High-Impact Practices for Achieving Greater Student Learning Outcomes and Retention

University communities across the country continually are striving to find ways to best maximize student engagement.  At the center of this issue is a question about which pedagogical practices are most effective at achieving student learning outcomes and maximizing retention.

The Association of American Colleges and University (AAC&U) has identified ten practices that have shown to have significant positive effect on students’ learning outcomes.  Each one of the ten practices identified by AAC&U is similar in that it requires students to spend an extended amount of time and attention to their assigned tasks or projects, to have sustained interaction with their peers and with their instructors, and to reflect or analyze the educational experience and make connections to their personal lives.  The ten practices that AAC&U has identified as high-impact practices are as follows:

  1. First-Year Seminars and Experiences
  2. Common Intellectual Experiences
  3. Learning Communities
  4. Writing-Intensive Courses
  5. Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  6. Undergraduate Research
  7. Diversity/Global Learning
  8. Services Learning, Community-Based Learning
  9. Internships
  10. Capstone Courses and Projects

Research conducted by AAC&U has shown that there are multiple benefits to implementing high-impact practices.  Having a project or multiple tasks sustained over a period of time gives students more opportunities to receive feedback, both formal and informal.  Another benefit is that students have an increased likelihood of experiencing diversity.  Goal 4 of UTC’s Strategic Plan for 2015-2020 is to “embrace diversity and inclusion as a path to excellence and societal change.”  High-impact practices support the university’s goal and priorities by encouraging students to engage with others who may be different from themselves in their classes and in the community.  Furthermore, students engaging with others who are different from themselves helps students to understand their positionality in the world and solidify their personal beliefs.

Potentially, one of the most important effects of utilizing high-impact practices is the potential equity gains.  When comparing student ACT scores against first year GPA, all students show improved GPAs when they have the opportunity to engage in high-impact practices.  However, those who enter college with lower ACT scores have shown greater GPA increases than their peers who enter college with higher scores.  In other words, high-impact practices help all students achieve at a higher level, but these particular pedagogical practices have been shown to help those who need it the most.

The Walker Center for Teaching and Learning, in supporting the needs of the faculty and encouraging innovative pedagogical practices, has developed the High-Impact Practices Development Grant program.  The grant provides funds for faculty to create or further develop high-impact practices in their courses.  Details about the grant program, a list of past recipients, as well as an application form can be found on the Walker Center’s High-Impact Practices Development Grant webpage.  For more information about high-impact practices or how to implement high-impact practices in your courses, contact the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning at wctl@utc.edu or 423-425-4188.

Connecting with the Disconnected Student

In the modern age of smart phones, smart devices, smart appliances, and smart cars, we are more connected to technology, news, people, and information than ever before. Students obtain information and interact differently today than in the past as learning environments and technology have evolved. Institutions and faculty are evolving in their teaching and learning methods whether learning takes place in a brick and mortar classroom or an online course, and technology plays a huge role in this evolution.

The way teachers and students connect in face-to-face classrooms shifts from reading nonverbal bodily expressions to completely relying on written dialogues.1 Developing a visual connection with your students can have a positive influence on learning outcomes. Whether you teach in a classroom, completely online, or in a hybrid environment, you can utilize modern technology to connect with your students. Learner interaction – with the course material, with the instructor, and with other learners – is also an essential Quality Matters standard.

Zoom Video Conferencing is a cloud based solution for hosting online meetings with the feel of a face-to-face encounter. Designed as an easy-to-use platform, anyone with a computer or smart device running any current operating system can connect to a Zoom meeting. Zoom is easy to use, compliant with accessibility standards, and works from anywhere with an internet connection.

As an instructor, you can use Zoom to host one-on-one meetings, host class meetings with the option of breakout rooms for group discussions, and host virtual office hours. By configuring a recurring meeting in your Zoom configuration, you can schedule your office hours and make yourself readily available to a greater number of your students. Once in a Zoom meeting, you and your students can have a high definition face-to-face conversation, collaborate on documents, draw on a white board, use simultaneous screen sharing, and more. Using Zoom’s ability to record meetings, you can also save sessions for later or share them with others.

