Liberal Education

One University's Approach to Engaged Learning across the Curriculum

How can faculty, staff, and administrators design a high-quality academic experience for their institution’s undergraduates by adopting an established set of nationally recognized, evidence-based teaching and learning practices that promote engaged learning? How can they ensure that all students, regardless of major, achieve the essential learning outcomes associated with a liberal education, including written communication, critical thinking, and oral communication?

Over the past five years, the University of Hartford sought to answer these questions. As part of an institutional strategic planning process, the university’s provost asked groups of faculty, staff, and administrators to develop recommendations relating to five areas of strategic importance. As members of the group focused on Hartford’s educational mission, we were charged with rethinking undergraduate and graduate education. Our goal was not to propose an entirely new curriculum, but to outline a few changes that might be possible and desirable given the university’s strengths, needs, and institutional context. We opted to focus on working with faculty and staff to ensure that all students would encounter specific educationally effective practices in all four years of the undergraduate curriculum.

In this article, we share lessons learned in the hopes that others might benefit from our experience. While each institution has its own unique goals and context for reform, many share challenges similar to the ones we faced when undertaking curricular change.

Background and process

The University of Hartford is a primarily residential, midsized, private comprehensive university with approximately 4,500 full-time undergraduate students. It is composed of seven schools and colleges, including schools of art, music, and business; a college of arts and sciences; a college of education and health professions; a college of engineering, technology, and architecture; and a two-year college. Like many institutions, the university faces ongoing challenges related to the silo-like nature of these schools and colleges, each of which operates more or less independently. Fragmented curricular design has historically resulted in dramatically different undergraduate experiences across the various colleges. Moreover, the diversity of our undergraduate programs, of which there are more than eighty, has made it difficult to implement curricular changes that reach all students in all programs.

In fall 2013, the university brought renewed focus to these challenges as part of its development of a new strategic plan. Initially, the university’s provost invited “solution teams” to make recommendations related to five areas of strategic importance, including revising the institution’s approach to our core educational mission; cultivating partnerships with employers and community organizations; expanding academic initiatives, especially online programs; making the university a first-choice destination for students and employees; and developing sustainable financial models. University officers distilled these recommendations into a draft strategic plan with five goals, and the provost identified chairs to lead “implementation committees” for each draft goal. Focusing on transforming the undergraduate educational experience, the Goal 1 committee included faculty from all schools and colleges, faculty from the All-University Curriculum (a university-wide interdisciplinary general education program), and staff representing the university’s Student Success Center, Office of Residential Life, and study abroad and international programs. The committee was charged with developing specific actionable recommendations related to the first goal, including recommendations about infrastructure, resources, and metrics for measuring success.

The committee divided into two subgroups, one devoted to the first-year experience and another to the undergraduate academic experience as a whole. Both groups focused on the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) literature on high-impact practices. Over the past decade, higher education researchers and practitioners have developed a robust body of literature about an established set of high-impact practices, including first-year experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, and others.1 These practices are designed to foster engaged learning and provide students with opportunities to apply knowledge in new or real-world contexts, to collaborate with peers and interact with mentors, and to learn beyond the classroom. Our curricular reform efforts were thus distinguished by a focus on instructional practices that are proven to increase learning, rather than on course syllabi.

The subgroup organized an inventory of high-impact practices within every program across the university, providing useful—if preliminary—information about existing strengths and weaknesses. For example, a number of programs had experience with writing-intensive courses, senior capstone courses and projects, internships, learning communities, and collaborative assignments and projects.2 However, these experiences varied in their consistency, quality, and scope. After a series of difficult conversations, the subgroup proposed a framework for incorporating high-impact practices across all four years of the undergraduate experience, with particular emphasis on the first year and the culminating year. In short, we recommended that all students encounter two high-impact practices in the first year, two in the middle years, and two in the final year, and that all students additionally take at least one writing-intensive course in each of their four years of study. With these recommendations, we aimed to ensure that every student would benefit from a challenging, experience-rich curriculum. Yet we also wanted the requirements to be flexible enough to be implemented across a diverse set of programs, while preserving the integrity of those programs and the disciplinary training they provide.

