High Quality High-Impact Practices
by Peter Felten
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
- 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 (below), 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?
Building on research by Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner, Finley emphasizes four characteristics that are essential for the quality of any high-impact practice:
- Intentionality: The student experience with a high-impact practice needs to be coherent and educationally purposeful. It’s not just “time on task” but rather meaningful time on task.
- Transparency: The goals and components of the practice need to be understood by students. Transparency enhances student motivation and helps students connect their learning to other experiences.
- Interaction: The experience should support meaningful interaction not only between students and faculty, but also potentially with others including peers and community partners.
- Reflection:Structured reflection should occur throughout the duration of learning experience, not just at the end, to help students make sense of their developing knowledge, skills, and understandings.
These characteristics might not be essential only for Kuh’s list of 10 practices, but they might be what makes any significant educational experience a high-impact practice. New research by Ernest Pascarella and Charles Blaich (2013, p. 14), for instance, suggests that excellent classroom teaching has similar outcomes as other high-impact practices:
“…clear and organized classroom instruction counts, and not just in terms of course-level knowledge acquisition; it also fosters students’ cognitive growth more generally and increases the probability that they will persist at the institution they are attending.”
Focusing on the components of quality, rather than the high-impact practices themselves, is promising because it allows faculty and institutions to address what Finley and others have identified as a central challenge for higher education today – going to scale with high-impact practices. As Kuh noted when he first introduced his list of high-impact practices, these experiences are all too rare on college campuses. Often they are outside of or on the margins of the curriculum, and many students do not encounter even one while on campus.
For engaged learning to have a deep and positive influence on as many students as possible, institutions and faculty need to make high-impact practices more common. Ashley Finley suggests in her interview that every student should encounter “at least two,” but why not even more? At the same time, we need to make as many student experiences as possible share the characteristics of all high quality educational practices. Why not approach every classroom, student organization, and campus job as a potential high-impact practice?
Peter Felten is the Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and associate professor of history.