The Bryn Mawr College 360° Program: Implementing High-Impact Educational Practices

In High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, George Kuh identifies ten practices that have demonstrably positive effects on student learning and achievement in college: first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service-learning and community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects.1 More recently, Ashley Finley and Tia McNair provided evidence that students who engage in multiple high-impact practices report even greater perceived gains in learning than do students who participate in either one or zero practices.2 So we know that these practices are effective, but what are the most efficient and effective ways to integrate them into the curriculum?

Our experience with the 360° Program at Bryn Mawr College, which combines high-impact practices in an innovative format, has yielded valuable insights into the positive outcomes of student engagement in high-impact practices as well as potential challenges to their implementation. In a single semester—or, occasionally, across contiguous semesters—each student who participates in the 360° Program enrolls in an interdisciplinary cluster of courses that is focused on a theme, broad topic, or research question. The courses are taught by multiple faculty members, each in his or her own discipline, and all students in a given cluster take all the courses that comprise that cluster.

Reflecting the fact that many interesting questions are being explored at the edges or intersections of fields, the program emphasizes inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinary work. As they design a 360° cluster, participating faculty are invited to develop their own definition of these concepts, with the expectation that, in using various approaches, theories, data, and methods to engage problems, they will be explicit about the ways in which they seek intersections among their disciplines. Once they have designed their cluster, the faculty work with each other and the students involved to evaluate, use, and combine different disciplinary perspectives in meaningful ways. Rather than a “parade” of faculty from different disciplines talking to the students from their individual perspectives, a 360° cluster entails engagement among the fully developed perspectives of the various faculty members, so that all the courses have an impact on one another. The 360° model is iterative by design: each individual course influences the others within the same cluster to allow learning to occur both incrementally and cumulatively.

A required element of any 360° cluster is student and faculty engagement in interactive experiences that extend beyond the typical classroom. This can occur through data gathering, research trips (domestic and international), community-based partnerships, artistic productions, curated exhibits, intensive laboratory activities, and other such opportunities for engagement. At the conclusion of the experience, faculty and students share their work with the entire community. The nature of the sharing is determined by the pedagogical goals of the cluster and the best method for sharing and reflecting upon the knowledge gained.

The 360° Program is an umbrella for a wide range of learning and teaching experiences that are realized in a range of configurations designed to meet the scholarly and pedagogical goals of this highly flexible curricular initiative. While a core theme, multiple courses and faculty, a nontraditional classroom experience, and a sharing of knowledge are required elements, all other aspects of a 360° cluster are flexible. Clusters may involve two to five faculty and two to four courses within the same semester or across contiguous semesters. While students in a 360° cluster are required to take all the courses that comprise the cluster, some of the courses may be open to other students as well. These additional students do not participate in the 360° programming, but they often benefit from the enrichment of the classroom nonetheless.

The most common 360° model comprises three of the four courses a student takes in a semester, with the fourth course allowing for progression in the major or fulfillment of general education requirements. 360° courses are offered at varying levels, enabling both deep and broad engagement in specific disciplines and at their intersections across the curriculum. The individual courses are each designed to provide a strong grounding in the intellectual questions of the field, and they are often recognized by the departments as fulfilling requirements of students’ major programs.

360° examples

In the fall of 2015, faculty in environmental studies, philosophy, and political science offered a cluster titled Climate Change: Science and Politics, which integrated philosophical, scientific, and policy perspectives to highlight the complexity of climate change and innovative approaches being developed worldwide to address related environmental challenges. At mid-semester, students and faculty travelled to southwest Germany, where two of the faculty members had strong research ties, to gain a comparative perspective on environmental policymaking, technology development, and local environmental practices and politics. The group met with technology and public policy research groups in Freiburg that are working both in academic settings and in public-private partnerships, visited mixed-use forests and sustainable farms, and did a case study of transforming heating sources in a small town. Students and faculty shared their experiences with the campus community via blog posts and incorporated their field experiences into final projects.

