Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

A New Institution in a New LEAP State: Faculty-Driven Reform and Innovation at the University of North Georgia

Even before it became an institution, the University of North Georgia (UNG) had LEAP in its DNA.

North Georgia College & State University (NGCSU) and Gainesville State College (GSC)—which consolidated in 2013 to form the five campuses of UNG—both had institutional commitments to AAC&U’s LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) Initiative, including the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, Principles of Excellence, and high-impact practices (especially global learning, service learning, and undergraduate research).

Now, as a member of LEAP Georgia, the thirteenth statewide organization to join AAC&U’s LEAP States Initiative, UNG continues to strive for educational excellence as it bolsters its core curriculum, high-impact practices, assessment, and faculty development.

Becoming UNG and LEAP Georgia

Hoping to boost retention, help students develop skills such as critical thinking, and strengthen preexisting high-impact practices, GSC joined AAC&U’s Developing a Community College Student Roadmap project in 2010 and sent teams of faculty and administrators to two AAC&U summer institutes. These efforts led to a revision of the core curriculum and a greater emphasis on first-year experiences. The college created a High-Impact Practices Academy (a year-long project-based faculty development program) to help faculty plan, implement, and assess high-impact practices. That academy has just completed its fifth year and is offered to faculty on all five campuses of UNG.

Like GSC, NGCSU emphasized high-impact practices in its curriculum and had robust undergraduate research, global engagement, and service-learning programs, earning the university the Community Engagement Carnegie Classification. Donna Gessell, now professor of English at UNG, also participated on the development team that helped to create AAC&U’s Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric in 2009.

As the two institutions worked to merge their curricula, they sent a delegation to AAC&U’s 2013 Annual Meeting. There, Micheal Crafton, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of West Georgia, invited educators from institutions across Georgia to a luncheon to discuss how they could support each other and collaborate on LEAP initiatives. After a series of meetings over the next several years, this group had grown into LEAP Georgia by 2016.

Now, LEAP Georgia holds two statewide meetings each year where educators from public and private institutions report on their LEAP-related work and discuss best practices and challenges.

“The fact that you have to report out twice a year at these face-to-face meetings motivates Georgia colleges and universities to learn about LEAP and innovative educational practices,” said Mary Carney, director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership at UNG.  “It's been transformative, honestly. LEAP Georgia has been a big part of why, for all these years, we've been so deeply involved with LEAP. . . . Even for institutions who haven't yet infused LEAP deeply, it provides a set of ideals and tools that you can use on everything from the curriculum to specific assignment design and assessment.”

Faculty-Driven Reform and Innovation

In 2014, Carney convened a faculty committee of “LEAP champions” to support the early LEAP Georgia efforts and anchor them at UNG. Together, the committee came up with a title for UNG’s LEAP initiative that also serves as a mission statement: Renewing Liberal Education through Faculty-Driven Reform and Innovation.

“It’s really important that these initiatives are faculty-driven,” said Jennifer Graff, associate professor of ceramics and chair of the LEAP champions committee. “With all of the initiatives that come down the pike that are mandated for faculty, this is in our hands, and I think that gives the LEAP initiative some unique energy.”

Over several years, the champions held retreats, meetings, and book club discussions as they researched best-practices from AAC&U and resources such as Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education; George D. Kuh’s High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter; L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences; and Susan A. Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

To track the work that was already being done at UNG, the committee surveyed all faculty by defining high-impact practices and asking faculty to identify what practices, if any, they used in their classes.

They also continue to improve the High-Impact Practices Academy, which began at GSC as part of AAC&U’s Roadmap project and brings a cohort of seven to twelve faculty together to create a community of practice and implement a project based on a high-impact practice such as global learning, diversity learning, service learning, or undergraduate research.

After UNG was consolidated, an increased requirement for faculty research and the focus on LEAP led to the creation of a second faculty academy on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Participants spend a year learning about SoTL and designing a research project.

LEAP champions also coach faculty in high-impact practices during new-faculty orientation and through the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership. This introduces faculty to evidence-based models such as AAC&U VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics, L. Dee Fink’s work on work on integrated design, and Mary-Ann Winkelmes’s Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) project, which UNG faculty use to redesign assignments to make them more transparent and relevant to students.

“TILT is a really great program that teaches us how to write a clear lesson plan for students and just be able to communicate with them better about what we’re looking for on assignments, projects, or papers,” said Heather Foster, instructor in visual arts. The TILT project, which the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, conducted in partnership with AAC&U, was featured in Peer Review in 2016.

