Diversity and Democracy

High-Impact Learning for Self and Society: Community-Engaged Signature Work

Just over two decades ago, Ernest Boyer, then president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, expressed concern that higher education was falling short in addressing a key aim of its mission: its public purpose. Concerned about societal inequities and a range of other problems, he called upon higher education leaders and faculty to rethink their approaches to teaching and learning. In Scholarship Reconsidered, Boyer wrote:

Beyond the campus, America’s social and economic crises are growing—troubled schools, budget deficits, pollution, urban decay, and neglected children, to highlight problems that are most apparent. Other concerns such as acid rain, AIDS, dwindling energy supplies, and population shifts are truly global, transcending national boundaries.... The challenge then is this: Can America’s colleges and universities, with all the richness of their resources, be of greater service to the nation and world? (1990, 3)

Taking up this question, Boyer set out an aspirational vision for a “New American College” in which undergraduates and faculty participate in field projects, connecting ideas to real life. In such an institution, “Classrooms and laboratories would be extended to include health clinics, youth centers, schools, and government offices. Faculty members would build partnerships with practitioners who would, in turn, come to campus as lecturers and student advisers” (1994, A48).

Today, at a time of increasing disparities and intensifying societal challenges, Boyer’s vision has even greater meaning. Moreover, the opportunity to create the “New American College” has been enlivened by decades of concerted effort to define, refine, and integrate engaged learning and civic work across higher education. In 2012, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) published A Crucible Moment: Civic Learning and Democracy’s Future (National Task Force 2012), capturing the themes of a yearlong national dialogue involving representatives of colleges and universities, civic organizations, private and government funding agencies, higher education associations, and disciplinary societies. The publication’s call to action heralded the need for higher education to play its part in addressing declining civic knowledge and participation in the United States. In response, higher education leaders and practitioners have invested in sophisticated efforts to enhance civic ethos within and across their institutions through new collaborations and innovations in curricula and in cocurricular life.

Community-engaged signature work—described throughout this issue of Diversity & Democracy—is one such innovation. This approach has the potential to advance higher education’s public purpose and presents an opportunity to strengthen the connections among undergraduate education, student learning, and the vitality of our democracy. Drawing on pedagogies that are student-centered, collaborative, and proven effective, community-engaged signature work represents a collective attempt to better align the knowledge and assets of our colleges and universities with those of our communities. By scaling models like community-engaged signature work, colleges and universities can be “anchor institutions”and “stewards of place” that leverage resources to support the economic vitality of surrounding neighborhoods, towns, and cities (Taylor and Luter 2013; Votruba et al. 2002). Through such engagement, institutions of higher education also may enact a new paradigm of democratic community engagement, one in which institutions work alongside other community constituents to produce and apply knowledge (Saltmarsh and Hartley 2011; Hartley, Saltmarsh, and Clayton 2010).

The LEAP Challenge and Signature Work

Community-engaged signature work grows out of the LEAP Challenge—the next generation of Liberal Education and America’s Promise, an initiative launched over a decade ago to respond to the workplace and civic demands of the twenty-first century. After a decade of public advocacy and campus action, LEAP has resulted in strategies and tools that have contributed to transforming undergraduate education. LEAP has supported the creation of Essential Learning Outcomes, the articulation and replication of high-impact practices, and the development of the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics. Building on these successes, the LEAP Challenge calls for all students to engage in “integrating and applying their learning to complex problems and projects that are important to the student and important to society” (AAC&U 2016). Through a culminating experience—or a signature work—students synthesize their knowledge and skills across general education, majors, the cocurriculum, and off-campus study, applying what they know and can do to important, unscripted real-world problems.

Signature work lasts at least one semester and can take several forms, including undergraduate research projects, community-based research, and project-based learning. As individuals or in teams, students grapple with complex questions requiring input from multiple disciplines and perspectives. The nature of the assignment itself can help to clarify the purpose of broad liberal learning—not as a random collection of credit hours that make one “well-rounded,” but as a means of acquiring the “big-picture” knowledge and skills needed to address real and difficult problems in our civic, professional, and personal lives. This work is called “signature” because, although students are mentored in connection with their projects, they take the lead in defining an issue and communicating its significance, drawing from their own interests and commitments as they complete work that is indeed worthy of their authorship.

To prepare students for signature work, colleges and universities are (re)designing educational pathways that foster integrative learning, rather than maintaining separate silos for general education, majors, and the cocurriculum. Some institutions are tying these creative efforts to programs, while others are re-envisioning the core curriculum for all students. Already, the foundation for integrative capstones is strong: as reported by Kinzie (2013), according to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), 46 percent of senior-level students report doing some kind of culminating work.

