(Understanding HIPs through a Theoretical Model – Part 2)

In my previous post, I started deconstructing the idea of high impact practices (HIPs), with the goal of articulating a definition that would be useful to researchers and teachers. To do this, I drew out a model of what a HIP is that shifted focus away from the list of 11 example HIPS, and toward the actual characteristics of educational practice that are believed to make it impactful and the resultant outcomes believed to be impacted. In this second post, I want to finish discussing that model, shifting focus to the intended outcomes of HIPS.

I’ll start at the end, because that part of the model seems fairly straightforward. The end goal of a HIP is the acquisition of desired learning outcomes. This is a broad goal, though, so to add some additional clarity, under that heading, I included the four essential learning outcomes for liberal arts education, as articulated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. I think this does a nice job of highlighting the diverse ways we might conceptualize learning across a curriculum. However, learning is still an abstract construct. That is, it can’t be measured directly, only by proxy. Another way of thinking about this is that there is no concrete unit of measurement (e.g., inches, grams, watts) that can be used to measure learning. We have to come up with measures that we think satisfactorily tap into that construct. This is where the final elements come in to play. The blue boxes in the model represent those proxy means by which we may try to quantify learning. Academic achievement (e.g., GPA) and attainment of educational objectives (e.g., graduating in four years) aren’t perfect representations of learning in the same way that even the best IQ test is still not completely capturing the construct of intelligence. However, they are measures that we have come to accept as reasonably adequate indicators that learning has occurred.

Learning doesn’t occur by magic, though. Part of a good theoretical model is explaining how you get from the cause to the effect. This is where the yellow boxes in the model come into play. They represent psychological mediators, and of those mediators, engagement is key. I would argue that the complex learning that we hope for students to achieve necessarily requires engagement in order to occur. I mentioned in the previous blog that engagement can be thought of as effortful mental energy directed toward a task. At the most basic level, this involves sustained attention. For example, imagine you are wearing headphones that are playing two different audio tracks of lectures at the same time – one in the right ear, and the other in the left. If you try to attend to the audio in your left ear, it is very unlikely that you will be able to recall much of anything from the lecture that was played for your right ear. Possibly you could remember whether the speaker sounded male or female or the emotional tone of their voice, but the content would likely be lost on you. I think this is part of why engagement is such a popular construct in educational research. The idea that attention or focused mental effort is required for learning is almost intuitive.

Effort, though, is just the tension on a bow string that can propel an arrow forward. HIPs are not effective just because they motivate attention. If that was all it took, then shouting at students would be a HIP. Motivating effort is important, but the arrow also needs to be aimed. Where we aim the arrow depends on the purpose of the educational activity, but some of the features that make HIPs effective, do appear to have targets in mind that are broadly helpful for learning. For example, having students engage in metacognition is a way of trying to direct their attention to their own thought processes. This kind of thinking about thinking is so valuable for learning that there’s even a research journal titled Metacognition and Learning. In some cases, the characteristics of HIPs could possibly serve both functions, impacting motivation and directing attention. For example, frequent timely feedback can be a source of encouragement that motivates students, and it can direct their attention to areas where they can improve (something we are generally fairly blind to; see the Dunning Kruger effect).

Engagement is not the only yellow box that I have listed as a direct outcome of a HIP. Satisfaction and persistence were also part of Kuh et al.’s (2017) definition of student success, and I include those constructs here as well. However, they do not directly lead to learning because I see these two constructs as relating to motivation more broadly. Satisfaction and persistence can be influenced by the features of the educational activity being used, and they can subsequently impact engagement. We might think of satisfaction in this context as being associated with enjoyment or intrinsic motivation. To the extent that students enjoy an educational activity, they are going to be more likely to exert effortful directed attention on the task (i.e. engagement). For example, encouraging real-world application of course content could be enjoyable to students if they are able to relate what they are learning to personal interests, and that enjoyment could lead them to invest more time and mental energy in the activity.

Behavioral persistence can occur for intrinsic reasons, but for the sake of this model, it might make sense to think of persistence as referring specifically to not quitting when frustrated. This helps distinguish it from satisfaction in that it involves motivation to continue with a task, not because the task itself is enjoyable, but because some end goal is desired. Persistence can be impacted by things like setting developmentally appropriate goals. Asking students in a basic math class to solve calculus problems will likely result in little persistence because the goal will be perceived as unachievable. Similarly, providing students with constructive feedback and opportunities for reflection on their learning may get them to persist in the face of challenges if it leads them to believe that growth (or learning) is possible.

This model is still a simplification of the learning process. It doesn’t include individual differences (e.g., grit or growth mindset) or situational factors (e.g., external constraints on time or other resources) that could be mediating or moderating variables in them model. There is also still a bit of hand-waving around engagement, as I don’t go into detail about the different ways in which the features of HIPs might direct attention. However, it serves as a start to understanding what makes something a HIP, and by combining everything, I think we can construct a definition of high-impact practices that – while not terribly succinct – articulates the different parts of the model:

A HIP is an educationally purposeful activity that uses a combination of evidence-based effective educational practices to engage students – both directly and indirectly via student satisfaction and persistence – and, through that directed engagement, HIPs increase the likelihood of students acquiring desired learning outcomes, which can be assessed through various measures of academic achievement and attainment of educational objectives.


Kuh, George, Ken O’Donnell, and Carol Geary Schneider. 2017. “HIPs at Ten.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 49(5): 8-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2017.1366805

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, July 6). What even is a HIP? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/What-Even-is-a-HIP