In 2013–14, a cluster titled Modern Art in Exhibition brought students together with two faculty members in the project of mounting an exhibition of significant works of modern American art, which were on loan to the college for this purpose from an alumna. This cluster involved one art history course in the fall and one museum studies course in the spring. The division across semesters allowed the fall course to scaffold the knowledge necessary to produce a strong and coherent exhibition in the spring. The beyond-the-classroom experience also spanned the academic year, as students researched and wrote catalog entries in the fall and executed the physical exhibition in the spring. The project allowed students to engage with a variety of practitioners in the field, from catalog and exhibit designers to museum educators, from development officers to high-profile donors. In an effort to reach a broad range of community members, the students created educational programming, web-based information, and a published catalog of the exhibition works. A series of guest speakers and consultants also gave students the opportunity to explore the professional opportunities associated with museum work, prompting some to explore careers they had not previously considered. Said one student, “I really liked the integrated learning. We got to see works of art in person, while getting to study the theoretical and practical aspects of the field. This helps with professional development.”

In 2016–17, participants in another 360° cluster are mounting a significant exhibition. Titled Mirroring the Self, Exhibiting the Self, this cluster includes an art history course that examines the history of portraiture and self-portraiture (including the ubiquitous “selfie”) and a museum studies course in which students will draw from college collections, the work of Bryn Mawr–affiliated artists, and works loaned by alumnae to produce a spring exhibition and catalog.

360° clusters can also promote active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges, as exhibited by the fall 2012 cluster titled Women in Walled Communities: Silence, Voice, Vision. This single-semester three-course cluster examined the constraints and agency of individual actors in social spaces, with a particular focus on the institutional settings of colleges and prisons and the “critical spaces” that can open up within them. Two of the courses were taught on campus, and the third took place inside a local women’s correctional facility (with some on-campus elements). The cluster’s community reflection took a variety of forms, ranging from activism projects to raise awareness about educational resources available in prisons to multimedia projects documenting student struggles for social justice, within the college community and beyond. Following their participation in the cluster, the students continued to engage with the correctional facility through a weekly book club, and they helped the faculty develop the curriculum. The book club formed the basis for a subsequent 360° cluster, Arts of Resistance, which included a political science course, in addition to the original English and education courses.

High-impact practices and the 360° model

360° clusters, both in their overall structure and in the particular ways that Bryn Mawr faculty design them, provide students with multiple high-impact experiences. By definition, all 360° clusters are small learning communities that provide participants with common intellectual experiences. Many clusters involve global travel or engagement with diversity as a core element of the learning experience.

Some 360° clusters require undergraduate research. For example, the students who took a 2015 cluster of biology and geology courses called Coasts in Transition travelled to Belize, where they gathered data on the impact of different forms of coastal development on the native fish population. Many clusters incorporate service learning or community-based learning experiences, and in some cases associated internships are available for students who want to continue their engagement with the topic beyond the duration of the cluster.

The college-wide 360° Program crosses disciplines, involves a wide range of faculty, and engages a rich array of topics and themes. While participation is not required, all students are encouraged to enroll in a 360° cluster. Currently, about 15 percent of students do so, and we expect that number to grow as the program becomes more established.

Consistent with Bryn Mawr’s deep commitment to access and equity, the funding of the program is structured to ensure that participants do not incur additional tuition costs. The percentage of 360° participants who receive need-based aid (61 percent) is roughly equal to the overall percentage of students who receive need-based aid (55 percent). Similarly, the percentage of Pell grant recipients who participate in the program (17 percent) matches the percentage of Pell grant recipients across the college. Thus, financial aid status does not appear to prevent students from participating in these high-impact practices. In addition, the racial/ethnic breakdown of program participants mirrors quite closely the demographic distribution of the student body as a whole.

Assessment

To determine whether the 360° Program is achieving its stated goals and to evaluate the impact of participation on faculty and students, we have engaged in multiple forms of assessment. Quantitative assessments of student perceptions suggest that the experience is overwhelmingly positive. Ninety-three percent of students say that they would recommend their particular 360° cluster to other students, and another 4 percent say that they might recommend it. Ninety-eight percent report that the experience broadened their liberal arts education, 91 percent say that it allowed them to see connections that they would not have seen in a stand-alone course, and 85 percent say that participation has driven them to continue studying the topic of the cluster. The data also suggest that the level of engagement in a 360° cluster is higher than in a standard course of study: 94 percent of students report having spent more time with their professors than in regular courses, and 91 percent say that their interactions with other students have been of a higher quality than in other courses.

