Academic 'Houses' Boost Student Engagement

Syracuse students complete professional development and community-building activities in friendly competition.
Academic 'Houses' Boost Student Engagement
J.K. ROWLING’S Harry Potter series introduced many readers to the notion of a magical boarding school where students are assigned to one of four houses. But as Britons know, the four-house format is standard practice in real-life boarding schools throughout England, as a way to offer students a sense of belonging, reinforce a sense of community, create a shared learning experience—and, of course, introduce a dose of healthy competition.

That practice has inspired a special program at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in New York. In 2013, its faculty, alumni, and other stakeholders brainstormed ways to engage students in professional development. The outcome was the Goodman IMPRESS program (which stands for Initiating Meaningful Partnerships and Responsibilities to Encourage Student Success). Named after donor Kenneth Goodman and launched in fall 2014, the IMPRESS program assigns all 500 incoming undergraduates to one of four teams, or “houses”—Adams, Harrison, Marshall, and Waverly. While the houses aren’t physical spaces, each has its own insignia, its own faculty house master who serves as a mentor to students, and its own academic and career advisors. Students remain in their houses freshman through senior years.

During those years, students earn points for their houses through participation in five types of activities: personal and professional development, major and industry exploration, certification completion, global experience, and community engagement. These activities can include attending leadership workshops, guest lectures, and social events; participating in community outreach and internships; and earning technological certifications in skills such as using Excel software or the Bloomberg platform.

Students earn personal points for professional development events and house points for more social events. To connect the two, the school also issues spur-of-the-moment house challenges, says Amanda Nicholson, associate dean for undergraduate programs. “A house challenge,” she explains, “could be something
like announcing that the house whose members have the most Excel certifications will earn an extra 1,000 points.”

IMPRESS is driven by the use of a gamification portal, smartphone app, and student IDs. The school uses the app to inform students of different types of activities and notify them when opportunities arise to earn points. When students come to events, they can swipe their IDs to mark their attendance. Students must earn a minimum number of points throughout their programs to graduate; each year, the number of points they have earned determines their “IMPRESS” level, and those with the highest point counts sit atop a posted leaderboard. Students even post their IMPRESS scores on their résumés, right next to their GPAs. The top number of points a student can earn is 1,870, for the year Syracuse University was founded.

Although IMPRESS focuses mainly on extracurricular activities, it helps students bond with their houses and
house masters through a required first-semester freshman course, Business and Society. The course is offered in four sections—one for each house—and students enroll in the course taught by their faculty house master. “The course launches their time with us here,” explains Nicholson. “The idea is that the
course will help them connect—imprint, if you will—with our faculty member, so they know they have their mentor right from the beginning.” As part of the course, students read the book American Business Since 1920: How It Worked by Thomas McCraw, which provides an overview of how American business has
developed after World Wars I and II.

The program has had the impact the Whitman School’s stakeholders hoped for, says Nicholson. With so many events connected to IMPRESS, students now have far more opportunities—and incentives—to engage with the dean, associate deans, faculty, career services staff, and
each other than before the program was in place. “We’ve increased the fun factor, but in a serious way that develops very important soft skills,” says Nicholson. “IMPRESS introduces students early to the idea of work-life balance. They can see this community as not just a place where they attend classes and get grades. They can see our business school as a place where they build careers, build teams, and be part of a community.”

A portfolio program like IMPRESS cannot be delivered as an isolated part of a business school’s operations,
says Nicholson. “This is not a program where you can rubber-stamp it and think, ‘If we build it, they will come.’ You have to have faculty who are willing to live this, because it’s a lot of work to pull this off.”

It first requires engaging faculty and staff who are willing to “roll up their sleeves” and work with students
outside of class, she says. At Whitman, faculty house masters, academic advisors, and career advisors must not just be willing to help students plan their professional development; they also are expected to attend extracurricular activities. In addition, each faculty house master must be willing to teach a section of 125 students, which makes up his or her entire teaching load for the fall semester. In addition, the Whitman School has dedicated a full-time staff member to coordinating the program.

Second, it requires continually planning ways to engage the school community—especially other faculty. To that end, this year the school began inviting all faculty to join houses and participate in as many—or in as few—activities as they like. The school sends briefings to faculty and staff on what IMPRESS has planned for the upcoming week. “Now, faculty can help win points for their houses as well, but we have just one catch: They have to team up with students—not other faculty,” she says. “Students can see the human side of their professors.” About 15 percent of faculty now attend IMPRESS events, says Nicholson.

Finally, it requires the school to be willing to balance work with play. Within its calendar of professional development events, the Whitman School also includes fun activities, such as trivia nights or field days complete with egg-and-spoon and bean-bag races. Each year, the school honors the top 44 IMPRESS students with a special brunch, where they receive gifts such as sweatshirts and pins (the number 44 is special to the school, related to the uniform numbers of its most well-known athletes). At the end of each year, the school holds a celebration, where the house with the most points is honored with the Goodman Cup.

Eventually, Nicholson hopes to receive an endowment to support even more activities for the program. But she believes that IMPRESS provides the perfect complement to what students are learning in class. “We wouldn’t dream of interfering with what professors are doing in their classrooms,” she says. “But we need to build our students’ other skills and help them have rewarding experiences here. We want to make sure our students remain engaged.”