by Mary-Lee Mulholland, Mount Royal University

A common rhetoric finding its way into the academic and strategic plans at universities across Canada is an emphasis on improving student-learning experiences through “high impact practices”; often referred to as HIPs. Linked to improving student engagement and providing important employment skills, these practices include internships, community service learning, undergraduate research projects, and co-ops. Like any governing discourse, this emerging rhetoric appears to be politically neutral and a sound pedagogical practice but, in fact, it works to govern and define pedagogy in the undergraduate university experience in an intensely neoliberal way. Specifically, HIPs appear to be entangled with other neoliberal strategies at work in the restructuring of universities including university rankings, increased instructional workload outside of the classroom, increased class sizes, and the diminishing value of research and the production of knowledge. This paper will unpack the history and nature of these practices and how they became central in the policy and planning discourses at my own institution; Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Mount Royal University (MRU) is a small undergraduate university (with approximately 10,000 FLEs) that takes pride in its small class size and “face-to-face” student experience. For example, when I began teaching here in 2010 most introductory courses in the Faculty of Arts were rarely over 32 and many third and fourth year courses were capped at 20 or 25. In fact, when Mount Royal became a university in 2009 the faculty fought hard for guarantees from the province that the class sizes would not increase by invoking the popular and official motto “how well, not how much” (Quam Bene Non Quantum). The size of our classes is also protected somewhat by the physical layout of the campus where many of the classrooms cannot have more than 39 students due to fire code regulations. These small class sizes allow for genuinely fulfilling teaching and, according to student satisfaction surveys, learning experiences.   However, with increasing cuts from the province (especially the brutal cuts from the Conservative government in 2013) and budgetary shell games at the administration level (particularly this year), our class sizes are growing while the number of sections we offer is shrinking.[i] The cuts of 2013, which included a 10% reduction of funding, were particularly destructive leading to the cancelation of entire programs, including music and theatre, and countless sections of courses across faculties.

It is in this context that the term “HIPs” began circulating at my institution in various platforms. However, I did not really pay attention to this term specifically until last year when we started the process of program review in anthropology. A colleague on the committee pointed out that we should underline which of our program requirements could be considered as a HIP. No stranger to the world of bureaucratic acronyms, I was surprised that I was not aware of this particular one. I discovered that HIPs, or “high impact practices” in education, were introduced as a priority in our Institutional Strategic Plan (ISP) in January of 2015. This plan sets out the goals for the institution, including a planned growth to over 13,000 FLEs by 2025. In this latest version of the ISP, several strategies set out to achieve the various goals (personalized learning experience, intellectually engaged learning, etc.) mention HIPs as essential. These include strategies “to create high impact experiences in and out of the classroom” and the promise that “every student will participate in at least one high impact or capstone work integrated learning experience during his or her time at Mount Royal” (emphasis mine).[ii] Following the approval of the ISP in January 2015, HIPs appeared again in the proposed Academic Plan spearheaded by our then VP Academic and Provost, Kathy Shailer.

This proposed Academic Plan was presented to faculties in the fall of 2015 and was met with a great deal of resistance and controversy. While there were numerous issues with this document, perhaps the two most significant were that there was no consultation in the creation of the plan and that many of the promises within it potentially violated the Collective Agreement. In particular, it seemed that more and more of our teaching labour would happen outside of the regular classroom.[iii] The issue here is that at Mount Royal our teaching labour is measured by “Scheduled Instructional Course Hours” only, or how many hours we spend in the classroom.[iv] Also, some of the commitments made in the Plan would require program and curriculum changes, which are supposed to, in theory, come from the faculty councils not administration. As a result, there was of great deal of push back from faculty members and the VP delayed the approval process in order to acquire more input through consultations, working groups (how one attained membership in these working groups was unclear), and a blog.   The last version was introduced and circulated to faculty mid-February with the intent to have it approved at the General Faculties Meeting (similar to a Senate) in mid-March (Academic Plan – Penultimate Draft v.2, February 17, 2016).

Throughout the last version of the Plan, there was an underlying tension with the desire to increase enrollment, deal with decreased funding, and continue the commitment to MRU’s small class sizes and face-to-face instruction. This was particularly true in the first two goals (of eight) laid out in the Plan: “University and Student Profile” and “The Student Experience.” Under the former goal, the plan to increase our enrollment over the next ten years to 13,000 FLEs by 2025 was reemphasized and spelled out in further detail. Strikingly, under the second goal of “Student Experience” the Plan ensures “optimal class size or range of optimal class sizes based on class activity (on a program by program basis) and compare face-to-face with alternative delivery models” (pg. 14-15).   Notably, a commitment to “small class sizes” was absent from strategies in the Plan, although they are mentioned in descriptors of the MRU experience. Thus, it appeared that the plan to grow Mount Royal’s student population also meant there would be an increase in class size. This shift from small to optimal was not unnoticed by faculty members.

