Dr. Jane S. Halonen once had a student named John (Trey) McClendon in her positive psychology class who became quadriplegic as a result of a swimming pool accident. About halfway through the course, during content on human possibility, she asked her students to do a creative presentation about the “possible self” they wanted to be in five years. This assignment had to be a visual display or a performance of some sort. It had to have psychology principles built into it. And it had to be performed in front of the students’ classmates, as well as a group of external assessors that she uses to review and further benefit her students.
This amazing young man wrote a song about how his swimming pool accident didn’t change his horizon. He still wanted to pursue a graduate degree in social work, and he still wanted to build his own house and take care of his young children. The song was so powerful that there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire class. Then, after the song, one of the assessors approached him. She was affiliated with Habitat for Humanity, and she encouraged him to apply because she thought a house could be a real possibility.
Dr. Halonen describes high-impact experiences, like the creative presentations in her class, as basically the latest trend in higher education to discuss strategies that can make a difference in students’ lives because they involve a profound or a transformative element. According to Dr. Halonen, “I think people typically attribute the phrase high-impact practices to a researcher named George Kuh, who looked at lots of literature on student experience in order to articulate what kind of things helped students to be more successful. As he found, students who reported having a high-impact experience were much more likely to persist to graduation and beyond.”
So, how can students and teachers create high-impact learning experiences like this that will influence the rest of their lives? Of course, Dr. Halonen can’t guarantee a house for everyone. But, the fact is that the young man in her class ended up—by virtue of being able to display his creativity in such an engaging way—obtaining a remarkable response from his community as well as an incredible opportunity to achieve his life goals.
So can you!
In today’s interview, Dr. Halonen shares a ton of advice that is sure to leave you with concrete ideas for how to seek out and achieve high-impact practices. Dr. Halonen is a renowned professor of psychology at the University of West Florida where she focuses on improving student learning, assessing undergraduate programs, and helping the public understand the discipline of psychology. She was named an “Eminent Woman” in psychology by the American Psychological Association in 2003 and also became a Distinguished Member of Psi Chi in 2019. As you might have already guessed, by the end of this article, she will leave you with the inspiration that is necessary for you to take those first important steps toward a meaningful career and future of your own.
What Dr. Halonen Already Suspected (and What You Probably Suspected Too)
It wasn’t an earthshattering surprise to Dr. Halonen when she found out about all of the positive effects of high-impact practices. After all, when she was a student, she was always drawn to teachers who figured out unique ways to make her wrestle with what she was learning. As for the teachers who simply lectured—the “talking heads,” as she calls them—she says, “I could do well in their classes because I could take good notes and memorize, but I found that the learning didn’t stay with me.”
As she explains, a classic article by Barr and Tagg back in the 90s said this: “If you’re a content centered teacher, you’re going to talk, you’re going to transmit content to students, and you’re going to test it. But, your students are not likely to remember much of it for long. However, if you’re going to be student or learning centered, then you’re going to try to figure out how to use your time to produce some architecture that makes students hang onto whatever you’re teaching. Potentially, if you’re really lucky, your students may even be transformed in some way that works for either your purposes as a teacher or their purposes as students trying to get in some particular direction in life.”
That article really helped Dr. Halonen to consolidate her ideas about being a teacher who makes her students work hard. She says, “I want students to wrestle with their learning—in a good way, of course. I want them to be victorious in the end. I don’t want the content to beat them, and I’m going to do all I can in the design of my course to support their learning. In the end, I want them to be able to identify that they are transformed, that there’s something really different about how they think, or what their horizon is in the future.”
Will You Look Back and Wish You Had Done More?
When graduating seniors take their exit surveys at the University of West Florida, they are asked to answer this question: “How satisfied are you that you took advantage of the opportunities that you had?” Sadly, a lot of students say, “Now that I’m at the end, I realize that I could have done more.” For example, “I could have applied to Psi Chi” or “I should have been involved in an undergraduate research team.”
Dr. Halonen exclaims, “Sometimes seniors will even say, ‘I BLEW IT! I didn’t get that internship, and now I’VE SCREWED MYSELF!’ ”
She pauses to chuckle. “And so, I’ll tell them that it isn’t quite that severe. But the fact is this: students trying to balance very hyperactive social lives such as working, sometimes full-time, are not able to take advantage of all the experiences that college has to offer. This decision puts them in the position of sometimes seeking out the easiest path. So, although they’ll earn their degree, the learning experience that they have is actually short-changed.”
The reason that you should seek out high-impact practices is simple: Growth mindset.
Seniors struggling a little with senioritis is a common occurrence (although Dr. Halonen notes that she doesn’t typically see senioritis in her Psi Chi students!) All too often, students become a little worn out by their senior year, and so they seek out easy classes to merely complete their obligation to graduate. For instance, she says, “they might take a dance class or a yoga class—and, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with those classes. But, if you’re doing something at the end of three and a half years that doesn’t nourish your soul as a scholar, then I think that somehow we’ve ‘missed the boat’ because we haven’t gotten you excited about learning and challenge. Students need to seek our high-impact opportunities because they’re going to be able to figure out who they are if they are sufficiently challenged.”
