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IN MY OPINION

Is my austere classroom low-impact? Some reflections on high-impact learning

Suggesting students should replace classroom learning with so-called real-world experiences actually weakens the argument for a university education.

By APRIL MCGRATH | AUG 10 2018

As I scanned the headlines in the University Affairs newsletter recently, I was excited to see an article about how to get students to commit to high-impact learning. However, I was disappointed to discover that the article was more about the student experience than about learning. It appears that high-impact learning is a catchphrase for a plethora of activities, including ones that happen outside of the classroom – and these authors seem eager to move students out of the classroom.

This impression was confirmed when the authors claimed that students prefer something else to the “austere surroundings of a classroom,” where presumably I drone on in a “traditional lecture.” That’s a pity, because I mistakenly thought that I was engaging and challenging my students while guiding them on a path of intellectual curiosity and development.

I was also perplexed that these particular institutional leaders don’t seem to place great value in the activities that occur in the classroom. Universities are largely collections of buildings that house classrooms (and other types of rooms) where people learn, and so to value universities is to value this environment in which people think, discuss, question and learn.

Why does the classroom get short shrift? Because the article isn’t about education (the word doesn’t come up once), and if it isn’t about education it’s difficult to understand how it can be about universities. But let’s return to the classroom, which definitely is part of a university experience education.

Is my classroom austere? In some ways, I suppose it is. It’s a simple room, minimally furnished with chairs, chalkboards and whiteboards, an overhead screen and computer, and sometimes with windows! Simple but sufficient.

I don’t find the space lacking and my concern is that these authors were not actually criticizing the physical space. Rather, they seem to believe that the whole classroom “experience” is austere and that something important is missing, which needs to be fixed with high-impact learning outside the classroom.

I’m sure students do learn while completing an internship or volunteering, but let’s not pretend that these are a substitute for, or are higher impact than, a statistics or literature course. Classroom-based courses and high-impact learning experiences outside the classroom are simply different things (although I would argue that courses are high-impact learning experiences and indeed several of the high-impact practices recommended by educators are classroom-based).

The authors promote a way to quantify student participation in high-impact learning experiences, because apparently if you don’t convert an experience into numbers, it doesn’t exist. So, you get 30 points for becoming a student co-author on a paper and a measly five points for participating in a student organization. Well, that seems fair enough. But the authors also mention participating in post-hurricane relief, yet they haven’t provided the point total for that high-impact learning experience. I understand the difficulty, because the proper point total probably depends on how impactful that experience was. We’d need to know hours spent providing relief, the number of positive human interactions conducted, and so on.

Surely being a co-author on a publication, participating in a student organization or volunteering after a natural disaster are rewarding enough on their own terms. What does awarding points and medals add to a university education? In my opinion, it subtracts. Yes, it’s a way to incentivize participation in these activities, but researchers have investigated the effects of extrinsic motivators on behaviour for years and the story is not straightforward; sometimes rewards backfire. More importantly, if students want to help their communities or gain job experience, they should. But we don’t need to make it a competition and award the winners.

In our quest to demonstrate the value of a university education, we have ventured down some puzzling paths. Suggesting students should replace classroom learning with so-called real-world experiences actually weakens the argument for a university education. If we’re playing this game because government funding is contingent on student participation in high-impact learning experiences, then we need to define the classroom as a space where that happens and convince the government, and the public, that universities are a social good worthy of public funding. They are a space for human growth and discovery. That is high impact.

April McGrath is an associate professor in the department of psychology at Mount Royal University.

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