Peer Review

Why Integration and Engagement Are Essential to Effective Educational Practice in the Twenty-first Century

AAC&U recently published High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, the latest report from its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. In it, George D. Kuh reports on decades of research proving that participating in certain high-impact educational practices correlates with higher levels of student performance. In the excerpt below, Kuh describes the high level of integration and engagement that seem to characterize the best educational practices.

Why Some Educational Activities Are Unusually Effective

What is it about these high-impact activities that appear to be so effective with students?

First, these practices typically demand that students devote considerable time and effort to purposeful tasks; most require daily decisions that deepen students’ investment in the activity as well as their commitment to their academic program and the college. Consider, for example, a writing intensive first-year seminar with twenty-five or fewer students that is team-taught by a faculty member (who also is the adviser for the students in the seminar) and an upper-division peer mentor or instructor. The composition of the instructional team coupled with the size of the course ensures that every student will get to know at least one faculty member well in the first year of college, in addition to the other students in the class. Advising is no longer a once-a-semester meeting with a person the student hardly knows, but an ongoing set of conversations about issues students are facing in real time. Because the seminar is writing-intensive, students must also put forth more effort. They benefit more, especially when they get frequent feedback from the faculty member, peer mentor, and other students in the course. Similar patterns of benefits are reported by students who study abroad, in that they engage more frequently in educationally purposeful activities upon returning to their home campuses and report gaining more from college compared with their peers who do not study abroad.

Second, the nature of these high-impact activities puts students in circumstances that essentially demand they interact with faculty and peers about substantive matters, typically over extended periods of time. A human-scale first-year seminar makes anonymity impossible, fosters face-to-face interaction, and fuels feedback. Students who do research with a faculty member spend a fair amount of time with that faculty member; as a result, students learn firsthand how a faculty member thinks and deals with the inevitable challenges that crop up in the course of an investigation. Students who do research with faculty also are more likely to persist, gain more intellectually and personally, and choose a research-related field as a career. Collaborative problem-based assignments in the context of a course set the stage for developing a meaningful relationship with another person on campus—a faculty or staff member, student, coworker, or supervisor. These and other high-impact practices put students in the company of mentors and advisers as well as peers who share intellectual interests and are committed to seeing that students succeed.

Third, participating in one or more of these activities increases the likelihood that students will experience diversity through contact with people who are different from themselves. Study abroad or other cross-cultural experiences are natural venues for this. But so are learning communities, courses that feature service learning, and internships and other field placements such as student teaching. These experiences often challenge students to develop new ways of thinking about and responding immediately to novel circumstances as they work side by side with peers on intellectual and practical tasks, inside and outside the classroom, on and off campus.

Fourth, even though the structures and settings of high-impact activities differ, students typically get frequent feedback about their performance in every one. Working with a faculty member on research, having a paper checked by a peer writing tutor prior to turning it in, and having one’s performance evaluated by the internship supervisor are all rich with opportunities for immediate formal and informal feedback. Indeed, because students perform in close proximity to supervisors or peers, feedback is almost continuous. In addition, NSSE 2007 results show that students who receive feedback during or after working on a research project with a faculty member are more likely to report that their relationships with faculty are friendly or supportive.

Fifth, participation in these activities provides opportunities for students to see how what they are learning works in different settings, on and off campus. These opportunities to integrate, synthesize, and apply knowledge are essential to deep, meaningful learning experiences. While internships and field placements are obvious venues, service learning and study abroad require students to work with their peers beyond the classroom and test what they are learning in unfamiliar situations. Similarly, working with a faculty member on research shows students firsthand how experts deal with the messy, unscripted problems that come up when experiments do not turn out as expected. A well designed culminating experience such as a performance or portfolio of best work can also be a springboard for connecting learning to the world beyond the campus. NSSE results show a net positive relationship for students who have had some form of culminating experience after controlling for a host of student and institutional variables.

Finally, it can be life changing to study abroad, participate in service learning, conduct research with a faculty member, or complete an internship. That is why doing one or more of these activities in the context of a coherent, academically challenging curriculum that appropriately infuses opportunities for active, collaborative learning increases the odds that students will be prepared to—in the words of William Cronon—“just connect.” Such an undergraduate experience deepens learning and brings one’s values and beliefs into awareness; it helps students develop the ability to take the measure of events and actions and put them in perspective. As a result, students better understand themselves in relation to others and the larger world, and they acquire the intellectual tools and ethical grounding to act with confidence for the betterment of the human condition.

NSSE Deep/Integrative Learning Scale

  • Integrating ideas or information from various sources
  • Including diverse perspectives in class discussions/writing
  • Putting together ideas from different courses
  • Discussing ideas with faculty members outside of class
  • Discussing ideas with others outside of class
  • Analyzing the basic elements of an idea, experience, or theory
  • Synthesizing and organizing ideas, information, or experience
  • Making judgements about the value of information
  • Applying theories to practical problems or in new situations
  • Examining the strengths and weaknesses of your own views
  • Trying to better understand someone else’s views
  • Learning something that changed how you understand an issue
Source: Thomas F. Nelson Laird, Rick Shoup, George D. Kuh, and M. J. Schwarz, “The Effects of Discipline on Deep Approaches to Student Learning and College Outcomes,” Research in Higher Education 49, no. 6 (2008): 469–494.

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