Five high impact teaching practices

By Michael Wong posted on July 30th, 2015

Dr. L. Dee Fink began day two of the 2015 Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) conference by sharing his five high impact teaching practices. Co-hosted by Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, STLHE 2015 welcomed over 700 attendees to Vancouver in June.

Fink is an internationally recognized consultant on college teaching and faculty development. He is also the author of Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. At STLHE 2015, Fink discussed five high impact teaching practices that have the most potential to transform student learning.

For Fink, the idea of high impact teaching practices came to him from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and its high impact educational practices. Fink was able to use the list of educational practices as motivation to produce his own list of five high impact teaching practices. “I look at those and I think wow, those are really good things for universities to be doing,” explains Fink. “But for the most part, those are curricular or institutional practices. Not teaching practices. Those are not things I can go into my class on Monday morning and incorporate into my teaching…I said wouldn’t it be nice if we had a parallel list for teachers.”

Fink thinks that these teaching practices have the potential to make major, transformative changes to teaching and learning in higher education. Fink’s list of five high impact teaching practices include:

  1. Change students’ view of learning
  2. Learning-centered course design
  3. Team-based learning
  4. Engage students in service—with reflection
  5. Be a leader with your students

Fink has found “two ideas that seem to be big in higher education these days.” One idea is that there is a paradigm shift from teaching to learning. “The new bottom line of our action should be the focus on the quantity and quality of student learning that is generated by our teaching,” says Fink. The second idea is one of continuous improvement. “What we really want…is for our teaching to generate good learning,” notes Fink. “Our goal should be to generate better student learning, three years, five years, ten years from now…Our real goal as educators is to get ourselves on a growth curve in terms of generating high quality student learning.”

“I think together [these two ideas] put us in an interesting position,” says Fink. “If we want to make substantial improvements in student learning, we cannot do that without doing substantial improvements in our teaching.” He stresses that by committing to a growth curve, instructors can improve their teaching and encourage better student learning. One way to improve teaching, Fink said, is to adopt some of the high impact teaching practices that he’s come up with.

Change students’ view of learning

The first high impact teaching practice that Fink introduced was the idea of changing students’ views of learning. Fink finds that students need to change their views about intelligence and the way that they study. He referenced the work of Saundra McGuire at Louisiana State University. “What Saundra believes about incoming students…is they don’t know what the task really is that we expect of them in higher education,” he noted. He said that in high school, students are geared towards memorizing material. However, in higher education, Fink said that instructors expect students to “think critically, solve problems, ask questions, etcetera.” In an effort to combat this discrepancy, Fink feels that instructors need to help students change what they do when they try to learn something new. “They don’t know that this subject matter, this discipline, has a pattern to it,” he said. “Show them the subject matter has a structure to it. If they can understand that structure, they can put the information into it and hang on to it a lot better.”

Fink explained that McGuire has been able to change students’ views about their intelligence and the way they study through the use of a study circle. According to Fink, students “see intelligence as something that is fixed…She disagrees…She thinks it’s fluid.” McGuire shows students what the task really is, and that the subject matter has a structure to it. Fink described that through a one hour study circle, McGuire was able to show students that they could do college level work. As a result, McGuire saw noticeably better student performance. She helped students find ways to improve their ability to learn, and this had a transformative effect. “My belief is she just didn’t help them succeed in her course, she helped them succeed in college,” says Fink. “I think because of that, [she] changed their whole life with a one hour study session about the nature of learning. I thought that was really powerful.”

Fink also referenced the work of Stephen Carroll, from Santa Clara University. Fink described how Carroll poses fundamental life questions and pushes his students to think more deeply about their answers to these questions. “He is helping them see the connection of learning they want in their life,” Fink noted. “That’s the self-directed part.” Fink explained that Carroll has been able to engage students in self-directed learning by encouraging them to think about what they want to get out of the learning process. As a result, the quality of student work has gotten better, and Carroll’s students have performed better academically. “We can get them engaged and on the right track,” said Fink.

Learning-centered course design

“Have you ever had a course in higher education in which you learned something that was so powerful for you that it changed the way you live your life?” Fink asked students this question, in order to help determine significant learning moments. He used this to start building a taxonomy of significant learning. The taxonomy builds upon Bloom’s taxonomy and includes foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimensions, caring, and learning how to learn.

“Some of the students said, ‘I learned something important in that course about myself. I got excited about things…and I think I’d like to learn more about it.’” Fink said he feels that important lessons can be learned that can be applied beyond a course, and instructors should encourage this type of significant learning for their students. According to Fink, learning-centered course design gets “students to understand what learning really is, and how it works.” He stressed that instructors need to teach students how to continuously learn. “Show them how to keep on learning after the course is over…[it is] not only learning, but learning how to keep on learning,” he said.

Fink brought up the idea of integrated course design. With integrated course design, learning goals, feedback and assessment, and teaching and learning activities are all connected. “All of those have to reflect and support each other,” Fink explained. Learning goals are important, in that they are used to inform teaching and learning activities and feedback and assessment. “We have to have significant learning goals,” Fink said. “What do we want students to learn by the end of the course?”

