High-impact learning practices—first-year seminars, learning communities, service-learning, undergraduate research, and capstone experiences—can provide intensive learning for students and improve retention, persistence to degree, and postgraduate attainment. However, to be effective, institutions need high-level support and cross-divisional collaboration, says Lynn E. Swaner, a higher education consultant and coauthor (with Jayne E. Brownell) of Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010). In an interview with Academic Leader, Swaner talked about her research and offered suggestions on successfully implementing these practices.
“The term ‘high impact’ [in regard to practices] comes from George Kuh’s work with NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement]. They are particularly beneficial for students in terms of academic and personal growth, career development, and a wide range of desired learning outcomes. There’s something unique about these practices. They seem to have a greater impact than what we’re used to,” Swaner says. “They tend to be very intense, not simply students walking into a lecture hall and hearing a lecture but students [being required] to learn on multiple levels. They’re creating new knowledge, implementing it in real-life settings, and reflecting on the implications for themselves and the community.”
Of these practices, service-learning and learning communities are the most common and have the largest empirical base of knowledge about them. All these practices cross-disciplinary boundaries, and participation is usually voluntary. Students who participate in these learning opportunities do so only once or twice in their college careers. “I believe [these practices] are beginning to move from the periphery a little closer to the heart of the academic mission. Still, I would characterize them as innovative practices and not the norm,” Swaner says.
Identifying high-impact practices that fit the institution’s mission
Based on her research of several institutions across the United States that have successfully implemented these high-impact learning practices, Swaner recommends that departments and institutions conduct research, join networks that have expertise in these practices, and conduct a needs assessment. “Get a sense of the benefits of these practices, what it actually means to engage students in their learning, the kind of outcomes you’re looking for, and then do a needs assessment of your own institution. What would be realistic?”
Another critical component is involving a broad array of stakeholders. A cross-constituency group should include people from academic affairs, student affairs, and community members (in the case of service-learning). “If you have as many stakeholders as you can at the table, I think it will enrich the planning process. It will also generate buy-in for this concept,” Swaner says.
This collaboration typically involves several representatives from academic affairs, several from student affairs, and a few key faculty members. In the case of service-learning, there would be two or three organization representatives who would be really engaged in this. The committee discusses questions such as “What is our mission? What are the learning outcomes we want to see from our students? What types of activities do we have going on? How can we build in more of these high-impact practices?”
“Once you start asking those questions, you start identifying resources and opportunities and challenges, and it’s that collaborative process that leads to a lot of answers. The committee or a working group will start to write grant proposals or start to look for resources and then that body of people also starts to attend conferences and network with other colleges and universities. It’s really critical to assemble that cross-constituency team or else you end up with faculty doing these things in isolation. You have student affairs people doing things in isolation, which is tremendous and impactful on students but not as successful as it could be for the entire institution.”
Support: Top down, bottom up, inside, and out
Support from key players on and off campus is also essential. “Institutions are under a lot of financial stress. At the same time, they’re trying to do a lot of innovative things, so I think it’s critical, particularly for an academic leader to really look beyond his or her own resources. Look to the institution. Is there a teaching and learning initiative? Are there institutional grants available? Are there outside grants to take a look at? If you want to do something that’s innovative and less costly, then you’re really going to have to look beyond your own means and pull in different people and different resources to make it happen,” Swaner says, adding that successful high-impact initiatives have support from the academic vice president or president.
Although support from top administrators is essential to making high-impact practices succeed, the practices cannot be imposed on a department or individual faculty members. “On the campuses I visited, initiation of these practices tended to be a hybrid of bottom up and top down. So you find interest at the academic administrative level and you find interest at the individual faculty member level, and then there’s sort of a meeting in the middle, asking, ‘What will it take to accomplish this?’ What I found is that institutions where it’s more of a grassroots effort and it’s just the faculty, it sometimes is not as successful,” Swaner says.
Because of the additional work involved in preparing and executing these learning experiences, faculty would benefit from release time from courses or other responsibilities and special consideration in the tenure and promotion process. “[High-impact practices] may be valued in some fields and on some campuses and not in others. On campuses where you have that administrative support and the administrators say, ‘We want to see our students engage in these types of experiences, then you will see them allocating the resources and allocating the priorities that enable faculty to better participate in them.”
The student experience
For the general student population, there are many positive effects, such as improvement in retention, persistence to degree, and postgraduation attainment. The effects of high-impact practices on underserved students is generally positive as well; however, there has not been much research on how these practices affect this population, Swaner says, adding that there are often barriers that can inhibit underserved students’ participation. For example, socioeconomically disadvantaged students often need to work and might not have the time to participate in a service-learning opportunity that requires a commitment of 20 hours a week.
Swaner found that service-learning in particular poses other challenges as well. Some students from underserved populations might find themselves working on a project that serves members of their own communities, which means that educators need to provide an orientation and philosophy of the program that is sensitive to the needs and experiences of these students. (For example, is the program philanthropic, communitarian, or empowering?)
Students respond positively to high-impact practices, Swaner says, but they do pose additional challenges. “Students find them to be worthwhile and connected to their lives. These experiences help give them direction and skills for career choice. Obviously this is not the only goal, but it is a goal of students. One negative piece about it, and this speaks to the intensity of these experiences, is that students report that [high-impact practices] are a tremendous amount of work, that it’s eating up a lot of their time and energy and effort,” Swaner says.
In addition, the intensity of these high-impact practices can make other learning experiences disappointing. “It almost makes the rest of their college experience difficult for them because it sets the bar so high in terms of what their engagement should be, and then if they don’t have another high-impact experience, they express disappointment that they weren’t able to continue that type of intense learning experience. That’s one of the main reasons [to think] about ways to integrate it across curriculum, across departments.”
Assessment is an important part of understanding the effects of high-impact practices. “Once you get all those folks around the table, you kind of have to develop a common language for your institution. Student affairs folks may talk about learning in one way, and faculty members may talk about it in another way. But they start to craft a common language and begin to understand what each other is saying. For example, what does it mean for a student to develop critical thinking? That might mean different things to different people. In terms of assessment and evaluation, colleges and universities that are at the beginning of this process are in a good place because they have that opportunity to build in assessment and evaluation as they start these programs,” Swaner says.
Swaner suggests tapping into the following resources to assess these practices: the institutional research office and faculty members with educational research experience. “Departments should really be looking to partner with institutional research offices because that is sort of the clearinghouse of data. Those folks are very knowledgeable about how to do research related to their students in the programs that exist. There are some schools that are already participating in NSSE, and there are other surveys as well. There may be data there, so partnering with the IR office is key,” Swaner says.
If your campus has a school of education, there are likely a substantial number of faculty who have experience with educational research and are looking to do meaningful projects. “Pulling those folks into a cross-constituency team can really make a difference in terms of what you’re able to evaluate and whether you’re able to tell if you’re effective or not. They can also help you tie your findings to the larger picture.”
Reprinted from “Implementing High-Impact Learning” Academic Leader, 27.11 (2011): 7-8.