Connections across disciplines are necessary to encourage analytical and integrative thinking. … As campuses align outcomes with structural and pedagogical elements, it should not be surprising that many advising documents are no longer checklists of requirements but flow charts and diagrams showing relationships among course clusters, skills, and in-class and out-of-class experiences” (p. 26). Ferren recognizes the critical role that advising plays in developing students' capacities to recognize relationships, draw connections, and apply knowledge and skill sets across disciplinary boundaries. However, this more expansive and robust role of the adviser has gone largely unexamined in the general education literature; consequently, I would like to unpack the adviser's role as facilitator of the three I's through the lens of the “advising as learning” model of academic advising. By drawing upon examples of advising practices in an individualized major program, I will further illustrate the applications of such an approach to advising in promoting the incorporation of the three I's in general education.

The “advising as learning” model of academic advising offers a particularly instructive perspective on how effective advising can help students gain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of general education and its benefits in conjunction with their personal development. Advising as learning emerged from the developmental model of advising, which, being a product of developmental psychology, focuses on the student's development of a sense of self and the adviser's role in supporting that development, rather than just prescribing certain courses of action to the student (Crookston, 1972). Advising as learning has grown over the last twenty years as an approach to situating the student's development of a sense of self within the broader curricular context of higher education and the mission of the university (Hagen, 1994; Hemwall & Trachte, 1999, 2005; Kuh, 1997; Laff, 1994; Lowenstein, 1999; Strommer, 1994).

This style of advising places the adviser in the role of teacher; in fact, Lowenstein (2005) contends that “an excellent advisor does the same for the student's entire curriculum that the excellent teacher does for one course” (p. 69). What this means is that the adviser must help the student understand how the pieces of the curriculum fit together—why courses are taken in a particular sequence, how they build upon one another, and the ways in which knowledge across courses can be synthesized and used to inform future coursework. While a teacher must have highly specified knowledge in a particular field, an academic adviser must have broad curricular knowledge. This broad knowledge is usually for logistical purposes of helping students meet major and general education requirements, but using advising as a means of helping students learn both how and why curricular pieces fit together requires advisers to assume a proactive teaching role. Indeed, the function of the adviser in this setting is to help students understand the “logic of the curriculum” (Lowenstein, 2000).

Yet helping students understand the “logic of the curriculum” is not just a matter of explaining to them the rationale of its requirements; a truly critical appreciation of the curriculum cannot be simply imparted from adviser to student. Rather, to encourage the development of self within that curricular context, the adviser must help equip the student with the necessary tools to think critically about his or her education, including the ability to set and articulate personal, academic, and professional goals; the strategic initiative to plan, accordingly, curricular and cocurricular opportunities that will help with achieving those goals; and a range of competencies that promote active self-reflection, effective self-advocacy, and creative problem solving.

One could argue that the “logic of the curriculum” is at the core of general education imperatives and that the kind of learning with which the adviser assists, as detailed above, is deeply imbued with the three I's of general education. In other words, advisers who undertake advising practices guided by the “advising as learning” model are implicitly incorporating strategies of interdisciplinary, integrative, and intentional learning in their approach. Consequently, they are implementing advising practices that will help students maximize the benefits of general education. The essence of these practices is an ongoing dialogical process investing adviser and student in conversations regarding the intent and purpose of general education requirements.

However, these conversations cannot be unidirectional—the adviser cannot merely tell the student that general education requirements are important for graduation or even why they are important; instead, the adviser must encourage the student to derive meaning from these requirements and assist with drawing relevant connections between those requirements and a chosen major. In order to highlight this process and offer some concrete examples of how it manifests, I turn to illustrations provided by advising practices employed in an individualized major program where students design their own curricula. In order to be successful, individualized major programs require “high-touch” advising sessions that are structured by intensive dialogue examining relationships among courses and the connections between a student's plan of study and his or her learning goals, as well as those of the university (including general education imperatives).

Although individualized major programs are structured differently across academic institutions, their unifying feature is that students are enabled to create their own unique plans of study by drawing from multiple disciplines. Drexel University's Custom-Designed Major empowers students to design their own curricula in pursuit of the academic and professional goals they have set for themselves. The major places an explicit emphasis on the three I's in the following ways:

  • Interdisciplinarity: The major requires that students incorporate multiple disciplines into their plans of study, with an emphasis on synthesizing knowledge across those disciplines.

  • Integration: Students are encouraged to incorporate into their education cocurricular endeavors, including research initiatives, study abroad opportunities, internships, civic engagement, and so on.