Though not mandated, the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Leadership highly recommends that all faculty use AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics to design and assess assignments. The VALUE rubrics, which “really break the LEAP language down into even more detail,” add a deeper level of assistance to faculty, Carney said. The center uses the rubrics in numerous professional development programs, including annual academies and new-faculty orientation programming.

“If we want to move from scholarly teaching to the scholarship of teaching and learning, we need to share and have peer reviewed assessment of the work that we are doing,” Carney said. “What AAC&U does is it helps us to know the best that's out there, and it gives it to us in an understandable way to inform how we think so that we can be creative and innovative, and integrate it with what we're already doing.”

LEAP into Action

To connect more individual faculty members with evidence-based pedagogies like high-impact practices, the LEAP committee instituted a series of “LEAP into Action” mini-grants for the 2017–18 and 2018–19 academic years. These grants are based on the model at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, where support for high-impact practices extends beyond faculty to the full staff.

It’s important for faculty and staff to realize that “we are all educators no matter what part of the university we work in,” Graff said.

Rather than pushing faculty and staff to create entirely new curricula or programs, these mini-grants support them in integrating a high-impact practice into a single assignment.

“It’s a great way to develop faculty members’ knowledge and awareness of evidence-based teaching practices and strengthen what they're already doing,” Carney said.

Submissions are reviewed by multiple reviewers to ensure that they are grounded in LEAP ideals and include a timeline, budget, and assessment mechanism. After the project, all grantees present their experience to colleagues at SOIRE (Symposium on Innovation, Research, and Engagement), a faculty-development day in November attended by faculty from all five campuses.

A broad range of disciplines and activities are represented in the 2017–18 grantees: biology students went to Alabama to conduct field research and gather data about endemic ecosystems; linguistics students at UNG’s Blue Ridge Campus researched a local community’s linguistic landscape; and music history students interviewed contemporary composers to research how music history is created. Staff from the Writing Center also received a grant to develop “Instruction Modules to Support Writing across the Curriculum.”

These projects are “incredibly creative, and they are all really utilizing the core LEAP values like the Principles of Excellence and Essential Learning Outcomes,” Graff said.

For her LEAP into Action project, Foster led students in the creation of a “relational aesthetics eatery” that helped nonartists find true appreciation for the arts. Earlier iterations of her art appreciation class mostly included lectures. At the end of the semester, during a unit on relational aesthetics (an artistic movement that focuses on human interaction), students studied Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist who transformed a New York art gallery into a kitchen that served curry and rice.

“Going over it in a lecture, it just seems kind of hokey,” Foster said. “You know, he didn't make anything, so how is this art?”

To help students empathize with artists like Tiravanija, the class brainstormed their own relational aesthetics projects, which they brought together in an event they dubbed “The Art-Cade.”

As they ate popcorn and toast and drank coffee, two students transformed the private action of playing video games like Guitar Hero and FIFA into public performances. Other groups transformed painting uniforms—Tyvek overalls—into sculptures that they hung around the room, filled squirt guns with paint, or created a splatter painting similar to Jackson Pollock’s work that was transformed into a cornhole game.

The cornhole game “was kind of a two-in-one activity,” Foster said. “Some folks don't understand abstract expressionism and think it's too simple, but once students were making their own drip painting they were able to embrace that approach.”

At the end of the activity, students completed an online survey to describe their experience and provide feedback. Creative and critical thinking activities like the Art-Cade foster a mindset of social belonging to support student persistence, and it was clear that the students, none of whom were art majors, enjoyed the chance to bond while immersing their senses—the sight of the colors, the taste and smell of the food, the sound of the video games, and the feel of paint on their skin—in the creation of art.

“They were just chatting with each other, becoming friends, and making the learning more fun. And they’ll remember that,” Foster said.

Communicating about Pedagogies with Students

To help students reflect on the impact of learning techniques like high-impact practices, Graff speaks with her students about the behind-the scenes work that professors do to improve education. AAC&U’s employer research is one of the things she shares with students.

“Students think they’re leaving institutions with all these skills and all this knowledge and they're actually not, according to the employers,” Graff said. “I think it's very valuable to students because they understand that there are those of us who are trying to improve our teaching in order to help them get better.”

Inside and outside the classroom, UNG’s experience with LEAP continues to transform the institution.

“The LEAP language is being infused like water finding its way everywhere within our institution,” Graff said. “It feels good that after years of thinking about LEAP and trying to implement it, it seems to be taking root.”