High-Impact Teaching Practices

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

What are High-Impact Practices?

The Association for American Colleges and Universities (AACU) recognizes that teaching practices have an impact on student persistence to degree and that some teaching practices are more effective than others. (Kuh, 2009). As students are diverse in their abilities, motivation, and preparedness for college level studies, meeting their needs is among the great challenges of the 21st century.

To raise the level of learning and to help student achieve success in their college courses, the AACU encourages the use of high-impact educational practices. This tutorial will address the following practices:

Additional Resources

Best practices for supporting college access and success (Brownell & Swaner, AACU, 2009)

Falling Short? College Leanring & Career Success (Hart Research Associates, 2015)

Outcomes of high-impact practices: A literature review (Brownell & Swaner, AACU, 2009)

Teaching with high-impact within a splintered culture (Reinhart, AACU, 2012)

Fist Year Seminars

The objective of first seminars and experiences is to provide students with abundant interaction between themselves and the instructor. Typically these seminars and experiences involve a small number of students so that students receive individual attention. It is the individualized attention and sustained dialogue between instructors and students that often help first-year students get through the challenges of freshman year and inspire students to commit themselves to further studies (Kuh, et. al., 2008; Stark, et. al. 2001; Hyers & Joslin, 1998). Activities in these seminars may include more than in-depth discussion, and may include debate or inquiry that involves research. Examples of first year seminar and experiences appear in Table 1.  

Table 1: Examples of First-Year Seminars and Experiences

Course,  Institution & Reference


Biology Resource Seminar. Purdue University (Minchella, et. al. 2002)

Improve retention and persistence rates of students majoring in biology by immersing them in seminars of 20-25 students that met once per week with instructors to get help with problem-solving and other academic concerns

First year experiences for international students. University of South Carolina (Andrade, 2006)

Help students adjust to campus and academic life by providing tutorials in study methods, computer use, university policies and university resources

Technical communication through science fiction. Bagely College of engineering (Barton, 2013)

Reduce students’ anxiety about the lexicon required to persist in technical programs and to link their familiarity with scientific ideas to new concepts

Additional Resources

At the University of Washington, "Discovery Seminars" open doors to college-level inquiry (AACU, 2006)

First-year seminars increase persistence and retention (Goodman & Pascarella, AACU, 2006)

Common Intellectual Experiences

Common intellectual experiences in traditional education were articulated by a fixed set of core course requirements. At present, common intellectual experiences are reflected in the more flexible and broad concept of core course requirements that are often organized around themes. A university, for example, might require that all students must satisfy general education requirements in a number of domains and do so for the purpose of meeting institutional commitments to see that students are familiar with certain knowledge, such as civic organization and government, digital technology, quantitative reasoning, or composition. 

It is common to find that decisions about core requirements and common intellectual experiences are made at executive levels of the university, and yet, individual instructors in many instances may influence the direction their departments take relative to optional courses they will offer. The history department, for example, may see great important in helping students see the continuity in the human experience, and so integrate into its courses on the history of very different societies inquiries into how these societies were similar to others.

Additional Resources

"A creative adventure": Undergraduate research at the College of Wooster (AACU, 2010)

Cultivating "Sparks of the Divinity" (Fong, AACU, 2014)

Learning Communities

Learning communities function in ways similar to study groups. They may be formed with students in a single class who are all studying different majors, with students who take two or more classes together, or formed with students who live in the same community and share an interest in exploring something in depth, including field experiences or internships (Zhao & Kuh, 2004; Tinto, 2003). Learning communities may be facilitated by instructors or students, and are sometimes supported by the university with abundant resources, such as those offered to medical students at Florida State University (Student Learning Communities, 2013)

Student learning communities may function in the following ways:

  • To provide in-depth exploration or ideas, procedures, or set of experiences
  • To synthesize knowledge by examining the relationships between information and experiences across disciplines
  • To cultivate peer support for persistence
  • To improve student understanding of practices in the field or in a given profession

Additional Resources

Approaching diversity: Some classroom strategies for leanring communities (Koolsbergen, AACU, 2013)

First-year learning communities: A student's experience (Sjenicic, AACU, 2009)

Service leanrig and learning communities: Promising pedagogies (Finley & Staub, AACU,2009).