In order to help determine what students need to learn by the end of the course, Fink encourages instructors to think about it from the student’s point of view. “You have to start not with knowledge, but with imagination,” explains Fink. “You have to imagine some exciting things that students might learn.” After identifying what students might learn, instructors can design teaching and learning activities and assessment. “If you get students engaged…it gets you excited,” Fink said. “You start building a powerful course.”

Team-based learning

For his third high impact teaching practice, Fink introduced the concept of team-based learning (TBL). Fink feels that dialogue with others can be an important teaching tool, as students can build a more meaningful understanding of the information if they discuss it with others. “Using small groups is a potentially powerful activity,” he said. “But it’s not always going to go well unless you do certain things in a certain way.” Instructors have to pay attention to the way they design small group activities, so that the experience can be positive.

In an effort to engage students in meaningful small group activities, instructors can use team-based learning. Fink noted that there are three phases with TBL: preparation, practice application (with frequent feedback), and assessment. In the preparation phase, students complete readings on their own. “You have students do the reading for the whole topic, front-loaded,” says Fink. “You give them a test individually…then they take the same test as a group.” When taking the test as a group, students engage in meaningful dialogue with each other, and formulate a consensus on the answers to the test. “Students will increase their understanding of the material,” says Fink. In the practice and assessment phase, students work on problems in small group, in-class activities. “They work on applying that knowledge to the problems,” explains Fink. “That’s where their understanding starts to deepen.”

“Really high levels of engagement and focus…that’s what happens when you use team-based learning well,” Fink said. “I saw a level of student engagement that I had never seen before in my class.” When he implemented TBL with students, Fink was able to see high levels of student engagement. “I saw high quality, excited student learning,” says Fink. “If you do it right, you are going to see amazing things happen in that small group.”

Engage students in service—with reflection

Fink feels that by engaging students in service learning outside the classroom, instructors can deepen students’ understanding about the course, and how it connects to the broader community. “They learn about the world,” notes Fink. “Lives have been redirected by students engaging in some powerful service learning experiences.”

“When students go out and help other individuals or help groups…it changes their self image, it changes their understanding of others, it changes their sense of the world,” says Fink. With service learning, it is important to have students link it back to the course and reflect about their service experience. “Get students to step back from the learning,” says Fink. “We need to have them reflect on their learning experiences over and over again.”

Fink likes the idea of using a learning portfolio to document students’ reflections. He encourages students to reflect about what they learn, how they learn, what the significance is for them, and to think about future plans for learning. “You have to create a learning agenda. What do I want to learn?” says Fink. “Second, you have to create a learning strategy. How will I learn that? If you have those two things, what and how, you have a plan.” He adds, “I think if students start doing that…they will be much more effective as self-directed learners.”

By reflecting on their learning, students start to build their own learning pathway. “They are starting the process of becoming a meta-learner…[taking] responsibility for their own learning,” says Fink. “When they do that, they can change everything inside themselves.”

The reflection process allows students to think about what they have done, and to reflect about their learning experience. “I’m talking about learning about learning,” Fink said. “What are you learning about yourself as a learner?”

Be a leader with your students

The last high impact teaching practice that Fink discussed was the idea of being a leader with your students. “You’re a leader when you can motivate and enable others to do important things well,” stated Fink. He drew on the work of Ken Bain to outline four things that instructors can do to be a leader and create the right kind of relationship with students.

First, instructors must interact in a way that shows that they care. “Show students you really care not only about them individually, but also about the teaching and learning process,” Fink said.

The second thing instructors can do is to interact in a way that motivates students. Fink brought up the legendary college basketball coach, John Wooden, and how he felt he needed to motivate each of his players differently. Fink thinks that the same applies with students. Instructors need to interact differently with different students, in order to motivate them. “Successful coaches are ones that know how to motivate their students,” said Fink.

Fink feels that dynamic communication skills can also help instructors become leaders with their students. Instructors should express belief in their students’ ability to learn, and celebrate achievements. “Use the language of promises, rather than demands,” Fink said. “Work as a leader, and that’s going to effect your interactions with students all the way through the course.”

Finally, instructors need to develop trustworthiness with their students. In order to do so, they should refrain from using the classroom as an arena to demonstrate power. Instead, instructors should build trusting relationships by setting the same policies for all of the students and giving power to students to make decisions about their own learning. “If we can be a leader, motivate and enable our students…and have the right kind of relationship with them, it’s going to make everything better,” Fink said.

Fink feels that his five high impact teaching practices have the potential to transform the teaching and learning experience. By sharing these practices, Fink hopes to encourage instructors to improve their quality of teaching over time. With better teaching quality comes benefits to instructors themselves, their students, their institution, and society as a whole. “If your students learn better, they are going to go out of college and into society…and benefit society for a long time,” Fink said. “Their lives are going to change.”