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V3I3: Beacon Award Winner: Subject Matter Immersion at Ensign College

Awarded to: President Bruce C. Kusch, Ensign College, Salt Lake City, Utah

Ensign College was named a recipient of the 2020 Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) Beacon Award for Excellence in Student Achievement and Success for its adoption of Subject Matter Immersion in the classroom.

Subject Matter Immersion has been at the forefront of President Kusch’s mind since he took over as the LDS Business College (now Ensign College) President in 2017. Accepting the challenge of Dr. Kim B Clark, former Commissioner of Education of Ensign’s sponsoring institution, to “educate our students more deeply and more powerfully than ever before,” President Kusch combined the Commissioner’s charge with employer research on in-demand workplace skills to develop Ensign College’s Subject Matter Immersion model.

Recognizing that employer surveys regularly find graduates lacking in these in-demand skills with gaps between what higher education thinks they are teaching and what employers actually experience in hiring recent graduates (Strada/Gallup 2017 College Student Survey), President Kusch explored ways to close the gaps. In a 2018 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities which asked what hiring managers think about graduates’ preparedness in important workplace qualities, 87% of the more than 500 managers surveyed said the ability to apply knowledge and skills to the real world was the most important quality. But they also said only 39% of the graduates were prepared with the intellectual agility to do this. The question for President Kusch became how to bring the real world of work into the classroom and prepare students for their first career step.

Defined, the underlying premise of Subject Matter Immersion is a call to action to fully immerse and envelop students in a subject or discipline, where they take responsibility for what they learn, how they will learn, how they will demonstrate mastery of the subject and even how they will earn a final grade in the course. As students are immersed in a subject, and they become agents of their own learning, they develop this essential quality: the ability to apply knowledge and skills. The gap between classroom learning and the world of work narrows for them as they master the top in-demand skills employers continually identify, including:

  • Written and verbal communications
  • Leadership
  • Problem-solving
  • Collaboration and working in teams
  • Intellectual agility

To demonstrate this initially unfamiliar principle to students and faculty alike, President Kusch stands at the front of an Ensign College Business 160, Leadership for Life course, and greets students with one simple statement, “Welcome to your life!” He continues, “Welcome to a course that mirrors the world that awaits you and truly immerses you in real-life learning experiences.”

Along with the Dean of Instruction and General Studies, Leslie Robbins, he introduces Subject Matter Immersion, where students are deeply immersed in a real, authentic learning environment, preparing them to succeed in the competitive world they will enter upon graduation.

In the first minute of the first day of class, students become agents of their own learning as they apply knowledge and skills which close the gap between college and workplace preparedness. Course learning outcomes anchor the class as students, sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes reluctantly, leave their comfort zones and begin to design learning experiences of deep significance to their own academic goals.

Student-designed projects and assignments focus on real-life challenges with deliverables identified by the students. Individually, and in groups, students explore the questions: How will I reach this outcome? How will I demonstrate skill mastery? How will the problem be solved? As students build, create and problem solve, there are explicit conversations about learning how to learn which bring an added awareness to the learning process.

Frequent critical reflection offers learners a chance to construct meaning of their learning as they evaluate their behavior, preparedness and capabilities. Critical reflection allows students to reflect on how they’re becoming spiritually self-reliant as they seek revelation and guidance throughout the learning process. It focuses on students taking responsibility and ownership for their learning and choices. Learner-centered teaching principles and practices are a means to an end. Having a base knowledge of tested learner-centered methods is a key ingredient of Subject Matter Immersion.

Behavior and mindset growth align with foundations of transformational learning theory. Students experience conceptual shifts and behavioral changes; existing assumptions, beliefs, values and perspectives are questioned, revised or changed. Students gain a deeper awareness of self and others, leading to deeper interactive learning and ministry. Subject Matter Immersion is associated with doing and demonstrating knowledge. Listening to lectures, taking multiple-choice tests and reading articles – these are not the results of Subject Matter Immersion. It is built on principles of giving students experiences, requiring immediate application of knowledge by demonstrating learned concepts and content.

