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Excerpt from the Symposium Session: “The Classroom: The Foundation for Student Success”


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


George Kuh, Indiana University

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.

I’d like you to meet three people. You know them – if not by name, by their circumstance.

Javier is the first in his family to go to college. Raised by his grandmother, he had very little by way of material things growing up. They lived on social security and a small pension. Now, Javier is in his first year of college. Living in a large residence hall, there are forty other fellows on his floor, none of whom are in any of the same classes as Javier. So, when Javier must prepare for an exam or work through a challenging assignment, he has to go to unusual lengths to find somebody else who has anything similar in intellectual content.

Sarah is in her third semester of university study. She struggled with her writing all through school – middle school, and high school. This term she knows she has at least two final exams that will be in essay form. She is petrified by the prospect as she’s written only two short papers in college so far. Both of them were in the first semester English Composition class.

Nicole went to community college right after high school, but lasted only about seven weeks; she withdrew without earning a single credit. Now 29, with two children, she’s a single mother, working at least thirty hours a week. Despite these obligations, she is trying to take three classes a term. For her, college is getting in her car, racing to the campus, trying to find a place to park, running into the classroom, and then repeating that in reverse order or going back home or to work.

These three very different students comprise but a thumbnail sketch of American college students today. Our job as teachers and administrators is to determine how to provide the highest quality experience for each and every one.

There’s another set of pressing circumstances facing us today: people want to know how well we do what we do. They want evidence that we are providing Nicole, Sarah, and Javier with what they need to survive and thrive in a 21st century world. Most colleges and universities offer curricula designed for the last century; most haven’t caught up to what ought to be going on today. In its January 2007 report, College Learning for the New Global Century, the Association of American Colleges and Universities did a masterful job of identifying essential learning outcomes for this century, at least for the near term. One of these is deep, integrative learning, which represents whether students apply and use what they know in different contexts, whether they can look at issues from different points of view and recognize patterns in very complicated sets of information, and work effectively with others. Later I will come back to this idea of deep, integrative learning and why engagement is important for students to acquire this important capacity.

First, let’s turn to some key characteristics of today’s students. Then, we’ll review why engagement in learning is so important. I’ll close with some ideas about your own work, things that maybe you could do differently.

Students Today
This generation of undergraduates – especially traditional-age students — come to us with an entitlement mentality. In the late 1960s, about 12% of entering college students reported earning A average grades in high school. Today, according to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, more than 45% of students starting college say they were A or A- students inn high school. Not only do they come to college expecting to earn good grades for relatively little effort, they also report that they don’t intend to study nearly as much as we think they should; moreover, many admit they’re not ready for college. Beginning college students say they are going to study twice as many hours week in college as they did in high school. Indeed, they do. First-year, full-time students prepare for class 10-12 hours a week compared with high school seniors who only 5-6 hours a week. At the same time; 40% say they need at least one remedial or developmental course. This generation has a cumulative deficit when it comes to study habits and academic skills.

The good news is this is cohort is more diverse in every away, and virtually all the evidence on interactions with students of different backgrounds demonstrates its powerful educational and personal development effects, which we’ll look at that a little bit later. They are techno-savvy “net-gens’ who often know a lot more about technology than their faculty. This coupled with their well-practice ability to multi-task makes them an unusual generation. The brain science folks say their brains are being wired differently. They prefer to have four or five things going on at a time.

Finally, this is a generation that is more tightly connected to their family of origin and their friends than any other generation. Walk across any campus and you will see them with a cell phone plastered to their ear or texting. Odds are very good they are in contact with a family member. Not only are they talking to a parent, but they’re likely taking their advice; 75% say they often or very often take their parents’ advice on whatever the issue is. It’s great to have family members involved and interested in their student’s college experience. But we don’t want them so involved that they interfere with the developmental process.

Why Engagement Matters
Although this generation of students is different – and in some cases very different – than what we recall from our days in college, the thousands of studies on student learning and personal development points to one unequivocal conclusion: “Individual effort and involvement are the critical determinants of college impact” (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 602). This means institutions should focus on organizing students’ academic, interpersonal, and extracurricular experiences in ways that induce, cajole or even require them to invest more time and energy on the things that matter to their learning. In short, we want to engage them more fully, inside and outside the classroom.

As we shall see, by using some well-documented practices (Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), we can – at least on the margins – have a demonstrable positive effect. These effective educational practices are measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a short, focused survey that has been used by more than 1300 four-year colleges and universities in the US and Canada. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) is also widely used by two-year colleges. The goals is to obtain information about what students and institutions do in terms of educationally purposeful activities that can be used to improve the teaching and learning process on campuses. We also are interested in finding out what practices seem to work better with certain kinds of students. Finally, NSSE and CCSSE have a public advocacy dimension to this work, in that we want people to focus on what matters to collegiate quality, and steer them away from matters that have nothing to do with collegiate quality such as like rankings.

