Higher Learning Commission

Breaking Barriers to Participation in High-Impact Practices

Adrienne M. Forgette

High-impact educational practices can become ubiquitous when consideration is given to intentional implementation through required components of the curriculum (e.g., general education) and when those experiences are supported with institutional resources. That occurred at Northwestern College, a small (approximately 1,100 students) faith-based institution in Orange City, Iowa, through revision of its general education program and the establishment of a home for these practices in a “Center for 21st Century Learning.” As a result, the college saw dramatically improved participation in these experiences, which has made learning more meaningful for students and connected the curricular and cocurricular for students and faculty.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities has identified ten high-impact education practices. These include 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 and capstone courses and projects. Many of these practices are related to student self-reports of deep learning and general gains. Specifically, learning communities, service learning, study abroad, student-faculty research, internships and senior capstone projects are significantly correlated with student learning. There are also noteworthy correlations between the same high-impact practices and clusters of educational practices known to be effective as measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), specifically, the level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interactions and a supportive campus environment (Kuh and O’Donnell 2013). We know, however, that not all students participate in these learning experiences (Kuh 2008).  

One barrier to wider participation is that in many institutions, these opportunities are cocurricular activities or special, optional curricular activities (Bass 2012). This is unfortunate, because participation in high-impact practices is particularly important for those students who are least likely to access them when they are optional—those who “start further behind” (Brownell and Swaner 2010). This suggests at least two possible responses—moving more of these practices to the formal curriculum and better integrating curricular and cocurricular experiences (Bass 2012).   

Northwestern College opted for both strategies, with particular emphasis on the first. The college accomplished this through two means, one curricular and one organizational. Curricular efforts focused on the development of a new general education program that was intentionally integrative and which directly incorporated best practices spread across the typical four-year course of a bachelor’s degree. Organizational restructuring then provided a “home” for the expertise and resources that support the curriculum and which connect curricular and cocurricular initiatives.

Integrative General Education

Northwestern’s Integrative General Education (IGE) program begins with a first year seminar and ends with a senior seminar. These two courses, along with two foundational courses on the Christian tradition, form the integrative learning core. Ten additional courses from a set of “Integrative Learning Categories” make up the rest of the IGE curriculum. The first year seminar is intentionally connected to a more holistic experience designed for new students and implemented by the student life staff. IGE is also the home for most of Northwestern’s writing-across-the-curriculum and speaking-across-the-curriculum programs (WAC and SAC). Students have at least 12—and in some cases, more—high-impact learning experiences through IGE, depending on the particular courses they take in the Integrative Learning Categories (see Table 1 below). They also have at least one additional writing-intensive course that is part of their major course of study. Finally, the majority of students have a required internship, service-learning experience, collaborative project, or off-campus/study abroad experience through their senior seminar or by virtue of program requirements.    

The first year seminar is notable for its use of high-impact practices. The course has become the college’s teaching and learning laboratory. It is collaboratively designed by the 15 to 20 faculty members who teach it each fall semester. It uses common readings and assignments agreed on by the faculty. Faculty members then meet weekly throughout the fall in a group they call “FYSA,” or “First Year Seminar Anonymous.” During their meetings, they design assignments and rubrics, share ideas and resources that have worked for them and evaluate student learning. At the end of the semester, they review assessments of student learning and discuss possible adjustments to the course for implementation the following fall. Through FYS and FYSA, faculty members have gained knowledge and experience in high-impact educational practices that they have gone on to implement in other courses. They have become adept at “closing the loop” in assessment. In addition, there is a high level of shared purpose, comradery and support among the group teaching the course. In spite of the high commitment required, there are more faculty members interested in teaching the course than are needed.  

