High Impact Learning

It’s the time of the year when I start thinking about redesigning my courses for the coming academic year.  Last year at this time I was preoccupied planning for my new job as director of our university teaching center.  As a consequence, I didn’t spend much time thinking about how I was going to teach my fall courses.  When the semester came around, I taught more or less on cruise control.  I just pulled out the lecture notes, and taught the class sessions.  I wasn’t very tuned in to the mood/emotion/psyche of the class.

This was particularly true in my principles of macro course.  One result, or at least one concurrent event, was that the students didn’t do very well in that course.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that it was entirely my fault.  The instructor can create a course environment in which the incentives are designed to promote behaviors that enhance student learning.  But ultimately the students have to decide the extent to which they will follow through.

I saw some evidence that students were not following through last year.  One thing I observed was that a lot of students missed class on a regular basis, which is unusual in my courses.  I noticed something else.  A couple of years ago, I started the “Do over” in which I allow students to come in after an exam and explain the right answer on the questions they got wrong, for which I give them half a point.  This gives students an opportunity to earn back half the points they got wrong on the exam.  If someone scored a 50, after the do-over they can get a 75, a substantially better grade.  In past years, the majority of students (perhaps 90%) attempt the do-over.  Why not?  I give them the right answer and they just have to figure out and explain why it’s right.  On the first exam last year, only 39% of the students came for the do-over.  After the second exam, which is more challenging, only about half came by.  Maybe this group didn’t care that much about how they did in principles of economics.

If students haven’t been putting in the effort, as the teacher I have a responsibility to rethink the course learning environment.  One of the things I’ve been hearing about over the last year is “High Impact Learning”.  The seminal work seems to be George Kuh’s High Impact Educational Practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter, AAC&U, 2008.  Pretty much every source I found identified nine items as “high impact practices.”

  1. First Year Seminars and First Year Experiences
  2. Common Intellectual Experiences
  3. Writing-Intensive Courses
  4. Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  5. Undergraduate Research
  6. Diversity/Global Learning
  7. Service Learning and Community-Based Learning
  8. Internships
  9. Capstone Courses and Projects

After reading this list in multiple places, I began sense them as being portrayed as “silver bullets.”  Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I don’t believe in silver bullets.  The curriculum at our institution includes most of these practices, some more successful than others.  I have to say that simply offering internships, for example, is no guarantee that they will be quality educational experiences, better than the average course.  The same can be said about the other items on the list.  What I really want to know is what is it about these practices that leads to deep learning.  Or to frame it differently, how can I improve what I do in my existing courses to enhance student learning.

Kuh’s report (p. 24 of the pdf; p. 15 of the printed report) identifies several elements of high impact teaching.

  • Students need to devote regular time and effort to what Kuh calls “purposeful tasks”.  Instructors probably need to think carefully about what sorts of tasks are purposeful.  Students can’t coast or take the course on “cruise control,” they can’t simply attend lectures and hope to cram for exams.  Or if they do, they won’t learn deeply.
  • The course design should include a high degree of interaction between the student and faculty and his peers.  What is meaningful interaction?  Ideas might include:
    • Careful peer review of one’s writing, or
    • Good class discussion in which participants prepare in advance.

    Students need to feel that they are among colleagues who take the course seriously. They also need to feel that the instructor cares about their learning.

  • Interacting with diverse individuals, approaches, ideas.  This requires students to challenge their own ways of thinking, their own assumptions, etc.
  • Frequent (and low stakes) feedback.  Students need to know on a regular basis whether or not they are on the right track, and how well they are doing.  This implies regular, meaningful tasks with timely assessment.  A student once told me he “only buys the textbook if he finds out he needs it.”  I asked how he answers that question and he said he waits to see how well he does on the course’s mid-term exam.  Frequent and low stakes feedback requires something other than the traditional mid-term exam/final exam grading scheme.

Tom Angelo, in a preconference workshop at this year’s ELI Annual Conference, suggested another element:

  • Regular reflection on what one is learning.  Faculty should take time out from lecture to enable students to ask themselves: What does this mean?  What does this mean in my life?  Why should I care?  As Angelo said,“It’s only in moving from the moment to the reflective that we get deep learning.”   For more on deep learning, see Gardner’s recent post.

How can I reinforce these elements in my courses this fall?  Stay tuned.

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3 Responses to High Impact Learning

  1. Michael says:

    You’re right, the more purposeful we make the learning experience, the more likely the students will connect to what we are teaching them.

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