On Dr. Halonen’s printer, there is a quote from T.S. Eliot, which says, “If you aren’t in over your head, then how do you know how tall you are?” She appreciates this quote, she says, not only because she is five foot two and the paradox appeals to her, but also because it expresses her attitude about learning.
“Look at the array of options that you have, and don’t back away from the things that sound difficult. Sometimes, when professors have a reputation for being more challenging, it really is partly because they are doing things that will require a bit more time.” But, Dr. Halonen argues that this can be a good thing too. For example, a couple years ago, a student told Dr. Halonen her reputation among students in her department; as it turns out, Dr. Halonen is referred to as the “bad-ass grandmother of the department!” About this, she says, “That made me laugh. Okay, I’m not so crazy about the grandmother part. I don’t have children, so I haven’t gotten used to the idea that I could be a grandmother, when in fact at this point I could be a great-grandmother! But I love bad-ass grandmother! I love the idea that students understand that I’m a bit of a handful, a bit of a challenge. The students who seek out classes with me very often do it specifically because they know I’m going to be giving them maximum benefits for the investment that they’re making.”
“If you aren’t in over your head, then how do you know how tall you are?”
—T. S. Eliot
So How Can Students Identify the Right Classes?
The best strategy that Dr. Halonen recommends is one that is taught throughout the psychology major: “Do your homework!” She says, “Don’t just look at what the offerings are. That is the standard strategy that I think most students use; they look at the offerings and they say, ‘I want to work here, and these are my social obligations, so they automatically choose the courses that fit in with that other stuff. But, they don’t really think about who the teacher is or what’s going to go on in their classes.”
In order to “do your homework,” Dr. Halonen suggests this: “Although I don’t normally recommend RateMyProfessor.com, sometimes you can pick up clues from the ways that people write about whether the teacher is doing things that actively involve students— if there are projects and so forth. Sometimes, that shows up as complaints, by the way!”
Also, if you’re in Psi Chi, Dr. Halonen assures you that fellow Psi Chi members are going to be your best resource to help you figure out which teaching and learning experiences will be the most beneficial to you. “Talk with older Psi Chi members, people who are about to graduate, in order to help you sort out which experiences seem to be most beneficial. Ask what was it that was potentially transformative about those particular students’ classes. Then, make decisions that are data based, rather than convenience based.”
Make Your Own Opportunities
“Normally, when people talk about high-impact practices, the intentionality falls on the side of the teacher rather than the student.” For example, because high-impact practices are labor intensive for instructors, Dr. Halonen advises professors to start slow, by embedding a few high-impact practices into courses that they are the most comfortable teaching. She encourages professors to stagger students’ project due dates throughout the semester in order to allow professors more time to provide quality feedback and avoid overload. And she also believes strongly in using rubrics and communicating clearly to students that her expectations are high, but definitely achievable.
She says, “I very rarely hear students ask, ‘What all do you want in this?’ which is the bane of existence for most teachers.” However, multiple projects in a course can be daunting. So, further, she advises instructors to deliberately ask students to identify the purpose of assignments to prevent them from perceiving the assignments as busy work or developing other negative attitudes. As she puts it, “Make students know that assignments aren’t just meant to ‘ruin their weekend,’ but instead to make them fluent in whatever the discipline is that you happen to be teaching.”
At the same time, she also thinks that there are plenty opportunities for students to take matters into their own hands to produce their own high-impact experiences—even if these activities are not scheduled into their classrooms for them. To achieve this outcome, Dr. Halonen suggests going to your professors’ office hours and checking to see if they have time for a chat. “Simply engage your professors about things that you think are most interesting in their classes. That contact, in and of itself, can become high impact. Although it doesn’t require project work or meeting deadlines, the fact is that preparing for it, listening carefully, asking follow-up questions, and demonstrating your interests—all of those kinds of activities end up helping you build your profile as a scholar. Visits like that can also turn into opportunities to join professors’ research teams.”
Beyond discussing classroom lessons, you can also talk about things that will make a difference in your ability to attend graduate school or achieve a specific career that you are interested in. Don’t be afraid to talk about your big dream, Dr. Halonen advises. “What is your big dream? Where do you want to be? What is it that you’d like to do? How is psychology going to play a role in that? What do you need as an undergraduate to support the dream that you’re talking about?” Professors generally enjoy talking about students’ futures and helping you to progress along your personal journey. “This is a discussion that the mechanical aspects of registering for classes, specific coursework, and so forth can sometimes get in the way of IF you don’t think to ask.”
