As the next Center for Engaged Learning Scholar, I wanted to write my first post on something that we might take for granted – the definition of a High-Impact Practice (HIP). If you find yourself reading this blog, then you are probably familiar with at least some of the list of 11 HIPs popularized by Kuh in a 2008 report (though the original list did not include ePortfolios). However, a list of practices is not the same as a definition. Those 11 practices are just examples, and I want to gain a better understanding of the larger construct or process that they are examples of.

In a piece celebrating the ten-year anniversary of that original report, Kuh and colleagues (2017) describe HIPs collectively as being “a demonstrably powerful set of interventions to foster student success.” For now, I’m going to set aside the “demonstrably powerful” part of their description of HIPs. I take this to mean that they believe that HIPs should be evidence-based, and I strongly agree with that sentiment (though we could have a lengthy discussion about the relative strength and types of evidence that actually exist for each HIP). Instead, I want to focus on what they mean by student success, as success is a fairly broad and abstract concept itself.

Fortunately, we don’t have to guess at their meaning, as they go on to describe success as, “an undergraduate experience marked by academic achievement, engagement in educationally purposeful activities, satisfaction, persistence, attainment of educational objectives, and acquisition of desired learning outcomes that prepare one to live an economically self-sufficient, civically responsible, and rewarding life.” This interpretation of student success is useful in that it starts to get at some of the characteristics thought to be associated with HIPs. However, in doing so, it lumps together several related but distinct concepts under one overarching heading. I love nuance and precision, so this casual grouping bothers me. I believe all the different elements that they are listing are important, but I think our understanding of what a HIP is can be aided by organizing them into a theoretical model, and I attempt to do that here.

The first thing that struck me about the definition of success was the incorporation of the phrase “engagement in educationally purposeful activities.” This confused me because in my mind, the HIPs were the educationally purposeful activities, so to make that an outcome seems almost tautological. However, I think the problem is that there are actually two elements that make up that phrase: engagement and educationally purposeful activities. Engagement is another tricky concept to define, but in the interest of keeping this post under 1000 words (and to prevent a somewhat pedantic blog post from becoming even more so), I’m going to sidestep the more complex discussion and interpret it as referring to the quantity and quality of mental energy directed towards a task (see Wolf-Wendel et al., 2009, if you’d like a deeper discussion of the meaning of engagement). To me, engagement is a desired outcome of a HIP (I say a, rather than the, because learning would presumably be the ultimate desired outcome). Research on attention and learning clearly shows that learning requires focus and effortful processing. Even activities that can become automated later, such as riding a bike, still require effort to learn. Thus, a HIP is an educationally purposeful activity that increases student engagement.

Defining an activity by its outcome, though, is not terribly satisfactory because it doesn’t tell us how we get to that outcome. Fortunately, Kuh articulates eight features of HIPs that are thought to influence their effectiveness, acknowledging that “The positive influence of participating in a HIP is likely a function of multiple effective educational practices that are characteristic of a HIP done well” (Kuh et al. 2017, 11). I would argue that we could go further than that and say that a HIP that is not done well is no longer a HIP at all.  I think Kuh would agree with this too. In a recent article published on Inside Higher Ed, he and Jillian Kinzie respond to research suggesting that HIPs may not be the panacea they are often made out to be by arguing that, “simply offering and labeling an activity an HIP does not necessarily guarantee that students who participate in it will benefit in the ways much of the extant literature claims.” Thus, I believe the first part of a good definition of a HIP is one that incorporates those features or “effective educational practices” that seem so vital for producing the desired outcomes.

I’ve listed the eight features identified by Kuh in the boxes on the left side of the model, and though it’s not clear whether there is some minimum number of these features that need to be in place for a HIP to be successful or whether these features have any sort of additive or interactive effects, in some ways this list is quite a bit more important than the list of 11 HIPS because this list represents what makes HIPS work (in theory, at least). As a teacher, if I decide to have my students create ePortfolios, these are the criteria by which I should design the course, assignments, and assessments, so that those ePortfolios actually engage students and facilitate learning.  If I give no mind to these features, then the ePortfolios are HIPs in name only. As a researcher, these features are also valuable because they provide another way of operationalizing and evaluating HIPS. For example, a first-year seminar may be a very different experience at different institutions, and research that shows that institutions where students participate in first-year seminars have higher graduation rates tells us tragically little about why that relationship exists. Understanding how those first-year seminars differ across institutions, and how those differences relate to student outcomes helps us to fill in that black box, and it encourages us to move beyond simply patting ourselves on the back for labeling something we’ve done as a HIP.

There’s more to the model above than what I’ve discussed so far, and I’ll continue discussing the remainder in the next post, but this seems like a good place to pause. We’ve started to develop a definition of a HIP as an educationally purposeful activity that uses a combination of evidence-based effective educational practices to facilitate student engagement. This definition is still incomplete because the ultimate goal is learning, but it starts to help frame the thinking about HIPs in a way that decentralizes the list of 11 examples and focuses on the elements of those practices that make them effective.


  • Kuh, George D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Kuh, George, Ken O’Donnell, and Carol G. Schneider. 2017. “HIPs at Ten.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 49(5): 8-16.
  • Wolf-Wendel, Lisa, Kelly Ward, and Jillian Kinzie. 2009. “A tangled web of terms: The overlap and unique contribution of involvement, engagement, and integration to understanding college success.” Journal of College Student Development 50(4): 407-428.

David Buck, associate professor of psychology, is the 2020-2022 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Buck’s CEL Scholar project focuses on collaborative projects and assignments as a high-impact practice.

How to cite this post:

Buck, David. (2020, June 18). Understanding HIPs through a Theoretical Model [Blog Post]. Retrieved from