Curriculum / High Impact Practices

A fundamental issue facing curriculum establishment at a liberal arts college may be that such institutions may also be weighed down by an overriding perception: determining whether the goal of an education is to “provide a job or career” for the individual or to form an individual with a perspective and attitude toward life and his or her place in that life. Such differences in the objective goals of an education imply a difference in the establishment of a curriculum formed to meet these goals. On the one hand, a curriculum that seeks to fulfill post-graduation demands for employment might by necessity focus on practicality and usefulness – perhaps narrowly defined. On the other hand, a curriculum which emphasizes the development of an individual or the development of a life-perspective or worldview of an individual might focus on broader, more interdisciplinary and aesthetic topics. Is such a dichotomous perspective, however, truly descriptive of a liberal arts institution? Research on the formation of curriculum at liberal arts colleges and universities yielded neither consensus nor consistency.

Some colleges and universities which self-identify as liberal arts institutions have maintained a structure of required courses and a system of academic assessment surrounding a “core” curriculum. Other institutions, among them the oldest in the United States, appear to have opted for an “open” styled curriculum, which embraces the definition of “liberal,” from the Latin, libera, as “free,” without limits or constraints. Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, for example, describes its curricular focus in this way:

“Instead of academic minors, we have concentrations, which are groupings of courses around certain topics that pull from many departments and disciplines … Still other opportunities exist for students to pursue emerging fields, take special classes, develop their own majors, and take part in experiential education or off-campus study.” (

Yale University describes its curricular focus as a commitment “that aims to cultivate a broadly informed, highly disciplined intellect without specifying in advance how that intellect will be used. … The College does not seek primarily to train students in the particulars of a given career … Instead, its main goal is to instill knowledge and skills that students can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose. … Acquiring facts is important, but learning how to think critically and creatively in a variety of ways takes precedence.” ( The College of the Holy Cross similarly embraces the nature of a liberal arts education as one that is both “personal and academic.” As Holy Cross describes their educational perspective as providing a “liberating education that’s about much more than getting a job.” ( Even Cornell University, which self-describes as a research university, has begun a process of curriculum review to define more clearly how a liberal arts education ensures “that…students develop the critical thinking, close reading, and clear writing and speaking capabilities that are the hallmarks of a strong liberal arts education.” (

This small sampling of perspectives on curricula from established liberal arts institutions lacks words such as competitive or competition. There is no mention of technology, its ubiquity, its usefulness, or the need to be conversant with it. There is no apologia for the practicality of a liberal arts education, nor is there a comparison between liberal arts and other educational dimensions. Rather, these samplings offer more a perspective and vision on the formative nature of education and offer a reasoned argument as to why the liberal arts is best suited to provide for that formation.

Information on how a Catholic liberal arts institution uniquely shapes its curriculum was also varied, with some institutions embracing a strong didactic perspective on virtue and morality, and other institutions providing nuanced description on the value of a Catholic education in conversation with other educational pursuits. For example, Franciscan University describes its academic emphasis as follows:

“We know that God wants you to grow in wisdom and understanding, discovering more about who he is, who you are, and how you’re called to live. We also know that God has called you to serve him in this world in some particular way—as a scientist, economist, teacher, or social worker—and you need to acquire the skills necessary for answering that call. (

From an alternative perspective, Fordham University places an emphasis on its tradition as a Jesuit institution of higher education:

“The real strength of a Fordham education comes from a much deeper place—the five-century-old tradition of Jesuit education that infuses every part of the Fordham experience. It’s a tradition that encourages curiosity, introspection and, most importantly, action—to reach out, to settle injustice, to leave a healing mark…This isn’t about reading books and memorizing facts: Your education is dynamic, challenging you to understand contexts as much as concepts.” (

Defining what makes a “Catholic” liberal arts curriculum “Catholic” may be necessary for structuring a curriculum in a liberal arts education that distinguishes itself as Catholic. Deciding the components of such a curriculum may suggest a deeper inquiry into other areas of critique and affirmation of the Catholic tradition in higher education. To this end, Providence College has outlined its current vision of a Catholic liberal arts education in its Mission Statement: “Providence College is confident in the appeal of reason, believes that human beings are disposed to know the truth, and trusts in the power of grace to enlighten minds, open hearts, and transform lives. Providence College maintains that the pursuit of truth has intrinsic value, that faith and reason are compatible and complementary means to its discovery, and that the search for truth is the basis for dialogue with others and critical engagement with the world.” (

The High Impact Practices

Once liberal arts institutions establish their specific curricular goals, how can they ensure that these aims are realized for all students? Kuh (2008) identified ten “High Impact Practices” (HIPs), a set of experiences which have been empirically and reliably shown to be effective higher educational practices. The HIPs are: first year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments/projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service and community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses/projects. Participating in HIPs has been shown to result in increased student engagement and learning, as well as higher student retention and graduation rates. For example, in a large study of the effect of the HIPs on seven specific liberal learning outcomes, Kilgo, Sheets, and Pascarella (2015) found that while most HIPs had some positive impact, collaborative learning and undergraduate research stood out as showing broad gains in domains like critical thinking, need for cognition, and intercultural effectiveness.

The HIPs are thought to be so effective because they increase student engagement, which in turn, helps students persist in college. Specifically, the following factors have been shown as important in student persistence: feeling like one belongs at the institution and that there are similar people at the institution; feeling like the institution provides adequate academic and social supports; devoting time to educationally purposeful experiences; acquiring more than 15 credit hours in the first year; and finding personal meaning or application in what one is learning (Kuh, 2016). Learning communities, first year experience courses, and common educational experiences all serve to connect students to each other and the institution. Service learning, internships, and undergraduate research help students connect what they are learning to the “real-world” and makes it meaningful.

