George D. Kuh – ‘What matters to student success: the promise of high impact practices’

George D. Kuh – ‘What matters to student success: the promise of high impact practices’

This was a spectacular and inspirational talk. Dr Kuh was engaging and very entertaining, an expert in this field – it was a fabulous opportunity to learn from him.

He began by outlining that we want students to do/our major tasks as educators:

  • reflect (think about their thinking)
  • apply (transfer and use what they have learned in novel situations) and
  • integrate (connect relevance of their courses, with activities outside of class, their life etc).

The idea of ‘high impact learning’ was discussed in the context of the United States of America’s university system, however it is considerably parallel to our own here in Australia. As a basis, there are increased numbers of students, as well as a diversity in their backgrounds and levels of preparation. There is an increase in fees and a strain on resources.

In addition, Dr Kuh highlighted some interesting facts:

  • Graduates have 10-14 jobs before the age of 38
  • 33% of workers change jobs annually
  • 50% of workers stay with the same company less than 5 years
  • Every year, new jobs arise which previously did not exist

So how can graduates survive in this dynamic climate? What do we need to teach them?

According to Dr Kuh, the largest indicator of career success, irrespective of ‘college major’ is that students develop a broad set of “cross cutting capacities”. (e.g. critical thinking, analytical reasoning, effective writing, presentation of arguments etc). This is because, in such a fluid environment of changing job landscapes, information learned within the major areas of study may no longer be relevant in a few years.

This is why ‘high impact learning’ is so important. Students need broad and deep learning – to take the information from their classes and apply it in novel situations, problem solve, recognise patterns, integrate and synthesise different areas, view issues from a multitude of perspectives, attend to the underlying meaning of information and so forth. These are the skills that will be valuable for them. Employers no longer want to spend time training graduates, they have to hit the ground running! Employers view these skills as more valuable than transcripts and high grades, which don’t really represent to them the capability to apply anything in practice. This is why opportunities such as internships have always been so highly sought after – they lead to employment.

It is the staff’s responsibility to provide these ‘employability skills’ – and Dr Kuh outlines many ‘high impact practices’ to do so.

Some examples of ‘high impact practices’ (HIPs):

  • Learning communities: learning across courses, and different disciplines. A peer group as well as staff and mentors to provide support and shared learning – integration of learning beyond the classroom.
  • Community based learning: field based practical learning. Applying skills in a real world setting, while analysing and solving problems in the community.
  • Capstone projects: a culminating experience where students at the end of their course are required to create a project integrating and applying what they have learned.

(Please see: ‘High Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter’ by George D. Kuh (AAC&U, 2008) for an in depth discussion).

Dr Kuh suggests by making these practices mandatory and embedding them in the curriculum, we can create increases in learning gains, abilities, participation, assessment outcomes, graduations and deeper learning. Interestingly, from his data (yes, he provided lots of evidence to support his contentions!) this was especially true for students who are ‘underprepared’ for university e.g. ethnic minorities, first in family to attend university, disadvantaged and students from low socio-economic groups etc.

I found it particularly noteworthy that of all the activities that were discussed to increase students engagement and employability, the actual content of classes was barely mentioned. What clearly stood out as having a significant effect was; student connection with peers and the university community (e.g. being a part of groups/clubs/volunteering, knowing their professors, having support), developing an understanding of how their learning applies to external work and situations (that what you are doing is meaningful and relevant), and a change of perception from ‘I just want to pass’ to having a love of learning in a deeper sense. We, as educators, need to provide these opportunities, as well as frequent and constructive feedback, opportunities for reflection and integration of learning, and high expectations coupled with our support to reach that level.

In addition, one area that greatly differed between the USA and Australia was the number of students who live on campus. Evidence showed that students living on campus showed greater pass rates, retention rates and improved learning experiences and satisfaction. This environment is less common in Australia and I wonder how we can create this same sense of community without as many opportunities for living amongst it all. The difficulty, as it always has been, is – how do we engage the ‘invisible student’? The disengaged, the distant and difficult to connect with?

Listening to this talk from being a student, and from an educator’s perspective, I am excited for the greater use of these practices. It is clear that this is the way forward and I can foresee some excellent change on the horizon! I hope within the library sphere we are able to help bring this move forward.

Thanks for reading,

Michelle De Aizpurua


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