What we know: Designing courses for learning: There are certain “high impact” activities that significantly increase learning

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

There are certain “high impact” activities that significantly increase learning 

What do we know?

What we know in this regard comes from a huge wealth of data gathered from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).  Some of the headlines from that data are that high impact activities, i.e. ones which are most likely to have a positive effect on improving student learning include:

● demanding that students spend large amounts of time and effort on purposeful tasks

● including a high degree of non-trivial interaction between both students and teachers, and between students

● including a higher likelihood that the students will experience diversity through interaction with others different from them

● Students receiving frequent feedback

● Students being presented with opportunities to integrate, synthesise and apply knowledge, and see the relevance of what they are learning


Implications for improving student learning

Courses that engage students in educational purposeful activities include in their learning design some or all of the following:

● Student opportunities to ask questions and discuss in class

● Student opportunities to make class presentations

● Students work together on projects, in or out of class

● Students receive prompt feedback – written and/or oral

● Students tutor each other

● Students provide each other with feedback

● Participation in a community-based project

● Opportunity for conversations with different races/ethnicities

● Conversation with others who have different beliefs/views/values


Further reading

Kuh, G. et al (2010) Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons


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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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