  • Intentionality: As part of the application process, students must develop their own learning goals and plans of study, and they must continue to reassess and defend these throughout their tenure in the program.

These tenets guide the way in which general education imperatives are incorporated into each individualized major—a process that unfolds through iterative discussions between student and academic adviser.

Since students draw widely from disciplines that span not just individual colleges but the entire university, the discussions between adviser and student become the central narrative to the student's education. By its very nature, the major is intent on nurturing personal development in accordance with the educational directives of the university, and it does so via a system of advising that entails adviser–advisee dialogue focusing on, first, articulating learning goals and, subsequently, strategizing ways in which those goals can be attained. Central to this process are in-depth conversations regarding the rationale and structure of the curriculum that each student proposes. From the outset, the student works with an academic adviser on his or her proposal—the student is expected to explain why certain disciplines mutually reinforce one another and why specific courses are included in the plan of study.

Because it requires not just depth of knowledge but breadth and synthesis of knowledge as well, general education is an integral part of the Custom-Designed Major. While the major implicitly demands a certain level of interdisciplinarity by requiring students to draw from multiple disciplines in the construction of their plans of study, they must also reach credit minimums across the natural sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and mathematics. Oftentimes, students will meet some of these requirements on their own volition in their curricular designs; after all, the goal of the major is to encourage students to develop as holistic an understanding of their problem area or topic as possible. Nevertheless, it is a rare occasion when a student will capture all general education requirements in his or her initial proposed plan of study. This reflects the main issue at hand, that is, that students do not recognize the full breadth of knowledge that can inform the curricula they are designing. In other words, students are not aware of the ways in which a breadth of knowledge, intentionally integrated into their plans of study, can both broaden their horizons and augment their education in meaningful ways.

It is at this point that the practice of “advising as learning” is critical in helping students understand the “logic of the curriculum” and how general education is a key component of this logic. In order to do so, the adviser must work with students to help them see the merit of breadth of knowledge—in both the abstract sense of disciplinary contributions and the concrete relevance of particular courses—in relation to their academic endeavors. In order to help students work through their curricular designs and to make sense of general education requirements in meaningful ways, academic advising in the Custom-Designed Major focuses on the three I's. Again, in many ways, interdisciplinarity, integration, and intentionality are built into the very structure and intent of the major, but students often do not recognize that they are partaking in such forms of learning without engaging in a dialogue that makes it apparent.

Advising in the major requires this kind of dialogue throughout a student's academic career—from the moment he or she begins the application process, through each registration advising session, and up until graduation. Maintaining that kind of dialogue throughout continually reinforces learning objectives and compels the student to consistently reassess the curricular and cocurricular pieces he or she has assembled to meet those goals. As a student begins the application process to the Custom-Designed Major, the initial meeting with an adviser consists of discussions regarding why he or she is seeking to incorporate particular disciplines and how those disciplines fit together in a comprehensive and meaningful way. Responses that amount to simply liking or disliking particular subjects do not suffice, and the adviser must continue to drill down to help the student become cognizant of his or her own motivations. Most essential to general education is the academic adviser's approach to making it apparent to students that their personal motivations are consistent with the demands and goals of general education.

In order for the adviser to successfully help the student draw connections between his or her own goals and the imperatives of general education, the adviser must be able to offer informed suggestions for relevant courses—courses that students might not consider or of which they might not even be aware. But, more importantly, the adviser must engage the student in dialogue that promotes reflection and self-discovery and that consistently orients this reflection toward the curricular mission of the school. This dialogue must continually put the onus on the student to articulate his or her vision for academic success, while working to reconcile that vision with broader curricular demands via general education. It is not meant to put the student on the defensive; rather, it is dialectical in nature, and it seeks to establish intentionality by empowering the student to set learning goals and strategize the ways he or she plans to achieve those goals.

The student must also consider interdisciplinarity and integration as fundamental aspects of education—he or she must be able to identify potential areas for the synthesis and application of knowledge across disciplines. A student need not have a full-blown research agenda developed but should be able to speak to specific problem areas that would require the kind of scope of knowledge he or she is seeking to develop. This type of dialogue continues throughout a student's tenure in the major, and it is integral in keeping general education a relevant and important part of his or her learning. Throughout these conversations, the adviser works to promote an awareness of how different curricular and cocurricular components can contribute to the student's intellectual and personal growth.

