UTSA Honors College Promotes Interdisciplinary Learning

Smiling Caucasian boy high school student rising arm to answer the question.
In one instance highlighting The University of Texas at San Antonio’s goal of offering experiential learning, the Honors College is now in its second year requiring students to take a tutorial sequence designed around in-depth, interdisciplinary exploration of a particular theme. Topic areas include salient issues facing society such as well being, economy, environment and justice. 

Tutorial I begins by familiarizing students – typically freshmen – with current public intellectual discourse surrounding the section’s theme, identifying commonly assumed background knowledge across sources and evaluating their validity. Public intellectual discourse refers to writing by intellectuals aimed not at other academics, but rather the community at large. Sample outlets include The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other news media where intellectual experts write for a diverse, non-specialist audience about relevant current events in the public sphere. 

At the end of the Tutorial I course, students must pass written and oral examinations based on the semester’s materials. Students are expected to be conversant with the manner in which intellectuals and academics from multiple disciplines write for the public and contribute to our understanding of policy decisions at all levels of government.

The approach relies on a seminar-style learning community to develop experience participating in meaningful and consequential discourse with other students, informed by interdisciplinary researchers and scholars. Practical application includes the ability to locate credible, evidence-based knowledge and facts that inform public debate. 

Tutorial I equips students to synthesize and critically analyze information from both reputable sources as well as those that may not be so reputable, and then to construct valid, supportable conclusions. Students leave with the ability to defend more confidently and credibly their positions, both verbally and in writing.

Readings derive from a large cross-section of media, with new articles and items added throughout the course by the professor and students. Although the class begins with material selected by the instructor, students become increasingly responsible for identifying news and academic articles as the semester progresses. Practice and final written exam questions prompt students not simply to summarize but also to analyze current issues facing society by developing individual insight.

The written exams also improve a student’s ability to explain positions in a coherent and concise fashion. The questions encourage elaboration on ideas that emerge during the semester. Quality and depth of writing manifest in the form of clear, logical, convincing thought and cogent analysis. Students must reconcile often-conflicting concepts that characterize the current socio-political climate. Students learn to address important questions, challenges faced and areas ripe for further research. 

Oral exams further evaluate dexterity of thought, critical thinking and analytical capacity. The Socratic give-and-take encourages creative development of innovative lines of reasoning backed up by supporting evidence across several disciplines from popular intellectual literature.

The interactive and rigorous approach taken in the UTSA Honors College’s Tutorial I encourages critical thinking on the part of students regarding timely and relevant topics confronting society. Not only do students leave with practical skills applicable to the workplace, they also become better, more informed citizens in the process.

About the author: Thomas Tunstall, Ph.D. is the senior research director at the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is the principal investigator for numerous economic and community development studies and has published extensively. Dr. Tunstall recently completed a novel entitled “The Entropy Model.”


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