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Harvard’s UWC Impact Study

United World Colleges (UWC) is proud to have collaborated with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on an independent review of its educational model and practices to explore the impact of a UWC education on its students, alumni and the wider world. The team conducted a five-year longitudinal study culminating in the report Educational Experiences and Outcomes at the United World Colleges (UWC): An Investigation of Impact.
Project Zero and UWC have a shared belief in the role of education in developing human potential, and how it can support learners to thrive in an ever-changing world. UWC chose to commission the study to gain empirical research into the impact of its mission-driven educational model, and by extension, to better understand how global education as a whole can work to develop citizens who will go on to shape a more peaceful and sustainable future for all.

The study was conducted between 2017 and 2022, and it involved 4,834 UWC students and 6,894 alumni from all 18 UWC schools and colleges, as well as 1,830 students from 13 non-UWC schools.

The researchers explored how a UWC education impacts the skills and attitudes of its students and alumni, focusing particularly on which aspects of a UWC education may be most influential in encouraging ethical habits and pro-social actions. The research sought answers to three key questions:

  1. Which parts of the educational experience offered by these schools may be most impactful for students and alumni?
  2. How might students and alumni change as a result of their educational experiences?
  3. How might students and alumni impact the world, and how do they define their impact?

Involving repeated observations of the same variables over a period of time, this is the first longitudinal study of its kind in the history of the UWC movement, providing empirical evidence on the impact of UWC and valuable lessons for the world of education as a whole. 

Listen to UWC International's Executive Director, Faith Abioudun, provide context to the study.

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Key Findings and Lessons for Global Education

1. The UWC mission serves as a unifying force. 
"The UWC movement's mission resulted in a strong institutional ethos. The mission facilitated a sense of deeper meaning for the UWC community’s purpose and the aims of its educational offerings.”
“The mission was the most commonly selected reason why students and alumni apply to UWC. It guided implementation of programs and was a reference point for expectations that community members have of themselves.”

As young people seek meaning and question how they can make a tangible difference in the world, a strong and purposeful institutional mission can serve as an anchor and a guiding light. While the mission may be interpreted in different ways within the community, it still serves as a powerful unifying force.

2. A genuine sense of belonging and personal value are crucial for community building. 
“Interviewees were more likely to report a sense of social, institutional, and academic belonging than they were to report feelings of alienation.”
“Residential bonding between students in dormitories and a culture of general openness to diversity were most responsible for facilitating a sense of social belonging among students. Enjoyment of the educational program and feelings of being personally valued as a UWC community member were also frequently mentioned.”

In a high-intensity environment, it is absolutely critical to invest in strategies that foster a sense of belonging, community and shared purpose - socially, institutionally and academically. At UWC, some of the components that ranked highly for facilitating a sense of belonging included residential bonding, openness to diversity, behaviours of teachers and crucially a sense of being personally valued.   

However, the report also recognises that within multicultural environments some new members of a community might experience social cohesion at a different pace than others. For the overall wellbeing of the community, it is important to pay equal attention to those who are having a harder time than others, possibly because they are the sole representatives of their country/culture, or because they hold significantly different views on religion or politics, or because they are experiencing culture shock.

3. Discussion-based pedagogy is critical for greater intellectual growth. 
“Discussion-based pedagogy allowed for interpersonal connection in formal classroom environments and was frequently cited as a meaningful part of the UWC experience. Open dialogue between students and teachers and expression of diversity of viewpoints was found to be prevalent at UWC schools.”
“Interviewees described the IB as a source of critical thinking skills, and class discussions were linked to growth in open-mindedness. Academic outcomes also included time management, self-discipline, collaboration, and research skills.”

In formal academic settings, student growth is most often associated with opportunities for incorporating interpersonal learning through discussions, rather than teacher-driven instruction. This develops student agency and allows for knowledge sharing and the exchange of ideas. Within the IB curriculum, the Extended Essay in particular was identified as an opportunity for students to demonstrate autonomy and flexibility, and this was linked to growth in both academic and non-academic outcomes. 

4. A focus on deliberate diversity and interpersonal learning creates transformational learning environments. 
“Perhaps the most unique feature of UWC is a selection model that ensures deliberate diversity within the student body at each site...As a result, each school has significant national, linguistic, and socioeconomic diversity, a focus of the UWC experience.”
“Students learned directly from one another, mostly in unstructured ways via friendships and conversations with peers, often in residential life. In contrast to non-UWC students, UWC students were more likely to discuss contact across differences in their friendships.”