Writing-Intensive Courses

Writing-intensive courses are characterized not only by the volume of compositions students produce, but by the variety of audiences for whim they write and the diversity of functions their writings serve. (Melzer, 2009). While learning to write well may contribute to student success in a given discipline, the benefits of learning to write well also include the improvement of critical thinking skills and improvements in students’ confidence in their ability to succeed in college courses (Brownell, et. al., 2013; Kellog & Whiteford, 2012; Bean, 2011; Fulwiler, 1982). In assigning multiple drafts of compositions and offering formative assessments of draft, instructors often help student become more attentive to the quality of their thinking and as well as the clarity and logic of their assertions (Myhill & Jones, 2007;Flower & Hayes, 1981).

Additional Resources

Assessing learning, encouraging individuality through portfolios at Spellman College (AACU,2008)

Electronia portfolios a decade into the twenty-fist century (Yancey, AACU, 2009)

Humaniastic mathematics: An oxymoron? (Karaali, AACU, 2012)

Making writing visible at Duke University (Hillard & Harris, AACU, 2003)

San Francisco State University E-Portfolios

San Francisco State University Writing Across the Curriculumand in the Disciplines

Writing and the disciplines (Monroe, AACU, 2003)

Collaborative Assignments and Projects

The AACU asserts there are two main goals for collaborative assignments and projects: 1) to improve one’s understanding by way of listening to diverse perspectives; and, 2) to improve the way one works with others. Collaborative assignments and projects may include:

  • Creating a poster for a conference
  • Designing a non-profit program to serve a vulnerable population
  • Conducting research in the field or classroom
  • Producing a film or work of art
  • Developing a group presentation

Collaborative assignments and projects are more likely to result in positive learning experiences when topic are relevant and issues are current, when there exists a clear structure to the process and clear tasks associated with the project, and when students have to opportunity to reflect upon what contributed to their understanding of how to work well with others (Weimer, 2002).

Additional Resources

Collaborating to learn, learning to collaborate (Baldwin & Change, AACU, 2007)

Designing and implementing an integrative, collaborative, problem-solving-based general education capstone (Griffin & Burns-Ardolino, AACY, 2013)

Yes, but how do you teach collaboration? (Davis, AACU, 2012)

Undergraduate Research

Like first-year seminars and experience, undergraduate research immerses students in activities that stimulate inquiry, engage students in field or practical work, and magnify the relevance and potential applications of their studies. When conducted with professors, undergraduate research provides students with role-modeling that helps students understand the habits and thought process of scholars and those in the field, helps students learn how and when to take risks, and improves student confidence with skills (Kardash, 2000). Undergraduate research has also been linked to improvements in student’s confidence level, persistence to degree, and interest in pursuing graduate degrees (Russell, et. al., 2007; Lopatto, 2004; Hippel, et. al., 1998).

Lopatto (2003) has identified several essential features of effective undergraduate research:

  1. Student participate in in the design of the research
  2. Students enjoy independent work time apart from professor
  3. Student use reproducible techniques
  4. Student have the opportunity for oral and written communication about findings and experiences
  5. Students read scientific literature related to project
  6. Establish a meaningful research question
  7. Students participate in conferences and meeting related research
  8. Students earn credit or pay for their work

For tutorials on finding articles and books, go to:


Additional Resources

Creative activity and undergraduate research across the disciplines (Bettison-Varga, AACU, 2006)

Enhancing undergraduate research in the arts and humanities (Levenson, 2010)

Low-cost strategies for promoting undergraduate research at research universities (Snow, DeCosmo, & Shokair, 2010)

Research and discovery across the curriculum (Elrod, Kinzie, & Husic, 2010)

The integrity and integrality of student research at a liberal arts college (Weight, 2010)

Undergraduate research as high-impact student experience (Lopatto, 2010)

Undergraduate research learning communities for first-year and lower-division students (Kaul & Pratt, 2010)

Undergraduate research: Not just for research universities (O'Conner, 2008)

Diversity/Global Learning

The objectives for integrating global and diversity studies into the curriculum are there for formative and informative. Teaching students to understand and appreciate diversity and global perspectives is high-impact practice as it focuses largely on the human experience, personal values and attitudes, and the regard individuals have for each other. Such instruction also has a practical aspect; as technologies, economics and political developments have increased the interactions between diverse cultures in the 21st century, colleges and universities must prepare students to live and work in global communities.