Free access to Zoom is available for all University of Tennessee faculty and staff. All new accounts will default to a Zoom Basic account. A Zoom Basic account allows users to host unlimited meetings of 40 minutes in duration with up to 50 participants. If you need to host meetings longer than 40 minutes, you may request a Zoom Pro account through the UTK Office of Information Technology.2 For more information, contact the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning at 425-4188 or wctl@utc.edu.


1 Being a Supportive Presence in Online Courses: Knowing and Connecting with Students Through Writing. Diekelmann, Nancy, PhD, RN, FAAN; Mendias, Elnora P, PhD, RN, FNP, BC. Journal of Nursing Education; Thorofare44.8 (Aug 2005): 344-6.

2 https://oit.utk.edu/instructional/tools/liveonline/Pages/zoom-getting-started.aspx

Best Grading Practices: A Student’s Perspective

One of the biggest areas of concern for students is their grades. Many students incur a significant amount of stress agonizing over their scores on exams or assignments. Although students must work hard to obtain good grades, there are a few things you can do as an instructor to alleviate a bit of the stress.

Providing clear instructions for assignments and providing accurate, specific, and timely feedback are critical components of an effective grading strategy. It is helpful to provide students with your specific grading policies and procedures in the syllabus at the start of the semester. This information could include the frequency of feedback students should expect to receive, as well as when and how they will receive it. This helps give students a sense of control, as they know when to expect certain assignments to be graded. Providing students with this information also helps you hold yourself accountable for grading in a timely manner.

Another area of grading that can cause stress for students is if some students receive feedback on an assignment before others. A good grading practice would be to release all student grades on an assignment simultaneously, instead of one at a time as they are graded. This way, no student receives feedback before another student. This practice can contribute to feelings of equity and fairness among students.

To utilize this grading practice in Blackboard, go to Full Grade Center. Then, access the column for the assignment and select the dropdown arrow. You can then either select “Hide from Students (on/off)” or “Edit Column Information”. If you choose the “Edit Column Information” option, you will need to select “No” when presented with the option to “Show this Column to Students”. A circle with a diagonal red line should appear next to the column name in the full grade center, indicating that this column is hidden from students.

It is important to remember to take these steps prior to grading students’ assignments. Once assignments for all students have been graded, you will need to go back into the Full Grade Center and make these columns available so that students are able to view their grades.

These are just a few of the many grading practices you can utilize to help alleviate the stress surrounding student grades. They may not work for every instructor, so it is important to determine what strategies work best for your teaching style and course structure.

Faculty embrace experiential learning and critical reflection in a general education science course

Brad Reynolds and Tom Wilson received a Beyond the Classroom ThinkAchieve grant to fund an experiential learning activity in a general education non-laboratory science course.  During fall 2012, students in Bio/ESC 1100 (Conservation of Biodiversity) were given the option to participate in a hands-on field experience and reflection activity in lieu of taking the final exam in the course.  Instead of just listening to a professor talk about conservation, these student volunteers actually practiced conservation and contributed to a real-life conservation-based research project.  The conservation project, still ongoing, seeks to monitor the impact of upland deforestation on local amphibian populations.

Professor Reynolds and a student recording data The instructors, Brad Reynolds and Tom Wilson, took the student volunteers to a local wetland where the students helped sample and process frogs and salamanders.  Once in the field, students checked pitfall traps for animals and learned how to properly identify, sex, and measure the frogs and salamanders they discovered.  They were likewise taught how to properly record scientific data, before releasing the animals into the wild.

Critical thinking was fostered in the student volunteers through active, experiential learning and critical reflection.  Students were expected to keep reflective journals before, during, and after the experience as a means of documenting the transformation that had taken place within them.  These journals also served as a vehicle through which critical thinking and the challenging of preconceived assumptions was encouraged.  According to Brad Reynolds, “We challenged the students to actively combat the biodiversity crisis by participating in a real-world conservation-based amphibian monitoring project. The end result was that the students developed a greater respect for reptiles and amphibians, and at the same time, had their overall conservation ethics impacted in a positive way through experiential learning and reflection.”


