This week’s edition is all about “high-impact practices,” a term that’s spread like kudzu over the past dozen years. Dan Berrett touches on some of the research supporting and questioning the idea, and explores a few examples of how to use these practices in class. Let’s dive in.

The ‘Juggernaut’

The phrase “high-impact practices” is, by now, now pretty familiar. It seems to have first appeared in the 2006 annual report of the National Survey of Student Engagement, or Nessie. Since then, the term, which was defined at the time as activities that “deepen learning and change the way students think and act,” has been cited thousands of times.

The phrase is often credited to George Kuh, who was director of Nessie when the term appeared, and developed it after consulting with Carol Geary Schneider of the Association of American Colleges & Universities. Reflecting a few years ago in Change magazine on the spread of these practices, Kuh referred to them as “a juggernaut.”

HIPs, as they’re called, take many forms. They’re often associated with programs, like internships, learning communities, service learning, and study abroad. They’re also identified with elements of the curriculum, like collaborative assignments and e-portfolios.

This variety of iterations might be part of why things have started to get a little complicated for HIPs recently.

At the AAC&U’s annual meeting in January, Matthew Mayhew and several of his co-authors of How College Affects Students raised questions about the empirical evidence for HIPs. They synthesized studies to determine the relationship of HIPs with measures of student learning, like the development of verbal, quantitative, and subject-matter competence.

They found that the effect of many HIPs were often unknown or had little relationship with things like graduation rates. “If we don’t know much about these at all,” Mayhew, a professor of educational administration at Ohio State University, said during the presentation, “why are we calling them high impact?”

Kuh has no quarrel with Mayhew’s findings. HIPs, says Kuh, do foster dispositional attributes, which include interpersonal abilities, traits like conscientiousness and resilience, and neurocognitive skills that help people monitor and regulate their thinking and behavior – all of which contribute to persistence and completion. While he says these attributes have some overlap with what Mayhew studied, they’re also different.

For Kuh, pushback is also to be expected. “Every shiny new toy stays shiny” for only so long, he said.

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It’s Not About Programs

Another critique has also been leveled against HIPs: They can be onerous.

For example, two professors wrote an opinion piece for The Chronicle last year describing how exhausting and labor intensive HIPs can be.

Part of that argument might be rooted in the assumption that HIPs and the programs they’re associated with are the same things.

But, Kuh and others say, the characteristics that make HIPs educationally valuable don’t rely on the programmatic shape they take. In other words, you don’t need to start, say, an undergraduate research program if you want to give students high-impact experiences.

This conflation can pose two problems, says Wayne Jacobson, assessment director at the University of Iowa. “Institutions might think the way to improve student success is to create experiences that have these names,” he wrote in an email, “and trust that to be enough.”

The other problem, he said in an interview, is that professors might avoid using them. “I wonder how many times people avoid high-impact experiences because they think it’ll take too much [time] and they don’t have the resources,” he said. “You can weave them into the way class works.”

Kuh agrees with this approach, as long as there are enough core features of HIPs and they reinforce one another. These features include appropriately high expectations, regular feedback, concentrated effort by students over an extended period, application of concepts to the real world, and interactions with people from different backgrounds.

These things, Kuh said, “can be created in any classroom, lab, or studio.”

Connections Outside Class

What does a HIP look like in a course?

Take the following multiple-part assignment, which Cornelia Lang, an associate professor of astronomy at Iowa, developed for a team-taught, interdisciplinary general-education course, “Big Ideas: Origins of the Universe, Earth, and Life.”

Students are asked to identify and describe two separate, surprising concepts about the origins of life in the universe that they’ve learned in the course. They develop a model – it can be a physical object, a demonstration, or a drawing – for one of the concepts and use it explain the idea to friends or family.

Then students interview the person to whom they just explained the concept. They ask what the person learned that contradicted their previous assumptions and what new insight they developed. Finally, students reflect on the experience by writing about any questions that were posed to them that they couldn’t answer.

“I was struck by how personal the experience was for students,” Lang said. It can get knotty, like when a family member rejects scientific consensus about the age of the universe in favor of a biblical interpretation.

But that’s also part of why she thinks the assignment is high-impact. “They can take a concept from class and find a deeper connection or context to something outside the classroom,” Lang said, “and they can carry that with them as students.”

It’s important to build students up to the point where they can pull off a high-impact experience, as Yolanda Spears, a clinical assistant professor of social work at Iowa, has found with the assignment she uses for her course, “Foundations of Critical Cultural Competence.”

Her students attend a meeting or activity of a group that is unfamiliar and culturally different from them. So white students might attend a public event like a recent speech by Ron Stallworth, the subject of the movie BlacKkKlansman, or go to a Native American beading event.

They write a two-to-three-page reflection, describing their personal reactions and affective responses, citing at least two sources. “They have to go out and make this exploration, not with me holding their hand,” Spears said.

Throughout the course, Spears builds students’ sense of preparedness by assigning papers and journaling exercises, and building their trust in her by guiding them through difficult discussions about race, culture, sexuality, and religion.

She hadn’t initially thought of her assignment as high impact, though she certainly sees its value. “I’m not saying my activity is going to be the game changer for today, but I’m saying you’re going to look back at this later on,” she said.

And that’s part of what seems to make a term like “high-impact practices” a little squirrely. A juggernaut is bound to be embraced widely – and interpreted differently in different contexts. Kuh, the articulator of the idea, said that an argument can be made that lots of experiences can be high-impact, even if they’re not academic – like working in a challenging campus job, leading a club, or serving in student government.

When it comes to assignments, Kuh says the more important question isn’t whether the exercise is high impact. What matters is whether the purpose and desired learning outcomes for it have been thought through. “Few people,” he said, “even define the outcomes to begin with.”

Do you have an example of an assignment that you think is high-impact? What makes it so? If you email me at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, your idea may appear in a future newsletter.