(Re)Processing High-Impact Classrooms

The idea behind high-impact approaches to the classroom is not new.  In 1854, Dickens (2001) warned us away from a focus on “ ‘nothing but Facts, Sir; nothing but Facts’  ” (p. 2), and countless scholars since have demonstrated the need to move away from traditional approaches to more progressive, critical, engaging, and inclusive educational environments.  In higher education, we understand the importance of critical pedagogies and high-impact practices at the same time that we often lose sight of these during the semester.  One issue could be that we tend to equate high-impact practices with “new and exciting techniques,” as Caroline Fallahi (2011) writes, rather than focusing on the process of learning and how this is reflected in course design.  We conflate new approaches with better learning, believing that “the practices facilitate the process” (Barber, 2012, p. 591).

Using the latest approaches, though, does not mean that we’re engaging our students with high-impact practices.  In developing an environment that supports higher-order thinking skills, Fink (2007) reminds us that we need to think about “the situational factors” or context and expectations surrounding the course, students, professors, and institution (Fink, 2007, “Course Design”).  In this process, understanding the situational factors that our students bring with them—even those outside the context of the classroom—is key.  As Barber (2012) notes, we must focus on how our students learn and how to help them make connections to their everyday experiences, and he provides four recommendations for moving toward integrated learning:

1. “Invite conversations with students,”

2. “Actively bridge contexts for and with students,”

3. “Promote perspective taking,” and

4. “Encourage reflection” (pp. 610-611).

Engaging in these four practices can help us develop a better understanding of students’ situational factors (Fink, 2007); which, in turn, can help us tailor high-impact practices and higher-level learning approaches to a specific course.  This does not mean that we cannot establish learning goals, readings, activities, and projects prior to meeting our students.  Rather than starting at the end (or at the beginning), we have to view this as an ongoing, non-linear process, which means we should be flexible and create room for input.  What are students’ worries and interests?  What are their goals?  How do they best learn?

Clickers, cell phone polls, digital storytelling, and other forms of technology can be great learning tools, but these techniques alone provide only a surface-level understanding of our students’ experiences, and in the meantime, we lose sight of the process of teaching and learning.  Courses should not remain static.  A high-impact classroom is complex, flexible, and constantly changing, and it cannot be reached merely by revamping our old techniques to fit taxonomies, introducing new approaches into an old frame, using a manual of trendy approaches, or working from end to beginning or vice versa.  It’s a living, breathing thing that requires that we pay attention and cultivate it over time, and this cultivation begins by getting to know our students as complex learners and taking the time to ask, listen, and reflect.  In thinking about developing high-impact and engaging practices for current and future classrooms, start each semester with students’ reflections on themselves, their current knowledge, and their learning processes, and then work with students and colleagues and engage with research to find high-impact practices that can help students reach the learning objectives for the course.

Note: This is a site with prompts for student and educator reflection in order to encourage higher-order and critical thinking in the classroom: http://www.teachthought.com/learning/44-prompts-merging-reflective-thinking-blooms-taxonomy/ I would encourage developing questions related to pedagogy as well for a holistic viewpoint.


Barber, J.P. (2012). Integration of learning: A grounded analysis of college students’ learning.

American Educational Research Journal 49(3), 590-617.

Dickens, C. (2001). Hard times. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Fallahi, C. (2011). Using Fink’s taxonomy in course design. Observer, 24(7), retrieved from


Fink, D. (2007). The power of course design to increase students engagement and learning. Peer

Review 9(1), retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-wi07/pr-wi07_analysis3.cfm