As our class sizes began to expand under budget cuts and, presumably in this new Academic Plan, our teaching labour was being further committed outside of the classroom, particularly in the form of HIPs. In fact, “High Impact Learning” was listed as the second of six points describing what makes a MRU education valuable (pg. 5) and they were mentioned several times through the goals and strategies of the Plan.  Connecting to goals set out in the ISP, HIPs were mentioned in several strategies under the second goal; “The Student Experience.” These include promises of “high impact experiences in and out of the classroom,”  “at least one high impact or work integrated learning experience” (pg. 16). What struck me looking over the HIPs listed in this document – “work integrated learning, community service learning, labs, practica, clinicals, and capstone courses” – all appeared to be couched in the language of “work experience” (pg. 16). This was not entirely surprising given the fact that the five categories of “expectations and capacities” (or our new learning “aims”) were drawn form AAC&U, Provincial and Federal governing bodies and the Conference Board of Canada’s Employability Skills 2000+.[v] With the resistance to the latest version of the Academic Plan growing, I decided to explore the prevalence of this discourse and discovered that HIPs have begun to creep slowly into various reports, plans and steering committees at other universities.[vi]

With all this discursive production, I became very curious about the origins of HIPs and how they had become so essential to institutional planning at my university and increasingly influential elsewhere. Based on a literature review, the idea of HIPs circulated in various forms in educational research in the 1990s and early 2000s in reference to strategies to encourage engaged and active learning (c.f. Ulrich, Jick and Von Glinow 1993). However, there was a major shift in 2008 with the release of George D. Kuh’s report “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter” published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and one of its leading initiatives, the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).[vii] Kuh, who is active with AAC&U, LEAP and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) identifies and highlights the following HIPs (2008: pg. 9-11):

  • First-Year Seminars and Experiences
  • Common Intellectual Experiences
  • Learning Communities
  • Writing-Intensive Courses
  • Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  • Undergraduate Research
  • Diversity/Global Learning
  • Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone Courses and Projects

Kuh argues these practices are essential because they guarantee face-to-face time with faculty and other students (pg. 14, emphasis mine). To be clear, the goal of high impact practices is to achieve face-to-face time with faculty and students – the most important benefit linked to small class sizes at Mount Royal and, in fact, the central concept in the Mount Royal brand.[viii] Kuh further states that “high-impact activities puts students in circumstances that essentially demand they interact with faculty and peers about substantive matters, typically over extended periods of time” (pg. 14). According to Kuh, there are six reasons why HIPs are so essential to the undergraduate learning experience which I paraphrase here: 1) They require more time and effort; 2) More interaction with faculty and other students; 3) Students are more likely to experience diversity; 4) More feedback; 5) Variety of learning environments on and off campus; and 6) Can be life changing (pgs. 14-17). This report was immensely influential and has been cited over 1200 times since its publication. (c.f. Brownell and Swaner 2010; Hatch 2012; Kelly 2011; Kilgo et al. 2015; Riehle and Weiner 2013)

Of course, I am not objecting to any of these as excellent pedagogical methods. In fact, the focus on first-year seminars, learning communities, global learning, writing, collaboration, and research are all very important to my own teaching philosophy (as are critical thinking, reflexivity, and compassion). I would also argue, that these are the foundation of Mount Royal’s existing learning experience, particularly through the commitment to small class sizes. Moreover, I think many anthropologists engage in HIPs regularly in the delivery of their undergraduate programs including field schools, lab work (especially in archeology and biological anthropology), ethnographic methods assignments and global learning (particularly, on the legacy of various colonialisms). My concern with the rhetoric is the underlying assumption that these “high impact” strategies are not already at work in and outside of the classroom. Or, as many of my colleagues have pointed out there is an assumption that what is currently being practiced in the classroom is somehow “low-impact” practices. When the converse is really true: Most of my colleagues at Mount Royal engage in this type of engaged and interactive pedagogy already. So, instead of focusing our time, energy and resources to the size of the classroom we are creating “new” experiences, many of which seem to serve the private sector, such as internships and co-ops. Specifically, the high impact practices listed in the Academic Plan were not entirely reflective of the conceptualizing in educational literature. If they were, are small class sizes would be more of priority in the ISP and the Academic Plan.