Though no single definition of diversity learning and global education exist, the following objectives for such instruction are commonly recognized by scholars (Clark & Drudy, 2006; Banks, 2004; LaBelle & Merryfield, 1998; Ward, 1994):

  1. To recognize and validate diverse experiences and perspectives
  2. To improve one’s understanding of diverse cultures
  3. To improve one’s ability to work well with others
  4. To foster a deeper and broader commitment to collaborate to solve global problems
  5. To expand the inclusiveness of marginalized populations in public-policy setting
  6. To improve access of marginalized populations to resources and opportunities

Using fictitious courses, Table 1 offers suggestions about how to articulate student learning outcomes relative to diversity and global learning.

Table 1: Student Learning Outcomes and Articulation of Diversity and Global Learning




Biography as History

Students will describe the universality of racism in the human experience

Create an outline for an essay about the universality of racism that references 4-5 civilizations

Rural Public Health Nursing

Students will design strategies to help clients improve self-advocacy

Develop a plan to teach clients how to access assistance from friends and family and describe how the plan might be altered to respect the culture of two different populations

Urban Development

Students will identify and evaluate stakeholders and their interests in various development initiatives

Attend a city council meeting in which a development initiative is discussed and debated; document which stakeholders are represented and assess whether all stakeholders in the mater were sufficiently represented

Additional Resources

The dangerous assault on disciplines basic to democracy (Schneider, AACU, 2012)

Global leanring: Defining, designing, demonstrating (Hovland, AACU, 2014)

How colleges can influence the development of a global perspective (Braskamp, AACU, 2011)

Preparing students for ethical complexity at the intersection where worlds collide: The quest for character, civility, and community (Fluker, AACU, 2011)

Service Learning, Community-Based Learning

Service learning and community-based learning immerses students in real-world experiences wherein they perform activities for which they are not paid. Service learning and community-based aim to improve students’ academic achievement by motivating learning through keeping the course work relevant and immediately applicable, and to improve students’ sense of civic responsibility by raising their awareness of the human condition and their capacity to improve it (Hunter & Brisbin, 2000; Strand, 2000; Parker-Gwin & Mabry, 1998). Service and community-based learning can be a powerful and provocative experience in which students confront social injustice and the complexities of their own values and attitudes (Jones. Et. al., 2005).

There are a variety of ways to engage students in service learning and community-based learning:

  • Permit students to select an agency or service of personal interest
  • Assign students to agencies or services
  • Require a certain number of hours per semester
  • Require students to complete a single service project over the course of a semester

The benefits of service and community-based learning is felt most when (Eyler & Giles, 1999):

  • Students have abundant opportunities to reflect upon their experiences and how it impacted their thinking about social conditions, work in the field, personal values, and their own sense of citizenship and moral obligations
  • Course readings are directly related to and supportive of discrete service activities or the populations students are serving
  • There is clarity in the structure and procedures for completing requirements

The vitality of service and community-service learning is enhanced by keeping the “community in the community;” which means that projects are highly responsive to local needs, and which means that the university’s service and community-based learning programs are based on research, planning, evaluation, campus-wide information-sharing, and recognition of outstanding achievements (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996).

Additional Resources

Connected cocurricular service with academic inquiry: A movement toward civic engagement (Meisel, AACU, 2007)

From service to science in the energy-climate era (Franco, AACU, 2010)

Rethinking how we perceive and approach service lerning (Lieberman, AACU, 2015)

Service learning in information technology leadership: A natural connection (Hannon, AACU, 2006)

The civic promise of service learning (Saltmarsh, AACU, 2005)


Like undergraduate research and service and community-based learning, internships immerse students in vocational settings and aim to improve motivation to persist to degree by way of acquainting students with work in the field. They link theory with practice, foster civic awareness, cultivate professional competencies, and often nurture personal growth (Sweitzer & King, 2013).  Internships are also unique as they are often designed to improve students’ specialization of knowledge and skill. Internships are highly structured and often require formal institutional agreements between the university and external agencies such as school districts, laboratories, government agencies, hospitals, clinics, and corporations (Cunningham & Sherman, 2008).

