Researching impact-driven education

An interview with Joe Binetti and Louise Smink
Vogelvlucht van de Woudestein Campus
Photo of Joe Binetti & Louise Smink

Join dr. Joe Binetti and Louise Smink MSc., researchers at Impact at the Core, for an insightful discussion on Impact-driven Education. Discover how this approach, championed at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), nurtures human capacities and empowers students to enact positive change. Explore its essence, benefits, and integration into diverse university courses.

Tell me something about yourself. Who are you? What do you do at Impact at the Core? What is your role in research? 

Louise: I have a background in political science, and I am thus familiar with studying societal problems from several angles by incorporating different opinions.

Joe: I started my adventure at Impact at the Core as a Learning and Innovator Officer in 2022. My background is in education. I have a PhD from the University of Glasgow and have worked as an educator at different levels over the years. I was offered this postdoctoral position a little longer than a year ago, which I happily accepted. 

Louise: At Impact at the Core, we work on implementing impact-driven education, and as researchers, Joe and I study this educational model at EUR. 

Joe: Yes, as she says. Currently, my role is that of organizing, coordinating and carrying out research on the topic of impact-driven education.


Portret of Joe Binetti

Interesting! Can you tell me something about your research in general?

Louise: An important goal of impact-driven education is to have students working on real-world problems that are brought forward by societal partners. Educators can use those cases in their courses instead of using hypothetical cases. In our work, we study the effects of this educational model on students, educators, and societal partners to ultimately improve impact-driven education.  

Joe: Yes, the ultimate goal is to better this educational approach. I would say that we are focusing on investigating how learning happens in an Impact-driven course. We are particularly interested in observing the effects of an open learning environment - which is designed to challenge students’ assumptions and to push them outside their comfort zone. We want to see how this learning environment affects the students’ development, not only at a content level but also in terms of their capabilities. These capabilities, we call Impact Capacities.

How do you research impact-driven education?

Joe: We use a qualitative approach informed by hermeneutic phenomenology and grounded theory. This approach is rooted in interpretivist epistemology, emphasising the importance of understanding individuals' diverse perspectives and experiences within the social context. By adopting an interpretivist stance, the research seeks to delve into the subjective meaning-making processes of educational practitioners and students, aiming to uncover how they interpret and implement impact-driven educational theories and practices in their daily interactions. This methodology allows for a nuanced exploration of the lived experiences and perceptions of those involved with impact-driven education, shedding light on the intricate relationships between educational philosophies and their practical application in fostering impactful learning experiences. But Louise can explain what we are doing in practice…

Louise: Joe and I study impact-driven education in different ways. Firstly, when educators teach, we observe those sessions to understand how this educational model works and whether it affects students and teachers. Secondly, we conducted focus groups with students and educators to ask about opinions about the impact-driven course(s) they were part of. Finally, we attend presentations of students to understand how students collaborated with societal partners and applied their knowledge to allow for a positive societal change.

What are the challenges of researching a relatively new subject at EUR? What are the biggest challenges you face in conducting research on impact-driven education? 

Joe: The challenges are two-fold. Overall, the challenges of researching impact-driven education at EUR encompass both the general difficulties of investigating a developing field and the specific complexities inherent to studying educational interventions. A further challenge is posed by the methodology I have selected. For reasons connected with the research questions as well as my personal philosophical assumptions, I am conducting a qualitative study. This comes with challenges and difficulty in understanding the scope and opportunity offered by such an approach. But I am becoming too academic…

Portret of Louise Smink

What is the value of your work for impact-driven education at EUR?

Louise: As impact-driven education differs from the traditional educational models used at universities, research is an important means to understand whether it has a (positive) effect on participants. The results of our work can thus be applied by the learning innovators from Impact at the Core to (re)develop impact-driven courses so more students can work on real-world problems during their studies. By doing so, students will be better prepared for their future careers in a rapidly changing world. 

Joe: Yes, I agree with what Louise said. But I am not entirely sure anymore that we can prepare our students for the future, at least not in a crude sense. The value of this educational approach is that of exposing students to a learning environment where the variables are unpredictable. We might not equip them with the facts they need in the future, but we are more likely to allow them to test their strengths, push their boundaries and explore unmapped territories. These experiences will one day come at hand. We should consider both the domain of ‘knowledge’ and ‘capacity’. I believe that acquiring new skills and practising them until they become abilities are two different processes requiring different rhythms. Impact-driven education wants to support the full development of the latter.

How do you see the field of impact-driven education evolving in the future? And what role do you see your research playing in that evolution?

Joe: Well, ideally, this research should serve as a starting point for further and deeper investigations. Impact-driven education is a novel concept, but it is a promising one. I hope to see more qualitative educational research in this field. Research that will provide educational practitioners with new ideas, strategies, and approaches to enhance student learning experience. But also, research that can revitalise the educational practice within academia, restoring the artistic side of the teaching profession and transcending the engineered and standardised approach to higher education. 

Louise: Since Impact at the Core started, the number of students who took an impact-driven course has grown steadily, and we have learned a great deal from those experiences. We have received many positive responses from educators, students, and societal partners, but new challenges will keep arising as we develop this model further. We welcome those responses, which will allow us to consider them moving forward.  

More information

Do you want to know more about Joe and Louise’s research on impact-driven education? Please visit the webpage for more information. Or get in touch! You can reach Joe by and Louise by Do you want to explore the possibilities for your course to become more impact-driven? Please contact to get in touch with one of our learning innovators. 

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