This Issue of Diversity & Democracy

Over the past decade, the Bonner Foundation has worked in partnership with AAC&U on a number of initiatives connected to the LEAP Challenge. This work has included the development of civically focused academic programs, captured in Civic Engagement at the Center: Building Democracy through Integrated Curricular and Cocurricular Experiences (Hoy and Meisel 2008). It deepened through collaboration on the Bonner High-Impact Initiative, through which teams of faculty, administrators, students, and community partners worked strategically to foster curricular and cultural change at their institutions, promoting the integration and replication of high-impact practices tied to civic purpose and community engagement.

At the heart of the Bonner Foundation’s work is an intentional, developmental, and collaborative approach to institutional change and engagement. The Bonner Scholar and Leader Program models are founded on a commitment to enhancing college access and success for students—especially low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. This focus on students enables participating colleges and universities to create vibrant campus-wide cultures where engagement is woven into the very fabric of curricular and cocurricular life, deeply connected with mission and purpose.

Today, the Bonner Foundation and AAC&U grapple together with the aspiration and challenge to see all students—no matter their institutions or majors—integrating their knowledge and skills to complete a significant inquiry-based project, a form of signature work. We believe that we can make small steps toward meeting this lofty goal through thoughtful and intentional curriculum and program design. This issue of Diversity & Democracy explores and amplifies a key dimension of signature work: that it be important to the student and important to society. The issue’s authors highlight examples where integration of capstone-level work with civic engagement or purpose is already occurring as students, faculty, and other institutional actors apply their knowledge for the common good, pointing toward what community-engaged signature work could be.

Why Signature Work Matters

Signature work may take the form of a range of high-impact practices that foster achievement and completion, especially for traditionally underserved students—including undergraduate research, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments, internships, capstones, and community-based learning (Brownell and Swaner 2010; Kuh 2008). To be truly effective, these practices must be effortful; help students build substantive relationships; support students in engagement across differences; provide students with rich feedback; help students apply and test what they are learning in new situations; and provide opportunities for students to reflect on the people they are becoming (Kinzie et al. 2008; Kuh 2008). Community-engaged signature work may combine these features, making it an especially robust approach for student learning.

Indeed, empirical research already suggests that capstones, and especially community-engaged capstones, may promote deeper student learning. The integrative, applied, and reflective kinds of learning that signature work represents are positively correlated with improvement in outcomes such as critical thinking, moral reasoning, and an inclination toward lifelong learning (Pascarella and Blaich 2013). In addition, according to studies that draw on NSSE data, students who reported a culminating experience were more engaged in purposeful activities and more likely to report gains in job- or work-related knowledge (Kinzie 2013; NSSE 2009; NSSE 2011). Moreover, capstones involving “a field placement or experience were associated with the greatest number of educational gains (fourteen of fifteen common gains), including working effectively with others, acquiring job- or work-related skills, solving complex, real world problems, applying theory, and synthesizing and organizing ideas” (Kinzie 2013, 28).

Such methods are also useful in teaching students the practical skills they need for employment and post-graduate success. Well-designed and well-implemented signature work can foster independent research or inquiry, critical thinking, communication skills, and integrative learning (Schermer and Gray 2012). Community-based capstones have been found to be associated with greater gains in leadership, tolerance for difference, knowledge of people from different cultures, and understanding of social issues (Rhodes and Agre-Kippenhan 2004). Partnerships with community constituents require faculty and students to be flexible as they work to maintain relationships, and may involve the kinds of “disorienting dilemmas” that Sill, Harward, and Cooper (2009) have found can be important to students’ learning experiences.

Finally, a growing body of evidence suggests that experiences associated with signature work have long-term positive effects in graduates’ lives. Graduates who worked on a semester-long project, had a mentor, and had a chance to apply their learning outside the classroom report being more likely to be engaged in their work and to feel that their college education was worth the investment (Gallup 2014). Employers also indicate that applied learning experiences should be required of all students, and that such opportunities benefit graduates on the job market (Hart Research Associates 2015).

Pathways and Networks

Students have already generated inspiring examples of community-engaged signature work: analyzing and designing a strategy to address urban food deserts; writing a high school curriculum on environmental sustainability; conducting oral histories and producing a community theater project; conducting a county-wide poverty assessment; and creating a STEM mentoring program for underrepresented middle school students, to name a few. The innovative educational pathways that colleges and universities are creating to support signature work can allow community-engaged projects like these to serve as the culminating experience (see fig. 1). By selectively incorporating civic engagement opportunities, even pathways that do not involve civic connections for all students may still prompt individual students to focus their academic studies on achieving real-world impact.

Figure 1. Click here to Enlarge Figure


On a local level, these pathways are made possible through sustained relationships between faculty and community partners, facilitated both through academic departments and through the designated centers for civic engagement that are now prevalent across colleges and universities. Key cross-institutional networks, such as those formed through AAC&U’s VALUE project, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project, the Bonner Foundation’s network, Bringing Theory to Practice, Campus Compact, The Democracy Commitment, Imagining America, and NASPA’s Lead Initiative, have built expanded infrastructure and innovation for community-engaged scholarship.