Want to increase your high-impact experiences? Dr. Halonen advises you to ask yourself these key questions:
- Are you taking too many classes? “When you amass lots of course credits too quickly, you may also end up amassing less stellar performances. In the long run, stellar performances are what will set you apart from everybody else. These are what will make a difference in your fitness for graduate school and the caliber of reference letters that you receive, so be intentional about reaping as much positive experience as possible.”
- Have you left some space between your classes? “This practice will allow you time to consolidate what you learned in the prior class, so that you don’t have to study quite as hard when it comes time for exams.”
- Can you form your own study group? “Even if you’re a good student, forming a class study group where you get people together to talk to each other and talk through examples can make your preparation for exams more fun and interesting. And I’m willing to bet—in the absence of data—that your test performance is probably going to be better too. Generating a study group can, in and of itself, be high impact because the friendships you develop in that group may sustain you well beyond graduation.”
- Can you form a group and take turns with having a master note taker? “This will help you manage your workload and allow you to sometimes experiment with listening to the class because you will know that a friend next to you is taking the notes.”
What Can You Do?
When Dr. Halonen travels to other psychology departments as an academic program reviewer, she routinely pulls seniors aside and says, “Okay, you’re about to graduate. Tell me what you can do with your education.” She adds, “It is pretty standard that they can’t answer the question. They can rattle off the courses they have taken, but the courses haven’t translated into skill development. Dr. Halonen concludes, “If students can’t answer the question for me, then how are they going to be able to do that when they have a whole lot more at stake such as during a job interview?”
This inability for students to communicate their goals drives a lot of the high-impact projects that Dr. Halonen provides in her classes. In particular, her capstone classes attempt to make sense of the curriculum that students have been through, thus providing students with a unique opportunity to learn how to talk about their experiences.
Further, at the end of each capstone course, she matches students with professionals who are working in the field that they aspire to go into. She says, “The challenge that I throw before my students is to develop a portfolio to explain what they want to do when they graduate. The portfolio should include a career plan with both a Plan A and a Plan B (in case Plan A doesn’t come to pass), a resumé, a list of references along with the rationale for their selection, and a cover letter (for the workforce) or personal statement (for grad applications). Then, the students have to visit their assigned professional in the setting where that professional works and have an hour-long conversation. At the end, that person is going to rate whether they think the student is a good exemplar, a distinguished exemplar, or whether the student needs a little more time ‘in the oven.’”
Dr. Halonen laughs at the thought of how students usually get a ‘deer-in-the- headlights’ look when she introduces them to this assignment. She can often tell that they’re thinking: “Oh, my God! How hard is this going to be?!” But, when the assignment is over, she says, “I have students practically cartwheel with what a profound experience it was to have the opportunity to hear themselves explain who they are and what they can do, armed with the APA guidelines. They get extremely animated about that. And I have never once had an assessor say that a student wasn’t ready to graduate. Instead, what transpires is that the students have a remarkable conversation that they have to lead with an outsider, which allows them to make first-job interview mistakes where it’s not going to cost them very much.”
A Happy Ending
On February 20, 2019, one day before the interview that you’re reading right now, Dr. Halonen received a picture of her Positive Psychology student’s new Habitat house. About receiving this news, she says, “It’s probably the proudest connection for teaching in my life that illustrates the effects of high-impact experiences.”
On that uplifting note, and on behalf of other bad-ass professors everywhere, Dr. Halonen exclaims these final words of advice, “When I design my classes, I do so with an eye toward doing justice to the discipline. But, more important for me is doing justice to creating an environment and learning opportunities that will make a huge difference in students’ lives. Your college education is your opportunity to prepare for the next stage of your life. And so, my goal is to help you build the best resumé that you can. By the end of the classroom experience that you have with me, I want you to have a resumé that people will read and say, ‘Oh, wow!’ And I want you to have a really firm grasp on who you are and where you’re going next.”
Are you seeking high-impact courses and experiences in college? Strive for opportunities that will cause you wrestle with who you are, what you can accomplish through your education, and how to convey what you have learned to others.
John (Trey) McClendon’s new Habitat House.
"Where I Want to Be”
by John (Trey) McClendon
See Trey’s full song and lyrics at
|Jane S. Halonen, PhD, has been a professor of psychology at University of West Florida, James Madison University, and Alverno College (WI). Her scholarly contributions have focused on helping psychology students, faculty, and departments achieve optimal performance. Jane has been involved over the course of her career with helping the American Psychological Association (APA) develop guidelines or standards for academic performance from high school through graduate levels of education. Dr. Halonen served as the Chief Reader for the Psychology Advanced Placement Reading from 2004–09. The Society for Teaching of Psychology, which she presided over in 2000, named their Early Career Award to honor her mentoring of generations of new faculty. She won the American Psychological Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award in 2000. In 2003, APA named her an “Eminent Woman in Psychology.” In 2013, she won the APF Award for Applications in Education and Training in Psychology.
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