NSSE and CCSSE are short instruments; they don’t tell us everything we want to know about the student experience. But they are excellent diagnostic tools that point to aspects of teaching and learning that are going well and areas where attention may be needed.

Based on decades of research (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005), we know going that the more engaged students are, the better their grades, the more satisfied they are, the more likely they are to persist and earn a degree. Eight years of NSSE and CCSSE data show this to be the case. But it’s more complicated than that because the effects of engagement are conditional and compensatory. In addition, the variation is always greater within an institution than it is between institutions. Indeed, the within-institution variance being greater than between-institution variance holds for just about every measure of school performance we have — at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels as well as college. The point is that while some schools have higher average scores than others, they all have more than a few areas where students perform below average. Who are these students? Can you identify them? If you could, would you organize their learning so that they did different kinds of things? How do we reach these students who are under, and in some cases disengaged?

Well, it turns that that some things work better with some students than others; we call these conditional effects (Cruce et al, 2007; Kuh et al., 2008; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). By compensatory effects, I mean students with certain characteristics who do certain things tend to benefit to a disproportionate degree, which means they get a performance boost over others. This is the case, for example, when students participate in a learning community – a situation where they take the same two or three classes together. For Javier – who had no one to turn to when it was time to study or prepare for an exam — the learning community gives him a social network that links him to others working on the same kinds of intellectual tasks.

Engagement also boosts academic performance (Kuh et al, 2007), whereby students with lower entering pre-college achievement scores (ACT or SAT) perform better in terms of their grades as they become more engaged in effective educational practices than students with higher entering achievement scores. That is, engagement seems to help them compensate so that engagement has a greater effect on their grades than for other students. Said another way, all students benefit in terms of grades as they become more engaged, but the lower performing students (as measured by ACT or SAT) get a bigger boost. This is also true for Hispanic student when compared with Whites. That is, Hispanic students start to outperform White students in terms of first-year GPA as they approach the midpoint of being actively involved on campus – meeting with faculty, making class presentations, and so forth — this global measure of student engagement.

Engagement also has a compensatory effect in terms of persistence, or the odds a student will return to the same institution for a second year. One surprising finding in this regard is that African-American students actually overtook Whites in terms of the odds that they would come back for another year at the same institution (Kuh et al., 2008).

The challenge for us is how do we tap into and capture their interest and enthusiasm for learning through the use of effective educational practices that engage them more fully? How do we design class assignments and other kinds of activities that will in fact induce, or dare I say, require them to do these kinds of things?

High Impact Practices
Well there are a set of practices and activities that do exactly that. The 2007 AAC&U report I mentioned earlier identifies 10 such activities. They include:

  • first-year seminars
  • writing intensive courses
  • common intellectual experiences
  • learning communities
  • collaborative assignments
  • service learning
  • undergraduate research
  • study abroad and other experiences with diversity
  • internships, and
  • capstone courses and projects

A typical reaction after glancing at this list is, “Gee whiz, we do these things with our students. We offer first-year seminars and learning communities and writing intensive course. Lots of our students do research with faculty and internships. More than a few study abroad, do internships, and have capstone experiences.”

My next question is, “Which students and how many of them participate in these activities campus? Some of these activities are essentially boutique programs, with only handfuls of students doing them. Also, what is the overall quality of each of these activities? And how do you know?

Earlier I mentioned deep, integrative learning and its importance. NSSE asks some questions that are proxies for the kinds of behaviors we and others think are associated with the capacity for deep, integrative learning. While a robust measure of deep integrative learning does not yet exist, we believe the more students do certain things — talking with people outside of class about ideas, trying to understand how someone else sees the world, and the other activities in Figure 1 — the more likely they are to develop a capacity for this kind of behavior. So, to estimate the capacity for deep learning we created a deep, integrative learning scale by summing students’ responses to these questions (Nelson Laird, Shoup, Kuh, & Schwarz (2008).

Figure 1
NSSE Deep/Integrative Learning Scale

  • Integrating ideas or information from various sources
  • Included diverse perspectives in class discussions/writing
  • Put together ideas from different courses
  • Discussed ideas with faculty members outside of class
  • Discussed ideas with others outside of class
  • Analyzing the basic elements of an idea, experience, or theory
  • Synthesizing & organizing ideas, info., or experiences
  • Making judgments about the value of information
  • Applying theories to practical problems or in new situations
  • Examined the strengths and weaknesses of your own views
  • Tried to better understand someone else’s views
  • Learned something that changed how you understand an issue

In turns out that students who are more engaged in certain “high impact activities” – learning community, service learning, student-faculty research, study abroad, internship, capstone seminar — benefit to a considerably greater extent in their capacity for deep learning as well as in other areas of self-reported outcomes than their peers who do not have these experiences (Kuh, 2008). In fact, the magnitude of the differences between those who do and those who don’t – represented by an “effect size” – is very large. So not only are the two groups statistically different on these measures, the size of the difference is substantial. All this is to say something very important is going on here.