On a more cynical note, I think it is important to note that George D. Kuh, the architect of HIPs, is also associated with the Indiana University School of Education Centre for Postsecondary Research, which is also the home of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).  This survey has become increasing popular and powerful since its launch in 2000 and is currently used at over 1600 universities and colleges in North America, including at least 73 in Canada. Of course, it is NSSE, or Nessie as it is sometimes called, that is used for university rankings, and in the context of Canada, for MacLean’s annual university rankings. One of the main “indicators” of student engagement in this survey are HIPs. Interestingly, Quest University, one of Canada’s few private universities, has been ranked first four times by this survey (Hutchins 2015). Also, there is a growing critique of the methodology of NSSE and of the growing influence it has on university operations and policy, not to mention student decisions (Porter 2011, Lipka 2015, Schmidt 2009). On top of that, there is also a critique of university and college rankings leading to the commercialization of the university experience (Myers and Robe 2009).

After the last draft of the Academic Plan was circulated, there was a general feeling that the Plan had improved a great deal since the fall but there were still too many issues unresolved. As a result, the Plan was eventually defeated by the General Faculties Council (GFC – or the equivalent to a Senate) on March 17th (28 voted for, 30 voted against, and 2 abstained). Some of the explanations made by councilors for their “no” vote were concerns that the Plan called for “optimal class sizes” rather than “small ones” and that “high impact practices” necessarily inferred “low impact practices.” On March 23rd (the Wednesday before the Easter long weekend), the Deans were informed that the university was facing more than a $5 million dollar deficit and we would need to cut from program delivery and positions. At the top of the list for areas to save money was class size. Although I cannot speak for all my colleagues, it was difficult for me not to assume we were being punished with this out-of-the-blue budgetary decision for defeating the Academic Plan. We had to make the decision for those cuts by the Tuesday March 29th after the long weekend. The President of the Mount Royal Faculty Association went to the media on Thursday and, after a long weekend of news coverage and rumours, Kathy Shailer was no longer the VP Provost by the Monday.[ix] That week the President of Mount Royal held a Town Hall meeting and put the cuts on hold. Just last week at a faculty meeting the President indicated that it appears that the university will be able balance the books after all.

Do HIPs lie? The answer really depends on the context. On the one hand, I think many of us strive to make the classroom an engaged, interactive and experiential space.   That is, I am not concerned about the type of pedagogical methods described by George D. Kuh. On the other hand, I am concerned when HIPs are utilized by administration as rhetorical tool to promote the corporatization of the university through the focus on pragmatic “work-ready skills”and to require programs and faculty to administer these practices outside of their regular teaching load.   While, at the same time, increasing class sizes and reducing number of courses offered. In addition, I see this is as part of larger trend at universities where funds are not only being siphoned away from the classroom, but also from research. As more and more faculty work as either contract faculty or in teaching-only streams, the value and support for research is diminishing.   Finally, HIPs are not alone. There is a growing inventory of acronyms used in academic planning at post-secondary institutions that are becoming increasingly influential including: Community Service Learning (CSL), Global Citizenship Education (GCE) and, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL).   While of these have potential to very progressive, there is a growing number of critiques regarding their complicity with the corporatization of universities or their lack of commitment to social justice (Jaarsma 2015, Jorgenson and Shultz 2012, Servage 2009, Kajner et al. 2011, Beck 2009).

References Cited

Beck, Sam. 2009. “Public Anthropology.” Anthropology in Action (16):2.

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

Hatch, Deryl K. 2012. “Unpacking the Black Box of Student Engagement: The Need for Programmatic Investigation of High Impact Practices.” Community College Journal of Research & Practice 36 (11):903-915.

Hazelkorn, Ellen. 2015. Rankings and the reshaping of higher education: The battle for world-class excellence. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hutchins, Aaron. 2015. “National Survey of Student Engagement: A truer measure of quality.” MacLean’s, February 12, 2015. http://www.macleans.ca/education/unirankings/national-survey-of-student-engagement-a-truer-measure-of-quality/.

Jaarsma, Ada S. 2015. “On being taught.” The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6 (2).

Jorgenson, Shelane, and Lynette Shultz. 2012. “Global Citizenship Education (GCE) in Post-Secondary Institutions: What is protected and what is hidden under the umbrella of GCE?” Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education 2 (1).

Kajner, Tania, Donna M. Chovanec, Misty Underwood, and Ayesha Mian. 2011. “Critical Community Service Learning: Combining Critical Classroom Pedagogy with Activist Community Placements.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 13 (Spring):36-48.

Kelly, Rob. 2011. “Implementing High-Impact Learning Practices that Improve Retention.” Recruitment & Retention in Higher Education 25 (12):6-7.

Kilgo, Cindy, Jessica Ezell Sheets, and Ernest Pascarella. 2015. “The link between high-impact practices and student learning: some longitudinal evidence.” Higher Education 69 (4):509-525.

