High Impact Practice: Improving Student Learning

Higher Education in the UK is catching on to a phenomenon that has preoccupied US Higher Education research for some time – assessment of the impact of tertiary study on progression in student learning.  More specifically, what is the learning gain, or the ‘value added dividend’, for a student if they decided to invest in their formal learning beyond A-levels.  The question of a value-added higher education was the focus for a Higher Education Policy Institute’s Annual Lecture in 2015.  In the same year HEFCE initiated a £4 million project supporting investigations into how improvements in ‘knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development made by students during their time in higher education’ can be measured and assessed[1].  If these investigation result in robust instruments for measuring learning gain, it is possible they will be incorporated into future iterations of the Teaching Excellence Framework (Redden 2016).  Whatever the reasons for the recent surge in interest in these questions in the UK – and we might conclude that the recent and continued market re-shaping of higher education is a driving factor – it is clear that they are questions that are going to remain important for the foreseeable future.  This creates an imperative to explore meaningfully, from an empirical base, what factors actively and significantly facilitate effective student learning at university.

Much of the work that has sought to address this issue derives from the US.  In a now almost infamous book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Arum and Roska reported that higher education has relatively little effect on student learning, at least in relation to what we might hope and imagine.  Subsequent research attempting to verify independently Arum and Roska’s findings but using a different sample of students and different instruments for measuring student learning seems to have reached similar conclusions (Pascarella, Glaich, Martin and Hanson 2011).  Such work, whatever critiques might be made of it (e.g. Astin 2011), impress the need to explore what is important in enabling real student learning at university.

The paper chosen for this SoTL seminar describes work undertaken by researchers at the University of Iowa investigating the extent to which so-called ‘high impact practices’ affect particular types of student learning.  The ten practices in question, identified by Association of American Colleges and Universities, are:

  1. First-year seminars and experiences
  2. Common intellectual experiences
  3. Learning communities
  4. Writing-intensive courses
  5. Collaborative assignments and projects
  6. Undergraduate research
  7. Diversity/global learning
  8. Service learning and community-based learning
  9. Internships
  10. Capstone courses and projects

And the areas of learning upon which these practices are assessed to have (or not to have) an impact include:

  1. Integration of learning
  2. Inclination to inquire and lifelong learning
  3. Effective reasoning and problem solving
  4. Moral character
  5. Intercultural effectiveness
  6. Leadership
  7. Well-being

The research uses data collected by the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, although the conclusions have relevance beyond institutions which offer liberal arts degrees.  Students from 17 diverse colleges and universities were invited to contribute to a longitudinal study whereby they would complete one of two instruments intended to measure cognitive and personal development – the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP) or the Defining Issues Test-2 (DIT-2) – both at the start of their higher education studies and four years later towards the end.

Analysis of the results suggests that it is possible to identify particular practices which offer high positive impact on a range of areas of student learning.  There is also tentative evidence to suggest that some practices may be negative predictors of some areas of student learning.

  1. What are the strengths / are there any weaknesses in the methods adopted in this research?
  1. Are the conclusions drawn from the results credible and informative?
  1. Are the results of this study ‘far-reaching’ and do they have ‘significant practical implications for institutions of higher education’ as is suggested (Kilgo et al 2015, p. 523)?

Set Reading

Kilgo, C., Sheets, J. and Pascarella, E. (2015) The link between high-impact practices and student learning: some longitudinal evidence.  Higher Education 69, pp. 509 – 525.

The set reading is available in Paperpile.


Works Cited

Arum, R. and Roksa, J. (2011) Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Astin, A. (2011) In ‘Academically Adrift,’ data don’t back up sweeping claim.  The Chronicle of Higher Education February 14 2011.  [Retrieved 10 March 2017 from: http://www.chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-a/126371/].

Kilgo, C., Sheets, J. and Pascarella, E. (2015) The link between high-impact practices and student learning: some longitudinal evidence.  Higher Education 69, pp. 509 – 525.

Pascarella, E., Blaich, C., Martin, G. and Hanson, J. (2011) How robust are the findings of Academically Adrift?  Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 43(3), pp. 20 – 24.

Redden, E. (2016) England seeks to measure learning.  Inside Higher Ed September 09 2016.  [Retrieved 13 March 2017 from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/09/england-push-evaluate-teaching-quality-and-learning-gains]


[1] http://www.hefce.ac.uk/lt/lg/

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