High-Impact Practices Work

At a time when some people question the value of higher education, preparing students for successful, satisfying lives through such practices is crucial, argues Richard F. Vaz.

June 4, 2019
 
 
Project-based learning at York College of Pennsylvania

Research on student learning and success in college has produced compelling evidence that high-impact teaching practices benefit students greatly. Exposure to such practices has been linked to greater gains in learning and retention compared to what occurs with traditional instruction, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement and other studies.

High-impact practices can help students develop skills that are essential in the workplace and that transfer to a wide range of settings -- such as communication, problem solving and critical thinking. In addition, they can give an institution a distinctive and competitive edge at a time when many colleges and universities are struggling to maintain enrollments.

How, then, can we ensure that more students experience well-implemented high-impact practices? What can we do to help more institutions make certain that every student will have those experiences?

High-impact practices -- which include project-based learning, community-based learning and undergraduate research -- have several features in common. They promote active engagement, requiring students to spend considerable time on task. They involve collaboration, both in and out of classroom settings. Students are asked to take responsibility for their learning, while faculty members assume coaching and mentoring roles.

Fundamentally, these practices can push faculty members and students out of their comfort zones, and they may not succeed without thoughtful implementation and institutional support. Project-based learning, for example, builds on the idea that students should not just know things but also be able to do things with that knowledge. That’s a new paradigm for some students and faculty members. Often, it involves applying knowledge to an open-ended problem with no single correct solution.

The benefits of having students tackle authentic problems are powerful. Problems that communities or organizations face are almost always interdisciplinary and require consideration of a range of stakeholders’ perspectives. Students need to understand those problems, set goals, collect and analyze information, and develop solutions through an iterative process that involves revision and synthesis of new knowledge.

I have spent my career at an institution that requires authentic, “messy” projects across the curriculum. In a recent study, alumni attributed an array of professional and personal benefits -- better interpersonal skills, leadership abilities, a stronger personal character, the development of a sense of mission -- to their project experiences. Based on this and other evidence, a few years ago, we launched a program for other colleges and universities interested in advancing project-based learning in their curricula.

To date, we’ve worked with more than 120 institutions of all types -- not just similarly STEM-focused institutions, but also community colleges, public and private comprehensive institutions, liberal arts colleges, and research universities. While some are looking to develop more effective and engaging pedagogy for specific courses or disciplines, many are trying to rethink general education in distinctive ways and even to transform their institutional identity. As we work with these institutions, we see patterns of resistance to adopting high-impact practices, including the following.

  • Faculty members may feel obligated to cover a large body of information, even in the face of evidence that such coverage does not necessarily result in learning. As a result, some believe they have no choice but to rely on lectures to convey content. In addition, they may fear a loss of control if they use active learning strategies in the classroom.
  • Students who are used to a passive learning role may resist high-impact practices, as well. Active learning requires that students take more responsibility, and that can be uncomfortable, too.
  • Faculty members may have never experienced high-impact practices themselves and can be unsure how to provide structure that will support active student learning.
  • Both faculty members and students may have had bad experiences with teamwork. Effective student teamwork doesn’t just happen; it requires intentional support and structure, including attention to how students are evaluated in team settings.

Across a wide range of institutional types, we’ve also seen common strategies for successful curricular change emerge. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

  • Investment in faculty development and support is essential. Rethinking the teaching strategy for some or all of a course requires time, effort and a little courage. Institutional support helps. For example, the Teaching and Learning Collaborative at Wake Forest University regularly offers faculty development programming to promote high-impact practices, and the university makes course redevelopment grants available to interested faculty.
  • Faculty members benefit from examples of high-impact practices, preferably in their disciplines, and also from seeing evidence of their effectiveness. I was recently at an inspiring showcase event at York College of Pennsylvania where faculty and students from across campus presented examples of project-based learning assignments in different disciplines to colleagues and administrators.
  • Students and faculty members benefit from tools and models to promote effective teamwork, including equitable participation and evaluation. Examples include processes for team formation, templates for team contracts, protocols for self- and peer evaluation, and rubrics for evaluating effective teamwork.
  • Informal or formal communities of practice that consist of educators who can encourage and learn from each other’s successes and challenges can help sustain change. Nebraska Wesleyan University has an informal community of practice, a group of about 30 faculty members from a wide range of disciplines sharing ideas to integrate project-based learning across the curriculum.
  • Curricular innovations warrant an assessment plan, so the resulting evidence can be used to monitor student success and drive program improvement. Bellevue College in Washington has brought multiple high-impact practices together in its RISE Learning Institute in an effort to spread these practices across its campus. As part of that work, they are in the process of developing a robust, faculty-driven assessment plan with tools that can be used in multiple disciplines.
  • Sustainable change requires more than policies and practices; it involves a shift in focus away from what faculty members do and say to what students do and learn. That type of culture change can’t be rushed or imposed from above; it has to emerge from a coalition of the willing.

It’s increasingly difficult to predict the opportunities and challenges that today’s students will face in the coming years. At a time when the value of higher education is increasingly questioned, it’s essential for colleges and universities to prepare students for successful and satisfying lives. The abilities gained from project-based learning and other high-impact practices -- especially transferrable skills related to collaboration, communication and creative problem solving -- can position students for a solid, certain future and provide a blueprint for higher education institutions to make their value to society more evident.

Bio

Richard F. Vaz is professor of interdisciplinary and global studies and director of the Center for Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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