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.

Lipka, Sara. 2010. “Researchers Criticize Reliability of National Survey of Student Engagement.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18, 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/Researchers-Criticize/125438/.

Myers, Luke, and Jonathan Robe. 2009. “College Rankings: History, Criticism and Reform.” Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Porter, Stephen R. 2011. “Do college student surveys have any validity?” The Review of Higher Education 35 (1):45-76.

Riehle, Catherine Fraser, and Sharon A. Weiner. 2013. “High-Impact Educational Practices: An Exploration of the Role of Information Literacy.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 20 (2):127-143. doi: 10.1080/10691316.2013.789658.

Sandeen, Cathy. 2012. “High-Impact Educational Practices: What We Can Learn from the Traditional Undergraduate Setting.” Continuing Higher Education Review 76:81-89.

Servage, Laura. 2009. “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the Neo-Liberalization of Higher Education: Constructing the” Entrepreneurial Learner”.”.” The Canadian Journal of Higher Education 39 (2).

Schmidt, Peter. 2009. “Researcher Harpoons the ‘Nessie’ Survey of Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 7, 2009. http://chronicle.com/article/Researcher-Harpoons-the/49088/.


[i] “MRU announces cuts to fine arts, nursing programs,” CBC News, posted April 16 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/mru-announces-cuts-to-fine-arts-nursing-programs-1.1365802.

“Mount Royal Faculty Association passes non-confidence motion against budget process,” Metro News, March 30 2016. http://www.metronews.ca/news/calgary/2016/03/30/mount-royal-faculty-pass-non-confidence-motion-budget.html.

[ii] “Learning Together, Leading Together: Strategic Plan 2015-2025.” Mount Royal University https://www.mtroyal.ca/AboutMountRoyal/OfficesGovernance/OfficePresident/StrategicPlan2025/index.htm

[iii] At Mount Royal full-time faculty are either on the teaching, service and scholarship stream (TSS) or the teaching and service stream (TS). In addition, at least 50 % of our courses are taught by contract faculty.

[iv] Full-time faculty on the TSS stream teach six courses over the Fall and Winter semesters whereas faculty on the TS stream teach eight. Any other instruction we do, for example honours student supervision or directed readings, do not count toward our “instructional hours.”

[v] The following sources were listed in the Academic Plan: The Essential Learning Outcomes, Association of American Colleges & Universities, The LEAP Vision for Learning Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and Employer’s Views, p. 7. (http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents). Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Ministerial Statement on Quality Assurance of Degree Education in Canada, 2007; also incorporated in the Campus Alberta Quality Council, Handbook: Quality Assessment and Quality Assurance, p. 127 (http://www.caqc.gov.ab.ca/media/5230/handbook_april_2015.pdf). Conference Board of Canada, Employability Skills 2000+ (http://www.conferenceboard.ca/topics/education/learning-tools/employability-skills.aspx).

[vi] In April of 2015, the Student Engagement Committee Working Group on Strategic Enrolment Management at Thompson Rivers University was tasked with examining concerns with student engagement and satisfaction that came from the NSSE (https://www.tru.ca/__shared/assets/taskforcequestions35001.pdf). They invited Dr. Kuh, the architect of HIPs, to come speak to the campus in 2011 (https://www.tru.ca/__shared/assets/2_March24393.pdf). In 2014, Brock University created a steering committee to examine “the institution-wide student engagement indicators (areas of high and low performance) as a result of the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement” (https://brocku.ca/webfm_send/35310). At Wilfred Laurier University, the AVP on Teaching and learning presented the “Report on Integrated and Engaged Learning at Laurier” to the Senate (https://legacy.wlu.ca/documents/54731/Pat_Rogers_-_Presentation_to_Senate_-_April_2013.pdf) which focused on HIPs in 2015. Moreover, HIPs are now circulating in centres for teaching and learning at several universities including Dalhousie University (http://www.dal.ca/dept/clt/services/initiative.html) and University of Saskatchewan (http://www.usask.ca/gmcte/resources/curriculum_practices).

[vii] The basis of this report came from another report published by AAC&U and LEAP, a; “College Learning for the New Global Century (2007). LEAP is an initiative launched by AAC&U.

[viii] “Our Brand,” Mount Royal University. Accessed May 2, 2016. https://www.mtroyal.ca/AboutMountRoyal/MarketingCommunications/OurBrand/

[ix] “Mount Royal University’s provost leaves school amid budget dispute,” by Melissa Ramsay, Global News, March 29th 2016. http://globalnews.ca/news/2605122/mount-royal-universitys-provost-leaves-school-amid-budget-dispute/



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