Across these networks and in the nonprofit sector, engagement is increasingly characterized not by short-term volunteerism, but instead by a rich array of linkages with academic scholarship, sustained over time. Both campuses and consortia are turning their attention toward collaborative and even collective impact models, with a focus on capacity building and impact analysis. This shift in attention enables a deeper focus on systemic solutions to issues like food security or environmental sustainability, prompting the sharing of best practices across organizations and institutions. So, while creating pathways for community-engaged signature work requires significant investment, the foundation for this investment exists—and the potential benefits for students, institutions, and communities are consequential.

An Education for a Lifetime

Community-engaged signature work speaks to two important changes that have occurred in American society in the decades since Boyer’s call to action. For one, the diverse millennials who are a significant number of today’s college students are arriving at college with a greater commitment to civic engagement and activism than students at any time in the past (Eagan et al. 2016, Levine and Dean 2012). They want to change the world. Secondly, the issues that Boyer (and others) articulated have not gone away. We face entrenched challenges, like poverty and increasing economic stratification, that threaten the health and welfare of the nation and globe and have profound implications for higher education (Stone et al. 2015). College students, faculty, and institutions can make vital contributions to these issues.

Ultimately, signature work matters because we need graduates with the capacity and the commitment to address complex problems in their personal and civic lives and in their workplaces. Signature work projects can be the evidence—and far better evidence than degree completion alone—of graduates’ readiness to work across differences to solve problems in thoughtful and ethical ways. By rethinking undergraduate education to include community-engaged signature work, higher education can help prepare the reflective scholars and practitioners who will address today’s most challenging problems and ultimately contribute to our communities and our democracy.


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2016. About LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise). http://www.aacu.org/leap.  

Boyer, Ernest L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

———. 1994. “Creating the New American College.” Chronicle of Higher Education, A48.

Brownell, Jayne E., and Lynn E. Swaner. 2010. Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Eagan, Kevin, Ellen Bara Stolzenberg, Abigail Bates, Melissa Aragon, Maria Ramirez Suchard, and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar. 2016. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles. http://heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2015.pdf.

Gallup, Inc. 2014. Great Jobs Great Lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report. http://www.gallup.com/poll/168848/life-college-matters-life-college.aspx.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. “Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/

Hartley, Matthew, John Saltmarsh, and Patti Clayton. 2010. “Is the Civic Engagement Movement Changing Higher Education?” British Journal of Educational Studies 58 (4): 391–406.

Hoy, Ariane, and Wayne Meisel. 2008. Civic Engagement at the Center: Building Democracy through Integrated Cocurricular and Curricular Experiences. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kinzie, Jillian. 2013. “Taking Stock of Capstones and Integrative Learning.” Peer Review 15 (4): 27–30.

Kinzie, Jillian, Robert Gonyea, Rick Shoup, and George D. Kuh. 2008. “Promoting Persistence and Success of Underrepresented Students: Lessons for Teaching and Learning.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 115: 21–38.

Kuh, George 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.

Levine, Arthur, and Diane R. Dean. 2012. Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement). 2009. Assessment for Improvement: Tracking Student Engagement over Time. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

———. 2011. Fostering Student Engagement Campuswide—Annual Results 2011. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

Pascarella, Ernest T., and Charles Blaich. 2013. “Lessons from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Educaton.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 45 (2): 6–15.

Rhodes, Terrel L., and Susan Agre-Kippenhan. 2004. “A Multiplicity of Learning: Capstones at Portland State University.” Assessment Update 16 (1): 4–5.

Saltmarsh, John, and Matthew Hartley, eds. 2011. “To Serve a Larger Purpose”: Engagement for Democracy and the Transformation of Higher Education. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Schermer, Timothy, and Simon Gray. 2012. “The Senior Capstone: Transformative Experiences in the Liberal Arts.” http://www.teaglefoundation.org/Teagle/media

Sill, David, Brian M. Harward, and Ivy Cooper. 2009. “The Disorienting Dilemma: The Senior Capstone as a Transformative Experience.” Liberal Education 95 (3): 50–55.

Stone, Chad, Danilo Trisi, Arloc Sherman, and Brandon Debot. 2015. “A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality.” Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. http://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/a-guide-to-statistics-on-historical-trends-in-income-inequality.

Taylor, Henry Louis, Jr., and Gavin Luter. 2013. “Anchor Institutions: An Interpretive Review Essay.” New York: Anchor Institutions Task Force.

Votruba, James C., Judith I. Bailey, Bruce W. Bergland, Alexander Gonzalez, Karen S. Haynes, Muriel A. Howard, John H. Keiser, Richard L. Pattenaude, Kerry D. Romesburg, and Betty Lentz Siegel. 2002. Stepping Forward as Stewards of Place: A Guide for Leading Public Engagement at State Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Ariane Hoy is vice president at the Bonner Foundation; Kathy Wolfe is a senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities and professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

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