Outcomes of High-Impact Educational Practices:
A Literature Review
By Jayne E. Brownell, assistant vice president
for student affairs at Hofstra University, and Lynn
E. Swaner, assistant professor in the Department of
Counseling and Development, C.W. Post Campus of Long
Hofstra University (Photo by
Michael Sisak, courtesy of Hofstra University)
The Association of American Colleges and Universities'
2007 report College Learning for the New Global
Century outlined several "effective educational
practices" that are gaining attention in higher education.
These "high-impact" practices promise to engage today's
college students to a greater extent than traditional
classroom-based instruction alone. In a subsequent AAC&U
report, George Kuh described strong positive effects
students experience as a result of participating in
high-impact activities (2008). Kuh also reported that
historically underserved students experience "compensatory
effects," or a "boost" in grades and retention during
the first year of college, as a result of these practices
To contribute to this growing body of research, in 2008 we conducted a literature review to determine what is currently known about how five high-impact practices affect outcomes for students in general and underserved students in particular. For the purposes of the review, we defined underserved students as underrepresented students of color (African American, Latino/a, and Native American), low-income students, and first-generation college students. The practices we reviewed were first-year seminars, learning communities, undergraduate research, service learning, and capstone experiences. Our findings show that: (1) a host of positive outcomes exists for students who participate in these activities, although little attention has been given to specific outcomes for underserved students; and (2) colleges and universities can take particular steps in designing practices to maximize positive outcomes for students.
Five Practices and Their Outcomes
In sum, four of the activities we researched--first-year
seminars, learning communities, undergraduate research,
and service learning--have shown strong positive impacts
on students based on a broad range of outcomes. In reviewing
the literature, however, we discovered that researchers
use similar terms to describe a wide range of practices,
making the task of linking specific program components
to specific outcomes more challenging. Nonetheless,
we were able to identify positive outcomes, including
some for underserved students, associated with a range
First-year seminars: The literature on first-year
seminars encompasses the range of models recognized
by the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience
and Students in Transition at the University of South
Carolina. Originally developed by Betsy Barefoot, the
typology includes: (1) extended orientation seminars;
(2) academic seminars with uniform content across sections;
(3) academic seminars with variable content; (4) preprofessional
or discipline-linked seminars; (5) basic study skills
seminars; and (6) hybrid models (Barefoot 1992). Taken
together, these models have a nearly universal positive
impact on student persistence and positively affect
student graduation rates and grades (although the impact
on grades fades over time). They lead to more peer and
faculty interaction, higher levels of student engagement
in and outside of the classroom, and smoother transitions
to college. Few studies, however, specifically examine
outcomes for underserved students. Those that do find
short-term benefits for students' grades and persistence,
but do not examine other outcomes.
Learning communities:The most basic learning
communities consist of two or more linked courses focusing
on a common theme. In more complex models, learning
communities can constitute a student's full schedule
for a term, be paired with extended orientation seminars
or integrative seminars, or be residentially based.
Across these variations, learning communities have been
studied widely and show a broad range of positive outcomes.
Nearly all relevant studies find that participation
in a learning community has a positive impact on student
persistence (with minimal or no impact on grades), behavioral
outcomes (such as peer and faculty interaction and student
engagement), and attitudinal outcomes (such as sense
of belonging and perception of a positive campus climate).
In relation to liberal learning goals, learning community
students experience improved critical thinking, integrative
thinking, and reading and writing skills; openness to
new perspectives and ideas; engagement with diversity;
increased civic engagement; and development of ethics
and values. More studies are needed, but findings to
date suggest that learning community participants show
greater gains in these areas than their peers. Research
also suggests positive outcomes for underserved students.
In addition to improving their grades and persistence,
participation in learning communities eases underserved
students' transitions to college by helping them build
their identities as college students and find their
voices in the classroom.
Undergraduate research: Undergraduate research
includes individual projects supervised by faculty members
and collaborations with faculty mentors. For all students,
studies associate undergraduate research with the development
of research skills and problem-solving skills, increased
interaction with faculty, and greater satisfaction with
the educational experience.
of Successful High-Impact Practices
Within each high-impact practice, our research identified components for success. While not exhaustive, these include:
- Within first-year seminars: Establish seminar goals before designing a program, and choose the seminar format that fits those goals. Use instructional teams whenever possible: for example, build a resource team that includes faculty, advisers, librarians, and technology professionals. Use engaging pedagogies that are active and collaborative in nature, including group work, interactive lectures, experiential learning, and problem-based learning. Help students see that the skills they need to succeed in the seminar are skills they will use throughout college and after graduation.
- Within learning communities:
Be intentional in linking courses. Support students
in traditional gateway courses and "weed-out"
courses that have high rates of failure. Consider
tying an extended orientation or integrative
seminar to the learning community. Use instructional
teams, such as the one described for first-year
seminars above. Invest in faculty development
to ensure that courses are fully integrated,
with coordinated material, assignments, out-of-class
trips, and grading rubrics. Use engaging pedagogies.
- Within undergraduate research
programs: Encourage faculty to
provide mentoring rather than just program oversight,
and attend to the quality of the mentoring relationship
(balancing challenge with support). Provide
opportunities for "real-life" applications,
whether through publication, presentations,
or project implementation.
