Academic Minute Podcast

Kris Wobbe, Worcester Polytechnic Institute – Maximizing Learning through High-Impact Practices

Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Benefits of Project-Based Learning Week: Developing high-impact practices for students can be beneficial for institutions.

Kris Wobbe, associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, explains why.

Kris Wobbe is the Director of WPI’s Center for Project-Based Learning. Most recently she directed the Great Problems Seminar program, WPI’s first-year project’s program. Her teaching awards include the Moruzzi Prize for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, and she a co-recipient of the 2016 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education awarded by the National Academy of Engineering. She received her BA in chemistry from St. Olaf College and her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University. She is the co-editor of Project-Based Learning in the First Year: Beyond all Expectations (Stylus, 2019).

Maximizing Learning through High-Impact Practices

Colleges and universities have become masterful at marketing a signature program—first year seminars to bridge to success, service learning to connect with community, capstone projects to jumpstart professional portfolios. Little research has examined whether a one-touch experience is sufficient to reap the benefits of these highly visible educational practices. Called high-impact practices (HIPs) because of the evidence supporting their effectiveness, some research suggests that students might need to experience more than one to maximize learning and long-term outcomes.

A recent study I conducted with colleagues confirms that stacking high-impact practices over time provides unique benefits to students. Using data from 2,236 alumni of a small STEM university in New England, the study examined the unique contribution of five HIPs—projects in courses, a first-year seminar, a global experience couple with community-based learning, and a capstone project in the major field of study—on a range of outcomes.

In terms of skills development, each HIP contributed significantly and positively to gains in teamwork skills, communications skills, information use, and cross-cultural awareness. Project-based learning, community-based learning, and capstone projects also significantly and positively influenced gains in content mastery. Long-term, each HIP uniquely contributed to both career preparation and to personal growth, in areas such as developing a stronger character and achieving work/life balance. All of these effects were found after controlling for aspects of alumni identity, such as marginalized race and gender, as well as an indicator of response bias.

These high impact practices work, but only if they are done well. Critical to this study’s conclusions is that the analyses rely on measures of quality, not only participation indicators. This suggests that the quality of implementation likely plays a noteworthy role in obtaining the promise of high-impact practices. Having one high-impact practice is advantageous; having more is better, as long as care is taken with how they are supported.

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