Special Reports

3 Easy Ways to Embrace High-Impact Learning

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi for The Chronicle

October 23, 2016

I stood alone in my classroom, reluctantly removing 70-plus sticky notes from a large project-tracking whiteboard. Students in my intensive winter-term course on publishing had just researched, organized, written, edited, designed, tested, revised, and produced a comprehensive "e-book about e-books," and each note represented a completed task that contributed to their final goal.

It’s amazing what students can do in 20 hours of focused time. My e-book course met for three hours daily for three weeks and devoted almost two of those weeks to the project. I love the experimental nature of teaching in winter term, and experiences like the publishing course have, for me, raised an important teaching question: Must a high-impact learning experience require an extended period of time to be, in fact, high impact?

According to Randy Bass, who leads innovative learning initiatives at Georgetown University, we have moved into the "post-course era" at a time when the traditional credit-hour model has been called "inadequate" and even "irrational." We know from high-impact-learning experiences such as internships, study abroad, and undergraduate research that students learn when they are challenged to live with, and make sense of, complexity. If focused, immersive engagement, rather than seat time, is important for learning how can we introduce high-impact experiences into our traditional course settings, working within or around the traditional credit hour?

The technology industry might offer insight. Practices like hackathons, innovation time off, and sprint prize competitions, all borrowed from the software-development world, can be adapted in undergraduate education to disrupt the "seat time equals learning" model. Such practices could allow educators to create nontraditional experiences within courses or outside the classroom that are short and intensive but still challenging, immersive, and transformative.

Here’s how they might play out in a classroom setting:

The hackathon. A hackathon is a short, highly intensive (and often caffeine-fueled) event during which software developers and designers work on a specific challenge to solve an often ill-defined problem, sometimes competitively, in an environment designed to foster fast innovation. Hackathons might be limited to a certain genre, such as video games or mobile apps, or to a development platform, operating system, or specific problem. For example, participants might attempt to create a prototype for a possible new product or collaboratively "swarm" a major bug in the company’s code base, usually in only one or two days.

Imagine exchanging a few days of regular class time for a hackathon related to your course content. Students in a history course might take a weekend for an "archive-athon," sorting, organizing, analyzing, and reporting on a large set of archival documents. Design students might work together across several evenings to create an entire web presence for a nonprofit organization, with small teams competing for their work to go live as the organization’s actual website. During a fall break, students studying computing sciences, statistics, and analytics might stay on campus to tackle a big-data project for a local company.

The time-intensive hackathon approach motivates participants to focus on the situation at hand, learn new tools when necessary, and adapt existing knowledge and skills to meet the challenge. And when the focus is on creating multiple creative answers quickly, students can break out of the right/wrong mentality to challenge established patterns, personal workflows, and standard methods of problem solving.

Innovation time off. This concept was pioneered at 3M in the 1940s and famously used in the early days of Google. Employees use 10 to 20 percent of their regular work hours to pursue a pet project that might contribute value to the organization. and then present it publicly. If you’ve ever used Gmail or Post-it Notes, you’ve benefited from a product created during innovation time.

What if we gave students an unprogrammed hour a week, or even just two hours a month, in a semester-long course, to pursue a pet project related, even tangentially, to the course and to present their progress at the end of that time? Individual students or small teams might create a short video explaining a difficult concept, conduct a research study to learn how a particular skill might apply in the real world, or develop a lesson to teach peers a related theory from another discipline that would add depth to their next course projects.

This short time off allows for self-directed learning through play that is consistent with course goals but also extends them, allowing students to connect the dots between the course material and their own questions and interests. And a required public report at regular intervals provides accountability to use that chunk of time effectively and creatively.

Sprint prize competitions. Companies, foundations, and government agencies like NASA sponsor competitions — with prize money — seeking innovative solutions to problems. One well-known example is Google’s Lunar X Prize competition, centered around putting functional robots on the moon.

Used in the classroom, a sprint competition might replace a designated set of course meetings as students pursue the "prize," ending with public presentations of their ideas for judging. For example, marketing students might compete for funding to start an alumni-relations campaign, while education and computer-science majors might try to develop an online-learning app for elementary-school students. Universitywide competitions could challenge student groups to propose or develop innovations in the curriculum, needed student programs, or interventions for campus problems such as parking shortages and excessive drinking.

Competitions could be organized easily using Google’s five-day sprint-innovation model. Students would spend the equivalent of one day on each of the following five activities: understanding the problem, developing multiple solutions, choosing one idea to advance, creating a prototype of the proposed project, and testing it with a real audience. Results could be presented in a public showcase where winners are selected by a panel that might include faculty and staff members as well as community leaders.

Like hackathons and innovation time off, competitions offer a time-intensive challenge that allows students to creatively use course skills in a fun environment while still being publicly accountable for their work. Such practices break the seat-time mold. They can encourage students to collaborate instead of just cooperate, to face ambiguous challenges with no obvious single solution, to use creative-thinking tools to acknowledge innovative and crazy ideas, and to work with a bias toward action rather than extensive planning.

What might a hackathon look like in your course, during class time or, say, during one evening? If you gave students an hour a week in an introductory course, what self-directed products might they create? Could your department sponsor a sprint competition for your majors or for the campus? Or could your college offer a combination of these three models throughout the academic year to address a common topic that included contributions from students as well as faculty, staff, and community members?

My students created an extensive, publishable "e-book about e-books" in a 20-hour hackathon environment. What could your students accomplish in almost no time at all?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark is an associate professor of English, professional writing, and rhetoric at Elon University.