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Getting Beyond the Label: Three Takes on Quality in High-Impact Practices

The term high-impact practices (HIPs) is a popular label for curricular and cocurricular experiences that have a long history and a positive, evidence-based track record in undergraduate education. While research over the last two decades has shown that HIPs represent sound educational practices and propelled their popularity at colleges and universities, implementation matters far more than the “high-impact” label. What do we know about if and how well our institutions are implementing HIPs? And which students have access to these high-quality experiences?

In 2019, Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research launched the Assessing Quality and Equity in High-Impact Practices project (HIP Quality Project) to deepen the efforts of the National Survey of Student Engagement and help institutions assess quality in HIPs. The project asks students who participate in HIPs nearly forty in-depth questions about their experiences with the eight elements of HIPs identified by Kuh and O’Donnell:

  • high expectations for student performance
  • significant investment of time and effort
  • substantive interaction with faculty and peers
  • experiences with diversity and in unfamiliar situations
  • frequent feedback
  • structured opportunities for reflection and integration of learning
  • real-world application
  • public demonstration of competence

Our comprehensive report of project findings, released in July 2020, includes results from 25,000 students at 58 institutions who participated in one of seven HIPs (culminating senior experiences, first-year seminars, internships or field experiences, learning communities, undergraduate research, service learning, and study abroad). Drawing from the results of our research, we recommend three ways educators can assess high-impact practices and ensure high-quality experiences for all students.

1. Measure Students’ Overall Exposure to the Elements of Quality

Although many educators expect every high-impact practice to manifest all eight elements of quality, this is not always true in practice. In fact, the foundational literature specific to each HIP—be it service-learning, undergraduate research, or internships—emphasizes some elements over others, and some not at all. For example, the literature about undergraduate research extolls the benefits of substantive interaction with faculty, while the benefits of experiences with diversity are largely absent. In contrast, the literature on service learning places a strong emphasis on helping students engage across differences, while feedback and interaction with faculty have a lower profile. Our results confirm that students’ level of exposure to the eight quality elements varies across HIPs and mostly reflects patterns represented in the literature.

This evidence can be useful for faculty and administrators interested in maximizing HIP effectiveness by suggesting where instructional practice, expectations, and assignments should be redesigned to ensure consistent exposure to all eight elements. For instance, survey results showing that students at your institution are more likely to meet with faculty during undergraduate research experiences than during service learning can inform discussions about expectations for faculty interaction and mechanisms for providing feedback about students’ performance during service learning.

2. Establish a Threshold for “High” Quality

In the spirit of moving to a higher standard of quality for HIPs, we established criteria of high quality for each of the eight elements. The high expectations for performance element, for example, met our criteria for high quality if a HIP is purposeful, intense, and challenging. In our survey, a high proportion of students across all types of HIPs reported that expectations for what they would do and learn from the experience were explained by their faculty or program and that the experience challenged them to do their best. In some HIPs, such as undergraduate research, this element met the criteria for high quality for nearly all students (94 percent).

For several other elements, the percentage of students experiencing high quality varied significantly across different HIPs. Depending on the HIP, between 16 and 62 percent of students reported that their experience met the high-quality criteria for the element “demands time and effort,” while the “engaging across differences” element had an even broader range (between 11 and 70 percent). These results suggest an opportunity to improve the prevalence and consistency of high quality across all HIPs.

3. Examine Student Satisfaction

Students’ overall satisfaction with a high-impact practice is a subjective, but meaningful, gauge of quality. Notably, satisfaction was positively correlated with our aggregate measure of quality.

Students who participated in undergraduate research, internships and field placements, and study abroad were most likely to report high satisfaction (74 percent, 75 percent, and 87 percent, respectively), while first-year seminars, service-learning, and learning communities had fewer highly satisfied students (38 percent, 45 percent, and 48 percent, respectively).

Given the critique that HIPs are centered in the ideology of Whiteness, it is particularly important to monitor satisfaction among racially minoritized students. While satisfaction is not an indicator of racial equity, it honors the student perspective and could signal where inequities exist. Our data include significant representation of racially minoritized groups (about 30 percent of total respondents), and we found satisfaction levels to be relatively consistent across racial and ethnic identity groups.

Ensuring Access and Quality for HIPs

Ensuring access, high-quality learning, student satisfaction, and educational benefits across various high-impact practices are key equity goals, but results from the HIP Quality Project suggest that implementation is uneven. By focusing on the elements of quality for the effective implementation of HIPs, institutional leaders and proponents of specific HIPs can ensure transformative opportunities for experiential learning and student development for all students.

Jillian Kinzie, Alexander C. McCormick, Robert M. Gonyea, Brendan Dugan, and Samantha Silberstein are all from the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. Visit our website to read the full report and for updates on the HIP Quality Project.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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