Innovations That Inspire

Bachelor of Commerce—Integrated First Year

Recognition Year(s): 2023
School: UNSW Business School, UNSW Sydney
Location: Australia

The Integrated First Year (IFY) is a unique first-year business curriculum that integrates disciplinary knowledge, professional skills, and student career development. The eight IFY courses transcend disciplinary silos for an authentic, stimulating learning experience.

Christine Mathies, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs, UNSW Business School, UNSW Sydney

Call to Action

For more than a decade, there has been a growing international consensus that business schools are struggling to produce future-ready graduates because the degrees follow a traditional formula that includes content-focused introductory courses. These classes are taught in disciplinary silos followed by specializations that further partition the disciplines. This collective failure to interrelate and integrate the curriculum has substantial negative impact on student learning and employability.

At UNSW, we knew that employers were pleased with our Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) graduates’ exceptional technical knowledge but very concerned about their lack of transferrable skills, such as complex problem-solving, learning from failure, and the capacity to work effectively on diverse teams. Crucially, the responsibility for connecting discrete sets of disciplinary knowledge remains with the students: They become aware of notable gaps in their professional skills and capabilities but can’t see how classroom and cocurricular learning develop such skills.

The solution—according to our own internal feedback and international thought leaders in psychology, education, and management—is transdisciplinary learning that ensures skills are developed in relation to other skills, rather than in siloes. By thematically reimagining and integrating the fundamentals from each of the constituent disciplines, the Integrated First Year (IFY) curriculum begins the degree’s task of equipping students with today’s fundamental business knowledge and skills.

Innovation Details

Our innovation is an unconvential redesign of the first-year curriculum. Our objective in revamping the curriculum was to place students in a completely transdisciplinary environment from the very beginning of their undergraduate business degree. This approach resulted in significant curriculum innovation and institutional change.

To overcome the many disciplinary, pedagogical, and governance challenges of designing transdisciplinary education, we formed a powerful coalition of 150 staff who worked simultaneously and sequentially toward our common goal. This distributed approach fostered rich collaboration across disciplines.

Each of the seven business school departments first determined the essential knowledge from its respective discipline—a hugely demanding task in itself—while Program Learning Outcome (PLO) teams explored the essence of essential business skills. We then integrated these two efforts to design an IFY curriculum that introduces students to the broad business content, transferable business skills, and personalized career development learning they need for tomorrow’s careers.

The IFY comprises eight new transdisciplinary courses with comprehensive curriculum integration both within and across courses via thematic, structural, and pedagogical integration. The IFY replaces the traditional discipline-specific foundation courses in accounting, finance, economics, marketing, and so on. The eight IFY courses fit into three themes: two courses on business skills and capabilities, two courses on the business ecosystem, and four courses on business management. Authentic assessment; active, problem-based learning; and purposeful cocurricular activities put professional skill development and employability at the center of student learning.

Innovation Impact

Already, we have seen enhanced student learning outcomes and satisfaction, plus a 30 percent year-over-year increase in domestic student demand. We can report a significant increase in students’ achievement of PLOs in the new BCom: 98 percent of IFY students achieved the first-year standard of teamwork compared to 86 percent in the traditional curriculum; more than 66 percent exceeded the standard for global and cultural competence versus 47 percent previously; and average first-year course marks increased by 4 percent compared to prior years.

Students’ course evaluations affirm the effectiveness of IFY authentic assessment: 98 percent rated assessments as relevant for their learning versus 87 percent before the changes, better preparing them for the careers of tomorrow.

By working closely with key accrediting bodies (e.g., CPA Australia) throughout the curriculum redesign, our IFY thinking is reflected in the new professional skills and competency standards of CPA, the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand, and the International Federation of Accountants. While universities traditionally focus on technical skills and knowledge, CPA attests that the IFY leads by “accommodating these changed requirements,” putting our students well ahead.

The IFY requires academics to shift their fundamental thinking about their schools’ disciplinary content. This change in mindset was an initially challenging yet ultimately rewarding experience that benefited teaching and research capabilities, as this finance academic affirms: “The main beneficiaries of the IFY approach … are undoubtedly the students [because when] experts in both fields … work together, they focus on a better, more integrated, and holistic learning experience. … I can teach the same material in half the time.”

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