Effective internships attend the following (Swetizer & King, 2013):

  • Identifying clear and specific objectives and student learning outcomes
  • Training that targets competence with student learning outcomes
  • A thorough orientation to the facilities and cultural environment of the agency, clinic or entity in which the internship will take place
  • Abundant opportunities for students to articulate their understanding of their experiences and how those experiences have influenced their thought and values relative to being a professional in the field
  • The supervision of a mentor who is present while students work and who are skilled at helping students to articulate their thought process as they work
  • Robust feedback on student performance
  • Regular and thorough program evaluation

Additional Resources

A tale of two internships (Johnson, AACU, 2010)

Connecting the classroom with real-world experiences through summer internships (Gavigan, AACU, 2010)

Internships as high-impact practice: Some reflections on quality (O'Neill, AACU, 2010)

Making the most out of internships: An interview with Christi M. Pedra, Senior Vice-President for Strategic New Business Development and Marketing, Siemens Healthcare (Donnelly-Smith, AACU, 2010)

Reducing internshiip inequality (Mayo & Shethji, AACU, 2010)

Capstone Courses and Projects

Capstone experiences are opportunities for students to synthesize a broad spectrum of knowledge and skill, and to articulate themselves in ways that compel them to demonstrate competence in each area of learning that is germane to a given program (Berheide, 2007). Capstones are often culminating experiences or projects that represent how a student brings ideas learned over the course of many semesters into a single product (Hummer, 2012). Capstones often reveal the readiness of students to advance into a given vocation. In some capstones, students work to solve a specific local problem (Dwosh, 2013; Wong, 2013). They are also sometimes very transformative in nature as they prompt students to assess their own perspective, attitudes, and values (Still, et. al., 2009).

Capstones are as diverse as undergraduate programs themselves:

  • Undergraduates majoring in language and literature might produce a portfolio
  • Undergraduates in public health studies might develop a tenable plan for a local health initiative
  • Undergraduates in history might produce a report about local history or biography based mainly on primary sources
  • Undergraduates in cinema might produce a short animated documentary film
  • Undergraduates in education might produce a course design with syllabus and sample assignments and assessment
  • Undergraduates in engineering might create apparatus to retrieve materials from the deepest regions of the ocean
  • Undergraduates in management might produce an instrument to access the efficacy of interdepartmental communication, submit it for an evaluation by members of a given industry or business, and report their experiences
  • Undergraduates in marketing might design an ad campaign that is also a public service
  • Undergraduates in political science might attend a series of city council meetings, interview participants, and report on the efficacy and significance of the democratic process
  • Undergraduates in bio-chemistry might conduct a study of the distribution of mold in a given environment and report on the impact of such distribution on those exposed to it

Additional Resources

Designing and implementing an integrative, collaborative, probelm-solving-based general education capstone (Griffin & Burns-Ardolino, AACU, 2013)

Going beyond the requirement: The capstone experience (Redman, AACU, 2013)

Integrative learning in the Liberal Arts: From cluster to capstone (Stubbs, Feibel, & Arcario, AACU, 2013)

The disorienting dilemma: The senior capstone as a transformative experience (Sill, Harward, & Cooper, AACU, 2009)


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Additional Resources

Association of American Colleges and Universities. Overview of High-Impact Teaching

Association of Colleges and Universities. Assessment of High-Impact Practices for Underserved Students

Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1977). Teaching for diversity and social justice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Brown University Business and Entrepreneurship Capstone Experiences

Kendall Senior College Capstone Project.

National Research on Trends and Experiences in Senior Capstone Experiences

Nine Ways to Improve Student Achievement

San Francisco State University Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

Stanford University: What is a Senior Capstone?

Timpson, W. M., Canetto, S. S., Borrayo, E. A., & Yang, R.  (Eds.). 2003). Teaching diversity. Challenges complexities, identities, and integrity. Madison, WI: Atwood Press.