Putting What Works to Better Use

Colleges have proven techniques to improve student learning, but too few students -- especially from at-risk populations -- have access to them, study finds.
October 6, 2008

When critics of higher education list the supposed sins of colleges and their leaders, they almost always say that institutions have paid too little attention to the academic success of students and failed to develop creative techniques to engage and challenge students. A report to be published today by the Association of American Colleges and Universities puts the lie to that charge, documenting at least 10 practices (learning communities, undergraduate research and the like) that colleges commonly and successfully use to improve the academic outcomes of their students.

But don't be fooled: With this paper, the AACU and the report's author, George D. Kuh, a leading education researcher, keep up their pressure on colleges to bolster their performance in educating students. Yes, colleges and faculty members have, over the past 10 to 15 years, developed numerous successful practices to improve student performance, Kuh and AACU argue in the report, "High-Impact Educational Practices: What Are They, Who Has Access To Them, and Why They Matter."

But far too few students are exposed to the proven practices, and first-generation college students and others traditionally underrepresented in higher education are least likely to participate in these techniques, even though research shows that they benefit even more than their peers , the report finds.

“Our nation’s future depends on helping today’s extraordinarily diverse generation of college students reap the full benefits of their studies in college," Carol Geary Schneider, the president of AACU, said in her introduction to the group's report. "What Kuh’s research plainly reveals is that we know what works, but we just aren’t providing it to all the students who could benefit. We must make excellence inclusive and expand access to our best educational approaches to all our students, not just to those who are most privileged or most prepared for college learning.”

Numerous previous reports by Kuh (who was founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement and is Chancellor’s Professor and Director of Indiana University's Center for Postsecondary Research) and by AACU's Liberal Education and America's Promise initiative have laid out the evidence that the practices underscored in this report -- first-year seminars, service learning, capstone courses, and learning communities, among others -- "appear to engage participants at levels that elevate their performance across multiple engagement and desired-outcomes measures such as persistence," Kuh writes.

The reasons why different activities seem to have these beneficial effects tend to vary, but as a general rule, they have certain things in common, Kuh writes: They require significant individual effort, provide significant interaction with professors and peers and expose students to the potentially conflicting views of others, provide significant feedback, and allow students to take their knowledge into settings outside the classroom, among other factors.

That's the report's good news. What's troubling, Kuh said in an interview, is that "even though people have been talking about the importance of these kinds of activities for a long, long time," and their benefits are clear, a relatively small number of all college students participate in these activities.

And while research shows that participation in these types of educational practices has a disproportionately positive impact (as measured by first-year GPA and retention rates to the second year of college) on underrepresented minority students, students from low-income backgrounds, and others who come into college with, on average, less academic preparation, those students are less likely than their peers to be exposed to these practices, as seen in the table below:

Proportion of Students Participating in High-Impact Educational Experiences, by Student Characteristic

  Freshman Year Experiences Senior Year Experiences  
Student Characteristics Learning Community Service Learning Research with Faculty Study Abroad Senior Experience
Type of Institution          
--Less Selective 16% 36% 16% 10% 30%
--More Selective 18 37 23 21 35
--African American 18 40 17 9 27
--Asian Pacific Islander 17 37 22 14 28
--White 17 36 19 15 34
--Hispanic 20 36 17 11 26
--Part-Time 10 26 12 7 22
--Full-Time 17 37 21 16 35
--No 18 37 22 19 36
--Yes 15 35 16 9 29
--Started Here 17 37 23 19 38
--Started Elsewhere 13 32 14 9 25
--Under 24 17 37 23 18 37
--24 or Older 10 24 13 7 24

Source: AACU and NSSE

If people know these experiences work, why are they not being distributed more broadly? Cost is almost certainly a factor, Kuh and Schneider say. Sending students abroad and involving undergraduates meaningfully in faculty research are expensive for institutions, and first-year seminars are a lot pricier than 400-student lectures. And there are natural barriers because of the characteristics of some underrepresented students, Kuh acknowledges. "Fewer first-generation students study abroad because they don't have the resources to do it," he said.

But getting faculty buy-in is both an essential element and often the bigger impediment, Kuh and Schneider agree. Kuh has aligned data from his student engagement survey with information from the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, he says, and they clearly show a "linear increase" between activities that faculty members on a given campus believe are important and those in which their students participate. "For every point on the importance scale, the percentage of students who actually do whatever it is -- be it internships, research with faculty -- jumps 25 percent," Kuh said. "When faculty decide it is important, it is much more likely to happen."

Does all the responsibility fall on faculty members, then, if a campus does not make good use of educational practices that are proven to work for students? Hardly, says Schneider. Many of those practices involve work that falls outside the normal boundaries of activities for which faculty members tend to be rewarded -- notably classroom teaching and pure research. As a result, professors on many campuses have little incentive to push for more students to participate in these sorts of activities, and "we have to change the reward system so that faculty are rewarded for student learning instead of teaching.

"When you think how many of these practices are being done through faculty good will up to now, it's amazing we've gotten as far as we've gotten," she said.


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