The Church of High Impact Practices


Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. (It isn’t a best seller, and I’ve never heard anybody refer to the actual contents of the book.) Nevertheless, there seems to be a big push all over the place for following The List of ten bona fide official fad-approved High Impact Practices.

High Impact Practices – hip people call them HIPs – are neatly packaged practices that can be implemented by administrators to increase the quality of student outcomes. (At my university, that means doing something about dismally low 6-year graduation rates.)

As the label suggests, High Impact Practices help students benefit from the university experience. They’re not bad, and they are reasonable. Though they make sense, I have big reservations about our leap onto the High Impact Practices bandwagon.

Some of the ten High Impact Practices are more effective than others, and effectiveness varies with disciplines and with universities. Based on the interest and strengths of faculty, some of these practices will play more to some individuals’ strength than others. The problem with the HIP movement is that I haven’t seen any real attention paid to the details about how some practices may be more effective or more efficient than others.

An even bigger problem with the High Impact Practice moment is that many important components of a quality undergraduate experience that don’t make it onto the list. I am not necessarily surprised by the lack of subtlety in the High Impact Practice movement in universities, but it is disheartening. For example, at my university, there is an explicit quantitative goal in my university to have each student experience a minimum of two high impact practices.

At the moment, the guiding principles to improve the undergraduate educational experience are being boiled down to a ten-point checklist. Checklists are good. I sometimes use them when I go to the grocery store. I’m glad that pilots use checklists before they put a plane into the air. Checklists are also  good for university curricula, to make sure that students have met degree requirements before receiving a degree.

Is a checklist of High Impact Practices what we need to make sure that students are receiving a quality experience? As long as our university is working to check of the boxes for our students, how closely will we be focusing on the quality of the changes?

By definition, according to the inventor of High Impact Practices, HIPs are “effortful.” This means that carrying out these High Impact Practices takes faculty time and university effort. Which means that they cost money. For example, putting students together in several courses in cohorts (#2) takes administrative wherewithal and the effort to keep tabs on the progress of the cohort. Increasing the number of writing-intensive courses (#4) will require a reduction in class size and that costs money. Service-learning experiences (#8) will require new university initiatives or incentives for faculty to Increased mentorship of undergraduate research (#6) requires time and resources for faculty who oversee the projects.

At the moment, big decisions about university resource allocation are happening based on the mere fact whether a worthwhile endeavor is on the High Impact Practice checklist. As a proponent of faculty and student research, you can bet your booty that we’re making a lot of hay while the sun is shining, because undergraduate research is one of the ten High Impact Practices. We got lucky with that one! No joke: if undergrad research wasn’t a High Impact Practice, we’d be getting less money for research, surely.

How is my university going to evaluate the success of the High Impact Practice of undergraduate research? Based on early indicators, it’s not going to involve the quality or quantity of peer-reviewed published research with undergraduate authors. It looks like it will be based on the number of students who have been involved in undergraduate research. They want to check off the “undergraduate research” box. When it comes to this high impact practice, I think it’s critical to put a lot of thought into the quality/quantity tradeoff. Giving just a little bit of research experience to a large number of students is probably not going to impact much at all. But if a smaller number of students are involved in high-quality long-term experiences by working closely in a well-mentored environment, this might positively influence the entire campus community, including those who are not directly involved with the research. We have a Student Research Day on campus every spring semester. The standard indicator of success is the number of the posters and presentations, and not the quality of them. Our campus really needs to focus on the quality and not the quantity. But right now, the emphasis is on increasing the quantity because we need to find as many ways as possible to touch as many students with High Impact Practices. It’s crazy math that only makes sense in our administrative building.

There’s another High Impact Practice that is clearly doomed for failure because of the quality/quantity tradeoff: writing-intensive courses. Yes, we need to make sure get a lot more writing in college. Oh boy, we really do. Every university I’m familiar with has a university writing requirement, and most of them require students to take a couple specially designated courses that have more writing than the typical course.

But here’s the problem with the writing-intensive courses that I’m familiar with. Typical non-writing-intensive courses have almost no writing component at all. Most “writing intensive” courses aren’t courses that have a ton of writing, these are just courses that have a what should be a regular amount of writing. Students in these writing intensive courses do far less writing than most desk-bound professionals do for regular employment. Our writing intensive courses are just not that intensive, and they have that name just because they merely require a minimum of writing. The requirement for our courses is 3,750 words of writing over the whole semester, with the opportunity for revision. That’s it. That’s about three of these posts, and I just wrote this post over 2 hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

And the weakness of our writing requirement shows. It hurts me to say this, but it’s true, that most of our graduates don’t write well. They came in underprepared from high schools that never expected them to write well, and the faculty here don’t have the time and/or resources and/or priorities to rectify that situation. It’s really messed up, but I’m just calling a spade a spade.

So, if my university is going to implement Writing Intensive Courses as an official sanctioned High Impact Practice, will this really make a difference? I can’t imagine it’d make a difference unless our students take one “writing intensive” course per semester! What good is writing fifteen pages each for two classes over the course of your undergraduate career? Not good enough.  Oh! Let’s make it three classes, or maybe FOUR! Um, sorry, that’s not going help our students write well either. To improve student writing would take a massive effort and push throughout the entire university, and it would be both expensive and extraordinarily worthwhile. I think it’s the single most important thing that we could do to improve critical thinking in our students. But it takes a lot of time, and with a 4/4 teaching load, time is money.

Our university writing requirement is a joke. And I don’t think I could find one person on my campus who would disagree with that fact. And we want to just improve on this joke by a slight amount? How in the heck is that a High Impact Practice? Oh, because the book says so, because it’s on the list. So how do we measure the effectiveness of our High Impact Practices? The number of writing-intensive courses our students take, or how well our students actually write when they graduate. It needs to be the latter, but I’m sure that it’s the former. And that’s downright fooling ourselves.

Yes, we need High Impact Practices. And yes, if this HIP movement helps me keep my lab full of happily productive undergraduates who go on to do wonderful things, then I’m not going to complain too loudly. But let’s not fool ourselves that this ten-item checklist is an adequate substitute for comprehensive academic planning. Let’s recognize the specific needs of our students when we craft our plans. Too many items on the High Impact Practices Checklist don’t go far enough to be effective, and other items are not what our students need.

Faith in the effectiveness of High Impact Practices is no basis for deciding how resources get allocated in a university. If we find the easiest and cheapest way to make meet the requirements of a checklist, then aren’t we just trying to find shortcuts to a quality education?

4 thoughts on “The Church of High Impact Practices

  1. The writing stuff: yes, yes, a million times yes. The lack of writing skills in many students is something that has been built up over K-12. It’s much harder to try to begin to rectify this in college-age people than it is to teach it over many years in younger people. And yes, it simply takes a lot of time to try to help these students, and it’s time we just don’t have.

  2. “Our university writing requirement is a joke”

    You perfectly described “writing intensive” courses at my University as well. But as you point out. True writing intensive courses require small class sizes and take a ton of time. But we could put out money where our mouth is.

  3. It’s true that basic writing skills must be built throughout K-12, but the best writing critiques I received, which really improved my scientific writing, were from my postdoc adviser, Mark Rausher. He was the one who took the time and effort to cover my work in red ink and I’m really grateful for that.

  4. Ellen – same here with my masters and phd advisors. But a lot of our students probably couldn’t even get into grad school with their current writing skills.

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