President Khator Discusses Importance of High-Impact Practices in UH Classrooms

The University of Houston's trek toward Tier One has accelerated during the past few months. In January, UH was designated as a university with very high research activity by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching — the equivalent of Tier One. In March, UH was named one of the best institutions for undergraduate education by The Princeton Review.

Both announcements have energized the campus, but UH President Renu Khator said there is considerably more work to be done, especially in enhancing student success.

Khator addressed this topic during her presentation "Student Success and Classroom Experiences," which was delivered to UH's Faculty Senate.

One key improvement to be made is improving the university's six-year graduation rate for first-time-in college (FTIC) students. UH's graduation rate is 45.7 percent compared to the national average of 54 percent.
"Our graduation rate is not where it needs to be," she said. "When I meet successful alumni, I always tell them how proud I am of them. But for every successful alumnus, there's another student who is left behind."
One way of improving UH's graduation rate is by providing students with high-impact classroom experiences, she said. Citing research from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), Khator noted that such experiences can also improve engagement, intellectual gains, grades and retention.

Such benefits, she added, are directly tied to specific practices that take place in classrooms. These high-impact practices include:

  • common intellectual experiences (common courses and curricular themes)
  • learning communities (students take two or more linked classes)
  • collaborative assignments and projects
  • undergraduate research
  • capstone courses and projects
  • service and community-based learning
  • internships

Khator then explained how UH students' exposure to high-impact practices compares to two groups: urban universities (105 universities in large cities) and public non-residential universities (12 institutions with enrollment of 20,000 or more and a Carnegie designation of high and very high research activity). UH's Office of Institutional Research (IR) worked with NSSE staff to develop a special analysis comparing UH native students to native students in the selected comparison institutions.

IR's research concluded that UH trailed its national peers in delivering high-impact practices such as learning communities. Only 13 percent of UH’s first-year students are engaged in learning communities compared to 22 percent at public non-residential institutions and 18 percent of urban institutions. Another high-impact practice that is lacking at UH is community-based learning (primarily for seniors). At UH, 37 percent of students engaged in community-based learning compared to 47 percent at public non-residential institutions and 49 percent at urban universities.

The one high-impact practice in which UH leads is internships. At UH, 32 percent of students participate in internships or field study compared to 24 percent public non-residential schools and 26 percent at urban universities.

Khator then presented data compiled from NSSE student surveys focused on specific learning indexes. These indexes include:

  • active and collaborative learning (examples: participating in class, delivering presentations, collaborating with students in and outside of class)
  • level of academic challenge (examples: hours spent preparing for class, number of books assigned, number of papers written)
  • student-faculty interaction (examples: discussions with instructors, working with faculty on activities other than coursework, receiving feedback from faculty)
  • enriching educational experience (examples: hours spent working on co-curricular activities, community service or volunteer work, foreign language or study abroad programs)
  • supportive campus environment (examples: support for academic success, quality of student relationships, quality of student-faculty relationships, support for non-academic responsibilities)

Khator noted that some of these indexes reflected large discrepancies between the experiences of UH’s first-year students and seniors. At UH, 37.5 percent of first-year students were engaged in active and collaborative learning compared to nearly 50 percent of seniors. Also, 27 percent of first-time UH students reported educational enriching experiences compared to 41 percent of seniors.

"When we look at these indexes, we have to think about retention," Khator said. "There are some large differences between the experiences of seniors and freshmen. It's important that we make sure freshmen have the same positive experiences, so they are more likely to stay in school and graduate."

Khator concluded her presentation by presenting charts reflecting how high-impact practices can positively affect retention and grade point averages for first-year students.

As a call to action, she said the university must enhance its high-impact practices in the classroom, particularly at the freshman level. She also reminded faculty members that high-impact practices are particularly effective at a diverse institution, as they benefit students from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

"We must engage students in these practices early," she said. "We don’t want to lose momentum. I compliment our faculty because I recognize its commitment to student success. These practices are just a piece of the puzzle and can help us improve our classrooms and continue to grow as an institution."

Mike Emery