Importantly, many studies have noted that HIPs have compensatory effects (i.e., produce larger gains) for students from traditionally underrepresented groups (minority and first-generation students) who often enter college underprepared. Fink and Hummel (2015) advocate for inclusive learning communities and outline a set of best practices to do so. Ellerton and colleagues (2015) showed that service learning was effective in increasing student academic confidence, interest in civic engagement, and retention in a sample of at-risk urban community college students.

In the past decade, institutions of varying types have incorporated HIPs intentionally into their curricula. For example, at Elon University, every student takes a first-year seminar and an interdisciplinary capstone course and must complete two experiential learning requirements (among other requirements). Other institutions have innovated the HIPs based on the unique characteristics of their student bodies or institutional cultures/missions. For example, Salt Lake Community College adopted ePortfolios as a “capstone-in-progress” in lieu of creating and requiring a capstone course for every student, which was not feasible due to the non-traditional nature of their student population and the resources it would require. Students update their eportfolios in every general education course they take; not only do they choose which “signature assignments” to include in their portfolio, they are required to reflect on how their coursework relates to their educational/career goals (Hubert, 2016; Peden, Reed, & Wolfe, 2017). In fact, ePortfolios have recently been identified as a potential “eleventh” HIP. Early research on the effectiveness of ePortfolios was mixed, but as more institutions and programs implement and assess versions of ePortfolios, it is becoming clear that, when well-implemented, ePortfolios promote student engagement and agency and allow students to practice writing and integrative thinking (AAC&U, 2017).

Although HIPs are commonly only applied to traditional undergraduate curricula, there is no reason that nontraditional and graduate students cannot also benefit from the same practices. Sandeen (2012) surveyed a small group of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) programs and found that some HIPs (internships, collaborative assignments, and capstone experiences) are common in such programs. However, it was noted that these HIPs were not purposefully integrated into curricula; they seemed to be “ad hoc” components. The author recommended that online, continuing, and graduate programs seek to intentionally build HIPs throughout their programs.


There is a growing recognition that institutions must continually assess to ensure their curricular goals are being met and demonstrate effectiveness to both internal and external constituencies. In theory, curriculum development and assessment go hand-in-hand; for example, the idea of assessment is implicit in the concept of HIPs as some degree of assessment is essential if we are to know whether or not these practices have the impact that they claim. Carleton College shows one way this can be done through the mapping of student learning outcomes to a new set of graduation requirements adopted by the college (Carleton College Dean of the College Office 2009). Montana State University provides another model for the integration of curriculum development and assessment in its CORE 2.0 program, in which each area of the core has a faculty steering committee responsible for “reviewing and making recommendations on course proposals,” “conducting faculty development,” and “managing assessment of their respective core areas” (Montana State University Office of Provost n.d.-b). In his 2008 report on HIPs, George Kuh used data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to evaluate the relative value of different HIPs. There also some areas of explicit overlap between the literature on HIPs and that on assessment. Electronic portfolios are seen as both a HIP (Carey 2016) and as a tool for assessment of students’ overall undergraduate experiences (Hart Research Associates 2016, p. 9). Similarly, “capstone courses and projects” are promoted as an important HIP (Kuh 2008, p. 12), and these were an important part of the program-level assessment efforts developed at the University of Pittsburgh (Kurzweil 2015). However, most descriptions of existing curriculum or curriculum redesign efforts seem to be lacking a sustained, explicit focus on assessment. In an informal survey of 40 members of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, 65% of the respondents indicated they did not use curriculum analysis tools when designing assessment tools (Wigand 2016).


Association of American Colleges and Universities’ 8th Annual Forum on Digital Learning and ePortfolios. (January 2017).

Carleton College Dean of the College Office. (2009). Mapping Outcomes to New Graduation Requirements.

Ellerton, S., Di Meo, C., Pantaleo, J., Kemmerer, A., Bandziukas, M., & Bradley, M. (2015). Academic service learning benefits diverse, urban community college students. Journal for Civic Commitment, 23, 1-17.

Elon University Core Curriculum. Retrieved May 1, 2017.

Fink, J. E., & Hummel, M. L. (2015). With educational benefits for all: campus inclusion through learning communities designed for underserved student populations. New Directions For Student Services, 149, 29 – 40. doi: 10.1002/ss.20115

Hart Research Associates. (2016). Trends in Learning Outcomes Assessment: Key Findings from a Survey among Administrators at AAC&U Member Institutions Conducted on Behalf of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Hubert, D. (2016). Eportfolios, assessment, and general education transformation. Peer Review, 18(3).

Kilgo, C. A., Sheets, J. K. E., & Pascarella, E. T. (2015). The link between high-impact practices and student learning: Some longitudinal evidence. Higher Education, 69(4), 509-525.

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 and Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2016). Making learning meaningful: engaging students in ways that matter to them. New Directions For Teaching And Learning, 145, 49-56. doi: 10.1002/tl.20174

Montana State University Office of Provost. (n.d.-a). CORE 2.0 Mission Statement.

Montana State University Office of Provost. (n.d.-b). General Education Assessment.

Peden, W., Reed, S. & Wolfe, K. (2017). Rising to the LEAP Challenge: Case Studies of Integrative Pathways to Student Signature Work.  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Sandeen, C. (2012). High-impact educational practices: what we can learn from the traditional undergraduate setting. Continuing Higher Education Review, 76, 81 – 89.

Wigand J. (2016). Maps and the Search for the Buried Treasure of Assessment [Web log post].