Brad Reynolds is a faculty member in the Biological and Environmental Sciences.  In addition to the Conservation of Biodiversity course, he teaches Introduction to Environmental Science I and II.

Thomas Wilson is also a faculty member in the Biological and Environmental Sciences. He teaches Herpetology, Ecology and Amphibian Conservation.



The Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

The Seven Principles

By: Dawn M. Ford

It was in 1987 when Chickering and Gamson wrote about the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  Years later, those principles still hold up, so it’s good to review them every now and again to keep us fresh.

seven principles

Principle one is that contact between students and faculty should be encouraged.  It’s important that students know that faculty care about them.  How can that be encouraged?  We can provide multiple ways in which students can reach us – email, phone, office hours – and of course, we should be responsive.  We can arrive to class early and stay late to encourage interaction with our students.  Principle two is that reciprocity and cooperation among students should be cultivated.  Deep and meaningful learning happens when students work as teams.  Otherwise, what’s the point of all of them being in the same room at the same time?  See my blog about team-based learning to learn more about using the team approach for student learning.  Principle three – encourage active learning.  I always remember the saying that learning is not a spectator sport.  From day one, engage students in course content through writing, discussion, application, etc.  They learn more by doing.  Principle four is to give prompt feedback.  I’m reminded of faculty who talk about students who do poorly on an end-of-semester research paper.  When I ask them what writing assignments came before the research paper, usually there were none.  We need to give students the opportunity to practice skills that we want them to develop and give them prompt feedback so they can improve over the course the semester.  Okay, principle five is time on task, which is related to principle four.  Time management for students can be challenging, and we can help them by giving and adhering to deadlines and modeling good time management skills ourselves.  Principle six is to communicate high expectations.   Expect more, and we will get it, expect less, and we will get that too!  Set expectations on the first day of class, it’s a good way to create a community of learning.  Principle seven…respect diverse talents and ways of learning.  I think we realize that students are different.  We can teach two sections of the same course back-to-back and the class sessions will go completely different.  We need to be flexible and adjust our teaching to accommodate students so that we accomplish what we set out to do.

Additional Resources

UF Center for Instructional Technology and Training.  (2012).  Chickering and Gamson 4 rules for undergraduate education.  Retrieved from http://citt.ufl.edu/tools/chickering-and-gamson-7-rules-for-undergraduate-education/.

UNC Charlotte Center for Teaching and Learning.  (2013).  Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  Retrieved from http://teaching.uncc.edu/articles-books/best-practice-articles/instructional-methods/7-principles.



Create a Community of Learning on the First Day of Class

It’s almost that time again – the first day of class.   I have sometimes struggled with what to do the first day; do I dive right in or just cover the syllabus and let the students go?  The literature tells us that the first day of class is important, if not critical, to the success of a course and the students.  The first day sets the tone because students form their opinion about the instructor and the course in the first few minutes. So what are the best practices for the first day?

first day of class

To create a community of learning from the start, make the students feel welcome, set clear expectations for the students, discuss the goals and student learning outcomes of the course, and engage the students in content.  Okay, let’s talk about tips for each of these.  To welcome students, get to the classroom early and greet students as they arrive. Start class on time (this conveys that punctuality and class time are important) and introduce yourself.  Next, talk to the students about your expectations and details about the course.  Students need to understand the goals of the course, what they will learn,  how they will learn it, and how they will be assessed. They also need to know about your attendance policy, late work policy, and behavior expectations (cell phones off?).  Sometime during that first class meeting, engage the students in an activity or two. Engaging students right away delivers the message that they will be involved in the course, not just spectators.

What are your first day of class best practices?  Feel free to share them!


Additional Resources

University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  (2013).  The first day of class.  Retrieved from http://www.unl.edu/gtahandbook/first-day-class.

Weimer, M.  (2013).  First day of class activities that create a climate for learning.  Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/first-day-of-class-activities-that-create-a-climate-for-learning/.