concept map of transfer theories

Theory-Building: Borrowed Legends for Understanding Transfer

This week the Center for Engaged Learning launches Critical Transitions Online, a free online seminar focusing on the common curricular assumption that students will take writing knowledge and strategies gained in one context (for instance, a first-year writing course) and apply them (or “transfer” them) to other contexts (for instance, a course in a major, or a future workplace). This three-week online event leads into the Critical Transitions Conference at Elon University, June 24-26, which is the culmination of a two-year, multi-institutional Elon Research Seminar (ERS) on writing transfer.

Join week one of CEL’s Critical Transitions Online to learn how ERS participants have adapted learning and transfer theories as borrowed legends for understanding transfer (broadly) in their own research on writing transfer (specifically).


High Quality High-Impact Practices

In 2008 George Kuh synthesized research on engagement and persistence in college to conclude that certain experiences are particularly beneficial for students. Kuh’s original list identified ten high-impact practices: first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning/community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects.

These practices are not perfect, of course. Research on first-year seminars, for example, demonstrates that the quality of the experience is linked to its impact. Higher quality experiences lead to deeper outcomes. For example, according to research by Linda DeAngelo (in press 2013), discussing course material outside of class with peers is a significant indicator of positive outcomes for first year students, more than either being in a first year-seminar or living in a learning community.

As Ashley Finley from AAC&U comments in a Center for Engaged Learning interview, a crucial challenge with high-impact practices “is not that they exist on campus, but that they are done well.”

What makes for a high quality high-impact practice?


Why engaged learning?

By now it is cliché to point out the “disruptions” facing and the “revolutions” occurring in higher education today. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are drawing hundreds of thousands of students, and nearly as many headlines, as a radical force for change. The financial model for many colleges and universities also is teetering on a cliff edge as mounting student debt and an institutional addiction to tuition increases erode what had seemed to be solid ground not so long ago.

And then there’s the problem of student learning. As Academically Adrift revealed, and many suspected, not all of our students are learning nearly so much as we had promised or hoped. Some now claim that it’s time to toss out the course credit hour. Or, as Randy Bass argues, perhaps we have entered a post-course era, a time when the formal curriculum is no longer “the primary place where the most significant learning takes place” in an undergraduate’s education. And then there’s the drumbeat for gamification, transforming college by applying the lessons of successful game design.

In the face of all of this, why should a new Center, or a faculty member, or an institution, focus on something as last century as engaged learning?


Welcome to the Center for Engaged Learning!

Welcome to the web site for the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University! The new Center will bring together international leaders in higher education to develop and to synthesize rigorous research on central questions about student learning, filling an important gap in higher education.

Researchers have identified what the “high-impact” educational practices are – study abroad, undergraduate research, internships, service-learning, writing-intensive courses, living-learning communities, and so on. However, while we know what these practices are, we could know much more about three essential issues: (1) how to do these practices well, (2) how to scale these practices to many students, and (3), how students integrate their learning across multiple high impact experiences.

We know, for example, that undergraduate research has powerful outcomes, but it’s very labor intensive – usually one faculty member mentoring one student over an extended period of time. If we understood more about how students learn and develop during an undergraduate research experience, and if we better understood effective faculty mentoring practices, then we could design scaled research experiences that simultaneously would be more effective while reaching far more students – at Elon and elsewhere.

The Center for Engaged Learning also will allow us to tackle a third important issue – studying how students integrate their learning across multiple high impact practices. Most colleges and universities treat student experiences as distinct – with separate offices and sets of evidence-based practices for study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, and so forth. At universities where students study abroad and then later complete an internship, or participate in service-learning and then conduct undergraduate research, how can we best help our students integrate across these experiences so that they reinforce each other? The Center will lead precisely that kind of research so that we can support students in integrating across their many engaged experiences.

By collaborating with local, national, and international leaders in high-impact practices, the Center will focus energy and creativity on these important questions. By conducting multi-institutional research and programs on what precisely makes certain experiences “high impact,” how to scale-up those experiences for all students, and how to help students integrate their learning, the Center will not only advance engaged learning in higher education, but it also will support the deepest learning for students.

We invite you join the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University in this work to transform engaged learning.

Peter Felten, Executive Director

Jessie L. Moore, Interim Associate Director