The research suggests that resisting homogeneity through a deliberate selection of young people from a wide variety of backgrounds, while also creating sufficient room for unstructured interactions, results in accelerated growth for students. The bonds formed and knowledge gained through these less formal out-of-classroom experiences influence changes in attitudes, dispositions and values. They encourage open-mindedness and critical-thinking; broader views on diversity and multiculturalism, the ability to confront biases; an enhanced capacity for social justice and better global knowledge. These positive results appear even greater within a residential context and over a sustained period of time (up to two years for many students during the IBDP years at UWC). 
Thus, while classroom-based work and academics are important, if we want to develop leadership and critical-thinking skills in young people, we must focus more on the learning opportunities outside of formal teaching and classroom settings.  

5. Autonomous learning is crucial for developing agency and leadership skills. 
“Programs that allowed students to exercise autonomy, a sense of authentic ownership and responsibility in their education, were strongly associated with growth at UWC.”

The Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) component of the International Baccalaureate (IB) was identified as one of the most crucial leadership development experiences at UWC. These extra-academic activities helped to stimulate a growth mindset and sense of agency in students, leading to the development of skills in organisation, team-building,  leadership, self discipline, responsibility, and also higher levels of civic competence compared with non-UWC peers. 

6. Specialised thematic learning forums inspire long-term social impact.
“Structured programs such as global issues forums and special topic days provided opportunities for student-directed interpersonal learning.”
“UWC education is often characterised as strongly service-oriented, highly participatory and focused on the exploration of cultural and social issues.”

The research suggests that building the capacity of young leaders to become social justice advocates in their careers and personal lives requires the development of specialised programmes to create room for dialogue and debate. The deliberate focus on stimulating social awareness through forums at UWC, can go some way to explaining why UWC alumni demonstrate greater openness towards diversity, multiculturalism and social justice than their non-UWC peers.

7. Introducing service learning early helps to incline young people towards a pattern of lifelong service. 
“Students spoke about having social impact primarily through their service learning projects, while alumni focused on their careers as their primary mode of making real-world impact. Students were most likely to describe volunteering in community and educational organisations, and they were more likely than non-UWC students to indicate that their impact opportunities were school-organised. These opportunities were associated with growth in self-reported civic competence and social justice efficacy.”

The research suggests that by embedding service and civic competence at the core of its educational model, UWC students and alumni are more likely to carry this ethos with them over the course of their lives and careers. UWC alumni were found to be significantly more likely to attribute their career choices to their education than their non-UWC peers. The research found that the most prevalent areas of alumni social impact were in health, education, peace and justice, and gender work. 

8. Schools must provide robust mental health and wellbeing support. 
“Students had many options for mental health support at UWC, with the most trusted support coming in the form of casual relationships with adults and peers. Nearly a quarter of participants spoke of trusted relationships positively when dealing with mental health needs.”
“The adult-student relationship at UWC was most often characterised as supportive and familial. This pattern likely contributed to students’ willingness to turn to relationships with trusted adults for mental health support.”

The influence of trusted adults on the growth and wellbeing of young people cannot be underestimated, especially as they experience highly challenging transitions with academic, interpersonal and extracurricular pressures. At UWC, the positive adult-student relationship is an asset and a source of strength in the community.

The research reflects the demands of multi-layered learning experiences, such as those at UWC, and highlights academic workload, challenges of time management and culture shock as key stressors for students. 

“Concerns regarding UWC’s use of the IB curriculum included an overwhelming workload, grading and assessment, issues related to diversity and inclusion, and the promotion of more authentic learning”

This shows how important it is for educators to manage the expectations and workload of students And it also suggests the need to invest in new forms of assessment that do not distract from the purpose of learning, but rather offer continual monitoring of student growth. 

9. Sustainability must be brought to the forefront of education. 
“We hypothesize that the prevalence of sustainability as a theme for younger alumni represents the newfound urgency of rhetoric surrounding climate change in recent years. The focus on a sustainable future eclipsed even UWC’s focus on unifying diverse groups of students, which tended to be the priority for alumni from older cohorts.”

A belief in the idea of a ‘sustainable future’ was the most often mentioned component of UWC’s mission, with this element being particularly important to more recent alumni. However, it also highlights the dichotomy between the prominence of sustainability in the UWC mission statement and the visible expression of environmental sustainability in the activities of UWC schools and colleges, stressing that more could be done to fulfil UWC’s commitment to sustainability. This underlines an increasingly urgent theme on the global agenda, particularly among younger generations who are actively advocating for environmental justice.