Table 1. Northwestern College Integrative General Education Program and High-Impact Educational Experiences

Integrative Learning Core

FYS: Speaking and Writing in Community

First Year Seminar
Writing Intensive (also Speaking Intensive)
Common Intellectual Experience
Service Learning
Connected to first year holistic experience

Christian Story I: The Biblical Tradition Common Intellectual Experience
Christian Story II: The Theological Tradition Common Intellectual Experience
Senior Seminar

Capstone Course
Some Common Intellectual Experiences
Writing Intensive (also Speaking Intensive)
May also involve Service Learning
Internships (some departments)
Undergraduate Research (some departments)
Collaborative Projects (some departments)

Integrative Learning Categories

Aesthetic Experience Speaking Intensive
Belief and Reason  
Cross-Cultural Engagement

Diversity/Global Learning
Students may apply approved courses or
Summer Study Abroad Experiences or
Semester Study Abroad experiences

Historical Perspectives Writing Intensive
Language and Culture Diversity/Global Learning
Literary Contexts Writing Intensive
Physical Wellness  
Quantitative Reasoning  
Science and the Natural World Undergraduate Research in many courses
Self and Society Diversity/Global Learning in many courses

The Center for 21st Century Learning

In addition to an innovative general education program that makes heavy use of high-impact educational practices, Northwestern College supports effective learning through the Center for 21st Century Learning (C21L). The C21L is an organizational unit that pulls together the offices most directly involved in supporting and providing resources for faculty members who utilize high-impact learning practices in their courses, whether they are general educational courses or not. The C21L is housed in the same building where most of the student life division is housed to facilitate interaction and cooperation among the directors of the C21L staff members, faculty members and student life staff members. The C21L is made up of the following offices:

The Global Education Center (GEC)

The GEC is responsible for short-term summer study abroad programs, semester study abroad programs (international) and study away programs (domestic). It is also the administrative home of the Cross-Cultural Engagement IGE requirement, as no single academic department “owns” that learning category. Northwestern College has two award-winning semester programs—one in Romania focused on experiential learning and the development of social capital and one in Oman focused on Muslim-Christian relations. It also operates the Denver Urban Semester and is a partner institution of the Chicago Semester. All programs provide students with multiple opportunities for experiential learning, service-learning and internships. All students may apply their full institutional financial aid to these programs, ensuring that they are available to all students.  

The Franken Leadership Center (FLC)

The FLC is the home of experiential, service-learning and adventure education as well as leadership training opportunities. A key program is the Carlson Internship Program, which offers students high-impact internships with business leaders where they are mentored by senior executives, given challenging work assignments and expected to contribute to the sponsoring organization. At the end of the experience, they write a reflective paper. The director of the FLC sets up the internships, all of which are paid, and arranges housing for the students, who are responsible for their own transportation and other living expenses. Students pay for two credits at the summer school rate. This cost is sometimes underwritten by the businesses hosting interns. In any event, it is a relatively low-cost, high-impact experience for participating students. The FLC also manages service-learning opportunities for the FYS and for other courses in which faculty members incorporate this high-impact practice.

Honors Program

Northwestern College’s Honors Program has a strong focus on undergraduate research. Every honors student proposes and completes a substantial scholarship project under the direction of a faculty member. While the Honors Program is a limited program, the focus on undergraduate research transcends its boundaries. In addition, the Honors Program offers its participants access to other service learning and global learning opportunities.

Integrative General Education

IGE is housed with the other programs that support high-impact learning. The opportunities for collaboration and cross-fertilization have been rich and productive.


Building high-impact experiences into the general education program and supporting them through an appropriate organizational structure has made high-impact experiences available to all Northwestern College students at low cost. In fact, every student, regardless of demographics or circumstances, has multiple high-impact experiences each year, for a total of 12 or more.  


Bass, R. 2012. Disrupting ourselves: The problem of learning in higher education. EDUCAUSE Review 47 (2).

Brownell, J. E., and L. E. Swaner. 2010. Five high-impact practices: Research on learning outcomes, completion, and quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Kuh, G. D., and K. O’Donnell. 2013. Ensuring quality & taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.



About the Author

Adrienne M. Forgette is Dean of the Faculty at Northwestern College in Chicago, Illinois.

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