After the board of regents approved the university’s new strategic plan in early May 2014,3 Goal 1 committee members convened to devise criteria for most of the ten high-impact practices. On-campus experts in related areas of work provided guidance as the committee discussed the proposed criteria. The committee’s cochairs then drafted a white paper articulating the details of its plan to ensure access to engaged learning for all University of Hartford undergraduates, regardless of major.4 The Goal 1 leadership team shared this white paper and the committee’s other work with the university community, university officers, and the board of regents via regular meetings, presentations, town hall–style open houses, and reports on the university website before shifting its focus to supporting campus-wide implementation of the goal.

Effective strategies

In our efforts to bring about widespread institutional change, we found several strategies particularly effective.

Focusing on teaching first. Early in the planning process, committee leadership decided to begin the change process by emphasizing teaching inputs rather than outputs. That is, we opted to focus on encouraging faculty to implement engaging pedagogy, with an emphasis on high-impact practices. We sensed that faculty were fatigued with the number of assessment-related initiatives that the university had launched in recent years, and we believed that we could generate more excitement and buy-in by focusing on faculty’s work with students. We also recognized that many of our colleagues were already implementing versions of high-impact practices, and we wanted to build on their expertise. This decision paid off. Faculty from across the university were interested in using the Goal 1 framework to reimagine their program design, improve student engagement, and deepen student learning.

Establishing criteria for high-impact practices. The literature on high-impact practices defines these practices quite broadly.5 We wanted to find a way to safeguard quality despite these broad definitions as faculty began to implement high-impact practices across campus. We found that establishing criteria for certain high-impact practices, as described above, helped us ensure consistent implementation while maintaining a necessary degree of flexibility.6 While some faculty have challenged the details of some criteria, these criteria have helped stakeholders distinguish between, for example, short-term group work in class and sustained collaborative projects and assignments that meet our expectations for a high-impact practice.

Investing in faculty development. We launched implementation activities by hosting George Kuh, a nationally recognized expert on high-impact practices, who helped inspire creative thinking about instituting these practices in both academic and extracurricular settings and made an evidence-based case for their transformative potential. Kuh’s presentation connected our work with national conversations about student engagement, retention, and deep learning in college, thus validating the work of the Goal 1 committee.

Following the kickoff event, we hosted a regular series of workshops where faculty presented their work on high-impact practices. This series of campus-wide workshops, which focused exclusively on pedagogy, represented the university’s first coordinated faculty development initiative on teaching in more than twenty-five years, and faculty indicated that they appreciated the opportunity to learn from colleagues. We also launched an annual request for proposals process to support faculty in their efforts to align their programs with the Goal 1 framework. Faculty teams can earn funds (which have been used for stipends, course releases, professional development, and materials) to create new or modify existing high-impact practices. Preference has gone to projects that are collaborative, closely aligned with the established criteria, and likely to affect the greatest number of students.

Establishing annual campus-wide conversations about teaching. To celebrate our accomplishments and generate excitement about implementation, we organized a full-day curriculum festival in May 2015, at the end of the project’s first year. At this event, a speaker from AAC&U discussed the benefits of high-impact practices in preparing career-ready college graduates, and the college deans led their respective faculty in discussions about their colleges’ program-level implementation plans, as well as other curricular and pedagogical issues. This event has become an annual tradition in which faculty present examples of high-impact practices and other innovative approaches to teaching. The curriculum festival provides a rare opportunity for collegiate deans to engage their faculty in discussions about undergraduate curricula, teaching, and learning.

Unresolved challenges

While we have enjoyed several initial successes, we have also learned key lessons from early setbacks. In the coming years, we hope to advance our efforts in multiple critical areas.

Setting realistic expectations. While the Goal 1 committee initially recommended that each student complete at least four writing-intensive courses and six additional high-impact practices sequenced across the four-year undergraduate program, it quickly became clear that this recommendation was too ambitious. Faculty from several high-credit programs reported that they could not fit ten experiences into their tightly sequenced curricula. We also determined that if faculty could focus their attention on fewer experiences, those experiences would likely be richer for students, produce better outcomes in the short term, and result in baseline expectations that would provide room for future development. Therefore, we modified our recommendations so that every program would implement one writing-intensive course and one additional high-impact practice in the first year, in the middle years, and in the final year, for a total of six experiences. Faculty appreciated this modification, and even those who initially resisted the recommendations became more receptive after feeling that we had heard their concerns.