- Within service-learning programs: Create opportunities for structured reflection. Ensure that faculty connect classroom material with the service experience. Require enough service hours to make the experience significant. Focus on the quality of the service, ensuring that students have direct contact with clients. Oversee activities at the service site.
and Lynn Swaner
Many undergraduate research opportunity programs and
summer research opportunity programs have the explicit
goal of encouraging underrepresented students to pursue
graduate studies. Therefore, some research in this area
specifically examines outcomes for underserved students,
with most studies focusing on research programs' demonstrated
positive impact on student persistence and graduate
Service learning:Service learning is a form
of experiential education that links service in the
community with an academic course or program. It is
distinct from cocurricular volunteerism in that the
service is supervised by faculty and tied to the classroom
curriculum. Studies show that service learning has a
positive impact on academic and civic outcomes, such
as sense of social responsibility, development of a
social justice orientation, commitment to a service-oriented
career, gains in moral reasoning, and greater tolerance
of difference. These positive outcomes apply to both
majority students and underserved students. However,
the research has identified an additional negative outcome
for underserved students. If the service-learning experience
treats community partners as "other," students who identify
with those communities can experience conflict and a
sense of isolation. More research is needed in this
area, but these findings show that program design is
essential to ensuring positive outcomes for all students.
Capstone experiences: Capstone experiences
were the least researched of the five practices we reviewed.
Capstone experiences can consist of a course, a seminar,
or a project that focuses a student's learning either
in the major or across the college career. The research
we identified in this area tends to describe capstone
experiences rather than explore their outcomes. While
we identified some limited evidence that participation
in capstone experiences improves students' abilities
to apply and integrate knowledge in the major, we found
no research that explores outcomes for underserved students.
Suggestions for Further Research
The outcomes-focused studies we reviewed provided
much information about persistence and grades, but also
identified positive effects on student behavior, attitudes,
and learning. Nevertheless, many weaknesses in the outcomes
literature limit its helpfulness to practitioners. We
found a need for more studies that attend to the following
Define practices clearly. Popular definitions
of many high-impact practices are very broad, making
it difficult to determine what specific factors within
each practice are crucial for positive outcomes. For
example, many articles about learning communities fail
to describe the structure of the communities studied
in any detail. This made it impossible to determine
whether two linked courses lead to different outcomes
than four linked courses, for example, or whether integrative
seminars have different impacts from extended orientation
Attend to underserved students. The research
provided little information about how the experiences
of underserved students compare to the experiences of
their peers. Even studies that identify underserved
student populations rarely disaggregate the data for
different populations. In order to glean an understanding
of underserved student outcomes, we had to draw from
articles describing institutions or programs that predominantly
serve students from one or more underserved groups.
Incorporate comparison groups. The literature
as a whole suffers from selection bias and a lack of
comparison groups. Since students typically elect to
participate in high-impact activities, their attitude
toward and likelihood of benefiting from these activities
may differ from that of students who did not choose
to participate. Many studies also report outcomes for
a particular program, but fail to compare participants
to matched nonparticipants on campus.
Vary data collection methods. Behavioral,
attitudinal, and liberal-learning outcomes studies generally
rely upon self-reporting, quantitative measures, or
both. Studies would benefit from the use of more varied
data collection methods.
Look across institutions. Most outcomes research
focuses on single-institution studies. With some notable
exceptions, most data is institution-specific, making
Finally, follow students longitudinally. The
research typically follows students over a short span
of time. Researchers often track persistence from first
term to second term, or first year to sophomore year,
but not beyond. Researchers need to move beyond short-term
measures and examine student learning more closely over
Applying Research to Practice
Despite any weaknesses in the research, the body of
literature holds great value for practitioners. Our
take-away lessons include:
These five practices clearly make a difference
for students. Ample evidence suggests that these
practices are worth the time, energy, and resources
needed to implement them. While some studies indicate
neutral results in comparison to groups of nonparticipants,
virtually none of the literature reports negative student
outcomes due to participation in the activities. Nearly
all results are positive.
A range of design options is available for campuses
hoping to craft high-impact experiences. Every
campus is different, and practices that are effective
in one culture will not necessarily work for another.
Reading the outcomes literature allows practitioners
to see the range of design options and select the ones
that best match their environments.
A few key program features are crucial to ensuring
positive outcomes for students. Beyond showing
existing design options, the literature highlights key
components of effective programs (see sidebar).
Campus practitioners can make their program assessments
more effective. Every campus should evaluate its
programs to determine their effectiveness. Our research
points to a few things to keep in mind when designing
a campus assessment. First, eliminate selection bias
whenever possible. Second, utilize comparison groups.
Third, study student outcomes longitudinally whenever
possible. And finally, pay attention to all students
on campus. Find out whether underserved students are
participating equally, and whether their experience
differs from that of their majority peers. Only by paying
attention to all students can we ensure that our practices
are both inclusive and effective for everyone.
Editor's Note: An article on high-impact practices
by these authors also appears in the spring 2009 issue
of Peer Review (www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-sp09/pr-sp09_index.cfm).
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Barefoot, B. O. 1992. Helping first-year college students climb the academic ladder: Report of a national survey of freshman seminar programming in American higher education. PhD diss, College of William and Mary.
Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Swaner, L. E., and J. E. Brownell. 2008. Outcomes of high impact practices for underserved students: A review of the literature. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.aacu.org/inclusive_excellence/documents/DRAFTProjectUSALiteratureReview.pdf.