Qualitative evaluations of the program have highlighted the impact of the intellectual communities created by the structure of the 360° course clusters and the experiential learning opportunities that are central to it. In narrative reports, students have focused on the collaborative nature of the experience, characterizing it as intellectually or personally transformative. One student described her participation in a recent 360° cluster as the single best experience of her academic career, one that enabled her to find her voice as a writer and a person. Another student observed that her experience of making powerful connections between a real-world issue and theoretical approaches to it helped her understand the importance of the work she was doing. Faculty members observe a similar impact on their students, noting that the program promotes students’ ownership of their learning.

Interviews with participating faculty suggest that they benefit from the 360° experience as well. Although the faculty teach individual courses, they work toward a common learning goal. Participation in a 360° cluster gives them the chance to collaborate with partners across the college with whom they might not regularly interact, and it exposes them to other classroom styles. One mid-career faculty member said that before participating in the 360° cluster, much of his recent teaching experience had been in large lecture-style classes. While he had been eager to return to a seminar format for the cluster, he felt it would be a challenge. His observation of his colleague’s class, and conversations among the trio of faculty in his cluster, gave him concrete approaches to apply in his own classroom. He reports that the experience made him a better teacher. In several cases, faculty members have reported that their research was transformed by the collaboration and field experiences in which they participated.

Challenges

The 360° Program was originally conceived with sophomores and juniors in mind. These students were expected to be ready for the work of discipline-based courses, prepared to meet the challenges of project-based learning, and best situated for the kind of exploration inherent in a 360° cluster. To date, about 54 percent of participants have been in the sophomore or junior year. Some students are prevented from participating because of their schedules. Some need to take required courses for their majors (this is particularly true in the sciences, and science majors’ participation is lower), while others are occupied fulfilling distribution, language, and quantitative requirements.

In some cases, enrollment in the program is difficult due to outside commitments, such as participation in extracurricular activities or work schedules. While we strive to accommodate these commitments, some students nonetheless find it challenging to participate in a 360° cluster. We believe that these challenges have increased the percentage of seniors who enroll (on average, 34 percent). It seems that students may “save up” their last elective courses in order to participate in clusters once they have nearly fulfilled their other requirements.

While the benefits of the 360° Program are tremendous—as demonstrated by our own data and by other research on high-impact practices—the resource demands of the program are high. The choice to fund the program through the operating budget, rather than through additional fees, is costly. Due to the additional work and time involved, participating faculty are awarded 50 percent more teaching credit than for a stand-alone course. We also provide course development stipends to faculty and often give additional kinds of support as they develop the nontraditional classroom components. Fortunately, we have been able to raise funds from foundations and private donors to underwrite a portion of the cost. Because of the program’s innovative design and opportunity for high-impact learning, we have reprioritized our operating budget to provide further support for it. Nonetheless, at least in its current form, the program requires a significant investment by the college.

Conclusion

High-impact educational practices support student and faculty learning and achievement. By creating an alternative structure through which students have access to these practices, and by investing resources to make that structure available to all students, Bryn Mawr College has been able to ensure that participation in high-impact practices occurs equitably across student populations.

While the elements and goals of the 360° Program are clearly defined, faculty and students have the flexibility to adapt the format in order to reflect the pedagogical goals of a particular cluster, the structure of the material, and the strength and expertise of the participants. The result is a program that is dynamic, creative, and evolving. High levels of engagement have led to considerable innovation and experimentation, building a sense of student and faculty ownership of the program that bodes well for its long-term success and sustainability.

Notes

1. George D. Kuh, High-Impact Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008). See also Jayne E. Brownell and Lynn E. Swaner, Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).

2. Ashley Finley and Tia McNair, Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013).

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the authors’ names on the subject line.


Kimberly Cassidy is president of Bryn Mawr College, and Sarah Theobald is coordinator of the college’s 360° Program.

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