When Destiny Caldwell started at Agnes Scott College near Atlanta in 2016, she planned to study nursing. Then, in the spring of her first year, she traveled to central Europe with a group of classmates as part of the school’s required Global Journeys course, which is designed to develop international awareness and involves a weeklong immersion trip.
Her course and trip focused on the region’s changing politics, but Caldwell found herself thinking a lot about why it was safe to drink the water in only some of the countries she visited.
After the students returned to campus, they reflected on their experiences. “We asked ourselves questions like ‘How do you want to change things?’ and ‘How do you want to change yourself?'” she recalls. Caldwell’s own answers led her in a new direction: She switched her major to public health, hoping to explore some of the economic, social and political dimensions of health in addition to the clinical ones.
Agnes Scott is one of many schools across the country that are increasingly turning to more in-depth, experiential forms of learning and other “high-impact practices” aimed at helping students feel intellectually engaged and connected to their college from the minute they set foot on campus.
These opportunities, worth looking for during a college search, include first-year seminars; learning communities, in which small groups of students take a class or classes together, for example; undergraduate research; service learning, in which part of the course syllabus involves service out in the community; and studying abroad.
All can “pay dividends in a number of ways,” says Alexander McCormick, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University—Bloomingtonand director of the annual National Survey of Student Engagement, which asks students about their participation in activities linked to learning and personal development.
Research suggests participation in high-impact practices is tied to greater engagement, perceived gains in learning and overall satisfaction, as well as a higher likelihood of sticking with a school beyond the first year. And these experiences also are preparation for postgraduate life in a way that traditional classes alone are not.
The 2018 NSSE survey of more than 275,000 college freshmen and seniors at nearly 500 schools in the U.S. showed that 60 percent of seniors had participated in at least two high-impact practices. That’s McCormick’s recommendation: one experience in the first year and at least one more tied to a student’s major, such as a senior capstone project.
Easing the transition. Many schools focus on freshman year, which can be a big adjustment both academically and socially for incoming students. First-year experiencesmight include intensive orientation programs, short bonding trips with a small group of peers, and freshman seminars or other academic experiences intended to accustom new students to more rigorous classes than they had in high school.
At Butler University in Indianapolis, all 1,000-plus incoming freshmen take a two-semester seminar with the same cohort, usually capped at 18 students, to sharpen their speaking, reading and writing skills within the context of a cross-disciplinary topic like “Gettysburg in History and Memory” or “Classical Music and the Self.”
“It’s a way to get students to engage in critical thinking with a group of peers they’re comfortable with,” says Angela Hofstetter, co-director of Butler’s first-year seminar program. “We place them together during the Welcome Week, so from the moment that class begins, students have formed a bond.”
SJ Baker, a junior at Butler majoring in economics and history, says her first-year seminar, “Identity, Community and Social Justice,” helped her learn to interact with students with diverse viewpoints, a skill she says she’s already used in and out of the classroom. “It’s not only about standing up for your opinions, but considering the possibility that you’re wrong, or that your thoughts aren’t complete,” she says.
Learning communities, another common first-year approach, can also help build bonds between students, typically through a common group of classes and sometimes shared housing. At Iowa State University, there are some 90 learning community options primarily for first-year students, organized by academic topic or other affinities.
Emily Gilbertson, a sophomore from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, considering a food science major, was attracted to her freshman Food Science and Human Nutrition community because it “would make a big school smaller.” She took a handful of core classes with about a dozen people from the group, some of whom became close friends; around Thanksgiving last year, the community gathered to cook dinner with their professors.
Not all learning communities operate the same way, and they’re not all limited to first years. At Evergreen State College in Washington state, most of the school’s 3,400-plus undergrads take a single cross-disciplinary “program” each academic quarter. Earth Dynamics, for example, could encompass courses in economics, geology and world history.
Students have the same classmates for the entire program, so “you have this network of friendships that tie you to the experience, which assures you that you can get through difficult moments, stay here and graduate,” says George Bridges, president of the college. Some schools, including Iowa State, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Wisconsin—Madison, include common housing in some of their communities.
At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, all 1,600 freshmen live in one of 10 houses of the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, a first-year residential college system. That’s where students have their first meetings with faculty, who help them understand academic expectations.
The idea is to have easy access to resources that help with the transition to college, says Vanessa Beasley, associate provost and dean of residential faculty, as well as an associate professor of communication studies. Ten faculty “heads of house” live in the residences alongside students. Vanderbilt is expanding the system to upperclassmen.