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The Center for Individualized Learning makes programs personal

Kim VanHoosier-Carey shares how individualized learning supports student success and drives institutional progress.

By Lindsey Coulter

August 6, 2018

Kim VanHoosier-CareyWhen innovative, mold-breaking students are given the support needed to meet their academic goals, they change not only their own lives but also their institutions. This holds true for Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Individualized Learning, which works with forward-thinking students to craft majors and minors specifically designed to meet their educational goals.

Kim VanHoosier-Carey, Ph.D., was appointed in June to serve as director of the center after spending four years as an individualized-degree specialist, working with the full spectrum of MSU Denver students including adult learners, veterans and first-gens. She talked with the Early Bird about the CIL’s student innovators and why interdisciplinary and individualized learning is helping make the University a more dynamic environment for all.

What brought you to the Center for Individualized Learning?

My 18-year background in higher education includes teaching women’s literature and freshman composition, and directing a learning center for students facing academic challenges. I realized I liked one-on-one work with students, and I liked the mission of MSU. I came to the Center for Individualized Learning four years ago as an IDP specialist where I have worked with hundreds of students to create individualized degrees.

How does the center work with students to develop these tailored programs?

We call our students innovators because they are creating a major or minor that the school doesn’t offer but has coursework to support.

We work closely with students to craft their curriculum and course list, and they write an essay to justify it. They also work with a faculty advisor for content-area expertise, then their proposal is reviewed by the department chair and dean.

It’s pretty intensive because we want to make sure we’re helping students put together the best option for them — and that it’s sound academically. It takes some thought and real engagement with the process to put this together. We ask students to reflect thoughtfully on their learning and then support them through that process. I’m not sure that the students themselves always realize that what they’re doing is pretty creative and interesting.

Has the center helped drive the development of new programs?

Yes. A second part of what we do is work with faculty and departments to create incubators for emerging programs. They can test out a new major or minor based on changes and new developments in their fields to make sure that it works. The Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy and the Gender and Women’s Studies major and the Water Studies minor came out of here originally — and there is a new minor this fall in translation studies.

Who is your typical student?

We graduate about 200 students each year between majors and minors, and all of them are rewarding. We have quite a few honors students, and more than half of our students do what we call intentional IDPs. They’re focused, and they planned their IDP because of their interests.

One misconception is that we only work with completer students — and that completer students can’t be strong students. They may well have tried five different majors, but they can articulate how they fit together and they can craft effective degrees based on their previous work.

The center also works with Metro Meritus students. Metro Meritus is a program that allows alumni and community members over age 60 to take courses in languages, math, science and many other subjects for free on a noncredit basis. Faculty members mention that these older community members add unique perspectives to class discussions and help regular MSU students consider issues through different lenses.

Why does the center value an interdisciplinary approach to education?

The interdisciplinary approach is fairly grounded in the liberal arts in most cases, so students can think across disciplines, learn to ask different questions and potentially come to different solutions. They also tend to develop writing and oral communication skills effectively because they’ve had to work in lots of different contexts and fields.

You spend a lot of time helping students reach their goals; what are your goals for the center?

I want to find better ways to serve students that may not see an individualized degree as an option and to be more efficient in our processes. We have a small staff and serve between 500 and 700 students. We’re not sure what our upward capacity is, but it seems like we’re getting close.

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