Communicating and institutionalizing the work. To communicate the specifics of the framework to faculty and students and help maintain momentum, focus, and energy, the university has created two new positions, a dean of undergraduate learning and an executive director of the university’s new Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. Together, these two faculty members manage the ongoing implementation work, network with deans’ offices across campus to offer targeted support, and provide professional development opportunities for faculty. In addition, the dean of undergraduate learning has established a committee of faculty to work on implementation, generate ideas for support, and serve as informed ambassadors to the different colleges.

We now intend to tag all writing-intensive courses and other high-impact practices in the course catalog so these experiences are more visible to advisors and students. These designations will also be reflected on student transcripts, thus informing potential graduate schools and employers of components of our students’ curricula. Following the model established by Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, we are working to develop “major maps” that knit together required courses, high-impact practices, career-readiness opportunities, and cocurricular experiences in each of a student’s four years. These major maps will illustrate for advisors, faculty, and students the high-impact elements embedded throughout the four-year experience.

Assessing impact. In launching the Goal 1 framework, we intentionally focused on pedagogy and course design, giving only secondary concern to assessment of related essential learning outcomes. We intended for this emphasis on pedagogy to rapidly generate faculty buy-in and interest—and that decision certainly paid off. However, we recognize the need to assess the impact of our work, including the connections among high-impact practices and essential learning outcomes such as writing and critical thinking. Using our successful Writing Fellows Program as a model, we have developed a Critical Thinking Fellows program composed of fourteen faculty members who are participating in a yearlong faculty development initiative to improve critical thinking in their courses. With the support of funding for curricular innovation, faculty fellows are creating and implementing detailed assessment plans to evaluate their students on outcomes tied to critical thinking. These faculty assessment plans will serve as pilot projects as we work to identify best practices for assessing the effectiveness of high-impact practices, including writing-intensive courses.

Conclusion

Reflecting on our campus-wide effort to create a more distinctive undergraduate experience, we can point to a number of significant accomplishments. Chief among our successes has been the extent to which we have formalized, supported, and elevated conversations about engaged teaching and learning on campus. By infusing high-impact practices, including writing-intensive courses, across the curriculum in all majors and for all students, we are ensuring that the best University of Hartford experiences are available to everyone, not just the highest-performing students. By spreading these experiences across a student’s four years, we are providing scaffolding to help all students, regardless of their previous educational experiences, excel throughout their undergraduate careers and beyond.

In our efforts, we have built upon the university’s existing strengths in teaching and our shared commitment to student growth. Through a multiyear process, we have engaged over half of the full-time faculty in planning, assessment, and faculty development while communicating continually with the campus community about our efforts. Faculty enthusiasm has grown with each year of the initiative. As we move forward, we will continue to invest in professional development opportunities that help faculty design engaging pedagogy and practical strategies for assessing related outcomes. Our effort to ensure engaged learning by embedding writing-intensive courses and other high-impact practices in the undergraduate curriculum serves to counterbalance the content-oriented emphasis more typical of curricular innovation. This work has the potential to supply the time and incentives necessary for all faculty to develop more effective evidence-based pedagogy.

Notes

1. For more information about high-impact practices, see George D. Kuh and Ken O’Donnell, Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2013).

2. University of Hartford faculty have written about specific high-impact practices elsewhere. See, for example, H. Frederick Sweitzer and Mary A. King, The Successful Internship: Transformation and Empowerment in Experiential Learning (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2004); Robert Duran, Guy Colarulli, Karen Barrett, and Catherine Stevenson, “An Assessment of the Effectiveness of the University of Hartford First-Year Interest Group Model,” Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition 17, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 77–99.

3. “University of Hartford Strategic Plan 2014–19: Celebrating Our Tradition, Engaging Our Future,” University of Hartford, http://www.hartford.edu/aboutuofh/office_pres/committees/strategic-plan/....

4. The committee’s “Strategic Planning Goal 1 White Paper” is available at http://www.hartford.edu/academics/faculty/center-teaching-excellence-innovation/files/pub-resources/sp-g1-white-paper.pdf.

5. See Kuh and O’Donnell, Ensuring Quality.

6. The complete criteria are available at http://www.hartford.edu/academics/faculty/center-teaching-excellence-inn....

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the authors’ names on the subject line.


MARK BLACKWELL is professor of English, JEAN McGIVNEY-BURELLE is professor of mathematics and executive director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, GUY COLARULLI is senior associate provost, JAMES SHATTUCK is dean of undergraduate learning and associate professor of chemistry, and CARYN CHRISTENSEN is associate professor of psychology—all at the University of Hartford.

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