Exposure to other effective educational practices also matter, such as feedback. That is, when students report more frequently receiving prompt feedback from faculty, their capacity for deep, integrative learning is enhanced.

There are several reasons why participating in a high impact activity has such powerful effects. First, students invest more time and energy in the activity than they might otherwise expend. They also have more substantive contact with their peers and instructors, inside and outside the classroom. As a result students are in the company of people they wouldn’t ordinarily spend time with – they’re assigned to work teams, they’re traveling away from the campus together, they’re working side by side in a community agency, and so on and so forth. So they are confronted with different dimensions of human differences. In other words, students are put in positions that Parker Palmer fondly likens to living in a Quaker community: it is “that place where one lives next door to the person you least want to be next to.” And so students have to figure out how to deal with and manage these differences.

In addition, these experiences put students in situations where they get more feedback, often in real time, such as in the lab, working with a faculty member on an experiment which flops. Now, the student gets to see how an expert deals with these kinds of challenges. As a result, they learn things in ways that we can’t easily be reproduced in any other way. These experiences are especially meaningful when we intentionally structure the activity at the outset and prepare students for what we want and they can expect to have happen. And then ask them to reflect on it. All this helps students to see and appreciate the relevance of this work to their own lives.

Whether students engage in high impact activities depends in no small part on whether faculty members think it is important for students to do them. That is, when we compare NSSE data with results from the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE), we find that when faculty members at a campus say it is very important that students do these things before they graduate, resources start to flow to make them available, and a greater percentage of students do them. Ultimately, these kinds of activities and experiences become stitched into the campus culture. The bottom line is that students end up doing, for the most part, what their teachers ask them to do. When faculty members on a campus, by their own report, require students to write more, students do so. And when faculty members say they frequently introduce diverse perspectives in their classes, students report having more experiences with diversity.

The bottom line is that faculty members have much more influence on students and the quality of their experience than they sometimes think.

We now have pretty good evidence that point to the kinds of teaching and learning approaches that work well with most students. Some of these activities can have compensatory effects, giving a boost to those students who really need a boost the most. Keep in mind that the only thing that Nicole, Sarah, and Javier — all students — have in common is the classroom. Today most students do not live on campus; large numbers take only one or two courses a term. The only way these students – the majority – are going to benefit to an optimal degree is if faculty members create a social fabric and sense of community in the classroom. This is what happens in a learning community and why this intervention typically has a positive effect at least on persistence if not academic achievement.

Just imagine what your campus would be like if every student participated in at least one high impact activity in their first year? I don’t mean that every first-year student necessarily did the same thing, but if some had a writing intensive seminar taught by a faculty member, others did service learning, and others were in a learning community. I suspect the boost in terms of persistence and intellectual vitality would be palpable. And what if every student did another high impact activity linked to their major field. What would it take for every major to expect students to have a culminating experience of some sort?

We can’t change the nature of students who matriculate. But we can influence – at least on the margins – how students spend their time by designing learning experiences inside and outside the classroom so that students are exposed consistently to effective educational practices. Our studies have made it plain that the differences between high performing colleges and others are due not to the amount of money they spend, but how they spend it (Kuh et al., 2005). After all is said and done, what really matters to student success is whether we have the will to do at a level of scale and quality the things that we know matter.




Association of American Colleges and Universities [AAC&U]. (2007). College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Author.

Chickering, A.W. & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

Cruce, T., Wolniak, G.C., Seifert, T.A., & Pascarella, E.T. (2006). Impacts of good practices on cognitive development, learning orientations, and graduate degree plans during the first year of college. Journal of College Student Development, 47, 365-383.

Kuh, G.D., Cruce, T.M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., & Gonyea, R.M. (2008). Unmasking the effects of student engagement on college grades and persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 79, 540-563.

Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, E.J., & Associates (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J.A., Bridges, B.K., & Hayek, J.C. (2007). Piecing together the student success puzzle: Research, propositions, and recommendations. ASHE Higher Education Report, 32(5). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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.

Nelson Laird, T.F, Shoup, R., Kuh, G.D., & Schwarz, M.J. (2008). The effects of discipline on deep approaches to student learning and college outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 49, 469-494.

Pascarella, E.T. & Terenzini, P.T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.