Teachers must stand ready to support students who are uncomfortable as they transition to this type of learning climate from a traditional climate. Heightened communication and interaction from teacher-to-student and student-to-student deepens through ministering and mentoring. Formative and rapid feedback through assessment is essential for students to recognize how they’re growing, learning and changing, or where improvement is needed. Subject Matter Immersion will often expose strengths and weaknesses in student behavior and performance, thus helping them to become self-reliant, self-regulated and lifelong learners.

Immersive experiences can last 20 minutes, six days, one module or an entire semester. Learning environments where students are placed out of their comfort zone results in learner agility – the ability to move from situation to situation where students demonstrate resilience and grit – along with confidence and mastery of the subject matter.

This principle-based pattern, championed by President Kusch, changes and transforms everything that happens in the classroom. In some classes, students decide what they learn, how they will learn and how they will hold themselves accountable for their learning. In other classes, students work with teachers to create immersive projects based on the course syllabus parameters. In all classes, teachers and learners partner to create high expectations and standards for learning.

President Kusch and Leslie Robbins taught the first Subject Matter Immersion pilot in 2016. The BUS 160 pilot group of 44 unique students (2% of the semester population) increased to 697 unique students in three years (5% of the population). The results of the initial pilot were compelling and promising for students and teachers, and at the request of interested faculty, additional courses were transitioned using the data and information learned through the pilot program.

The BUS 160 classroom experience informed better teaching and learning and changed the way instructors teach and the way students learn at the College. Teachers no longer solely rely on lectures, PowerPoint presentations, traditional assignments, tests or quizzes. Teachers develop courses differently, using learner-centered strategies, immersive projects and the integration of Ensign College’s College-Wide Capabilities – skills identified through employer research as essential to career success.

The Subject Matter Immersion model inspired program chairs to apply its principles in skills-based programs such as Medical Assisting, IT, Accounting, Project Management and Social Media Marketing. Subject Matter Immersion does not stop with skills-based programs; however, English, Math and general education courses are using the principles to increase intellectual agility in their students and prepare them, not only for the world of work, but for advanced courses.

Program chairs use a teaching plan template in all courses which includes Subject Matter Immersion, with detailed instructions on how to place the learner at the center and incorporate real-world projects and assessments. With a standardized teaching template, the College ensures teaching and learning strategies are consistent throughout disciplines in classrooms taught by full-time and adjunct faculty. Faculty receive professional development training in Subject Matter Immersion principles where ideas are discussed and shared and adjuncts learn in new faculty orientation and through their faculty mentors how to apply the principles in their classrooms.

President Kusch recognizes the continuum of applying new teaching and learning strategies in the classroom, and he encourages teachers to take small steps, or if they desire, to dive in and allow the students to create the course syllabus based on clearly identified student learning outcomes. Student learning outcomes are never pushed aside or forgotten in the process.

In fact, students are much more aware of the learning outcomes in a Subject Matter Immersion-centered classroom because they are designing deliverables that will meet the outcomes. Rather than statements on a course syllabus that are never discussed or easily forgotten, the learning outcomes are the guideposts that inform student decisions and learning.

Qualitative evidence gathered through the implementation of Subject Matter Immersion principles in Ensign College classrooms point to the notion that learning and teaching have improved. The evidence suggests that students are more motivated to succeed in the course and report higher levels of student satisfaction. Students self-regulate as they accept ownership and responsibility for their learning. A significant outcome of Subject Matter Immersion is that students and teachers experience change, a transformational shift in conceptual behavior and understanding.

Subject Matter Immersion is for everyone. It’s designed to help students succeed. Ensign College graduates will be prepared to lead in the world of work, not simply find a job. Students will not be provided with a “course syllabus” on the first day of work. They will be required to be self-starters and prepared for the challenges presented to them by their employers, and that’s the exact goal of Subject Matter Immersion at Ensign College.


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