A broad awareness of the curriculum in line with the three I's would certainly contribute to a greater appreciation of general education, and it is this approach that helps Custom-Designed Major students become more cognizant of how other disciplines can help inform their educational pursuits. The role of the academic adviser is crucial to activating that awareness and instilling the principles of the three I's even though general education distribution requirements are built into the dictates of the Custom-Designed Major. The academic adviser assumes this role by engaging students in a dialogue that pushes them to actively construct their learning goals, strategize curricular and cocurricular pathways to achieve those goals, articulate their understanding of how and why courses relate to one another, and demonstrate the synthesis of knowledge across chosen disciplines. Ultimately, the advising relationship, modeled upon “advising as learning,” becomes the means by which students can develop a critical understanding of their academic endeavors by relating their personal, academic, and professional objectives to the requirements of the university, including, especially, general education mandates.


In no way does this article suggest that academic advising can be a panacea for all of the difficulties that make general education a thorny issue for undergraduate learning. However, academic advising grounded in the “advising as learning” model can be integral in augmenting pedagogical, faculty-driven, and overarching curricular approaches to developing a general education program that facilitates intentional, integrative, and interdisciplinary learning. Certainly there are many obstacles to developing and implementing such a model of advising. First and foremost are the interrelated issues of resources, caseloads, and time—limited resources on campuses across the country mean that academic advisers are often saddled with caseloads of advisees numbering in the hundreds, which, in turn, means that these advisers do not have the time to devote to engaging in the kind of dialogue that would help students gain a more nuanced and meaningful appreciation of general education. Furthermore, this also means that advisers do not have the time to develop a working knowledge of an institution's array of disciplines and programs, which would undoubtedly hamper any attempts at helping students to think about the relevance of and relationships among sometimes seemingly disparate fields of knowledge.

Additionally, certain degree programs, like individualized majors, may be more attuned by design to deliberately incorporate general education parameters predicated on interdisciplinarity, integration, and intentionality. Furthermore, there may be a certain amount of selection bias at work in terms of the kinds of students who are open to the advising practices and dialogical approaches necessary to inculcate the three I's as a matter of general education. Students who embark on an educational path that is not prescribed to them may already have the right disposition to appreciate the intrinsic value of general education; the eagerness to construct an individualized plan of study may be a mark of intentionality, and the vision to incorporate multiple disciplines and cocurricular activities in a cohesive program of study is certainly a reflection of interdisciplinarity and integrative learning.

Nevertheless, there are ways in which other programs can implement elements of the “advising as learning” model as a means of infusing general education with the three I's. For example, advising syllabi and e-portfolios are useful tools to keep students invested in their educational choices and to assist the adviser with engaging and monitoring students. An advising syllabus can help prompt students to think critically about their general education options, and the e-portfolio can be used to require students to reflect upon and justify their choices. Both can be used to structure in-person and virtual conversations.

An advising syllabus can be developed to clarify expectations and structure the advising process. Such a syllabus would specify both student and adviser duties and responsibilities. It would also describe the nature of the student/adviser relationship and detail the expectations of advising sessions. For example, it might list a set of questions regarding the reasoning behind course selection for which a student should come to meetings prepared to answer. Clarity regarding both student and adviser responsibilities can help lay the groundwork for more productive, less prescriptive (or transactional) conversations down the road. Expecting students to come to meetings prepared to discuss curricular decisions in detail can help enrich discussions; it emphasizes the student's role in constructing the meaning of his or her educational choices.

In conjunction with advising syllabi, implementing e-portfolios can effectively encourage students to undertake consistent self-reflection. E-portfolios also provide a means for advisers to monitor the progress of students, and they allow for both virtual collaboration and preparation for in-person meetings. They also have the added benefit of encouraging and cataloging integrative learning through reflection; students are able to actively reflect on curricular and cocurricular achievements and how they dovetail with one another. Using these tools can be beneficial when it comes to general education because they can help transform a disengaged student—one who is struggling to check off courses on a requirements list—into an engaged student taking ownership of his or her education and making informed and intentional choices about general education.

These are only two possible extensions of the “advising as learning” model into the realm of general education advising; certainly, there are other possible novel applications. The key to imbuing the three I's into general education through advising practices is to invest students in drawing connections across fields. Face-to-face conversations are ideal in developing a dialogue that cultivates such a sense of investment and meaning, but other advising techniques grounded in advising as learning can be effective in creating robust general education experiences, especially when linked to other university initiatives aimed at pedagogical reform and faculty development.

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