Incorporating Social Impact Issues into the Study Programme

Why is social impact relevant for your programme?

Your programme prepares graduates for a role in society, that much is obvious. As a programme, it is important that there is some reflection on how this role is realised. Should the focus be solely on “preparation for the job market”, or should it also be on the “broader societal role” of the graduate student? If a programme wants to offer high-quality education, it should ensure not only a proper didactic structure, but also attention being given to current societal topics. The following operational goals in the Ghent University-programme monitors emphasise that societal importance:

  • The programme gives as many opportunities as possible for students to develop themselves in the fields of “sustainability, entrepreneurship, and societal engagement” of Ghent University. (DS-0031). 
  • The programme communicates its vision, mission, uniqueness, and profile to external stakeholders (e.g. the professional field, alumni, policy(makers), national and international experts, …). The programme ensures that those stakeholders keep the programme appraised of any developments in the field, and the professional field, and the societal relevance of its programmes (DS-0036). 

Developing the societal impact has several advantages for your programme:

  • Education that explicitly refers to the societal relevance of the class contents motivates students. It becomes a real eye opener when students experience that they, using their -  at that point limited – expertise, can offer a substantial contribution to resolving a real problem. 
  • Realising a bigger societal impact, a.o. via their education, increases the motivation of lecturers. The research and education at Ghent University are always, to varying degrees, in service of society. From a large-scale survey, it became clear that academics find this societal relevance to be very important and motivating. 
  • An additional added value is to create contacts with external stakeholders via educational practice. This allows you to get to know more stakeholders, to receive a different kind of feedback, and to increase the involvement of your stakeholders. This allows the programme to find a closer connection to the expectations of a larger group of stakeholders. On top of this, doing this contributes to positive profiling for a programme. 

What does Ghent University mean by “societal impact”?

In its mission statement, Ghent University underlines the importance of her societal role, amongst others by “giving attention to the social and economic applications of her research findings”. Additionally, “societal identity” is one of the six university-wide policy choices (UBK’s) put forward by this  policy team. Ghent University translates “societal impact”, in a manner analogous to the definition of societal valorisation of research, as “creating added value for the community of non-academic interests (going from “the broad public” to very specific groups of stakeholders), via educational and learning activities applied specifically for those purposes.”


Each programme can create this societal added value for non-academic interests in its own way, for example, by:

  • Changing the target audience or the beneficiary: Societal relevance can often be increased by extending the intended target audiences (e.g. to older groups), or by narrowing it to people in a societally vulnerable position (e.g. children with a migrant background). 
  • Involving the target audience: The essence of co-creation, and transdisciplinary practise, is not just working for, but also working with a target audience on a product or service.  
  • Changing the problem that is studied, or emphasising its societal relevance, for example: environmental law, sustainable forestry, …
  • Broadening the field of application, or re-interpreting it, for example by going from purely economic to socio-economic applications, from profit to social profit, from theoretical applications to applications that offer more quality in daily life, …
  • Framing the symbolic or socio-cultural knowledge of your field, for example: giving meaning via philosophy, feeling consolation offered by art, finding wisdom in literature, …

How can societal impact be translated into programme and final competencies?

What does the Ghent University skills model have to say on societal impact?

Ghent University takes the societal involvement of its graduates seriously. The Ghent University skills model mentions the importance of societal impact extensively, both explicitly and implicitly. 

In particular, skill area 5, ‘societal competence’, offers explicit points of reference for societal impact on bachelor and master level. 

On the level of the bachelor, the following Ghent University competencies are involved, along with a selection of the illustrations:

  • Have an understanding of societal debates and tendencies
    • Profound knowledge: having insight into the cultural and societal meaning of the field, of one’s own role in it, and knowing one’s own societal responsibility; reflecting critically and profoundly on one’s own academic experiences. 
    • Societal orientation: understanding, and showing involvement, in normative and societal questions; detecting real societal needs; exemplifying a societal sense of responsibility; engaging oneself to question societal problems. 
  • Analysing the ethical and normative aspects of the consequences and assumptions of scientific thinking and acting (both in research and in designs), and discussing these with peers and non-peers
    • Paying attention to societal questions and needs for innovation. 

On the master’s level, the following Ghent University competencies are involved, along with a selection from the illustrations:

  • Displaying social engagement / active citizenship
    • Integration of theory and practice: integrating societal consequences of new developments in scientific work; integrating economic, social and cultural developments in relevant fields in one’s own research or design; integrating societal relevance and engagement in scientific work; investigating social norms and relations critically, and taking actions to change these; applying academic knowledge in a societal context. 
    • Critical societal reflection: thinking critically about one’s own (future) role in society; encouraging others to reflect critically on their societal role; integrating many voices in societal debate. 
    • Societal engagement: displaying a rounded and internalized personal world view that demonstrates involvement and/or solidarity with others; taking on a critical and active role in society; displaying social engagements inside or outside of Ghent University related to acquiring academic contents; cooperating with societal actors with the aim of exchanging knowledge; thinking and acting in a manner that keeps the communityin mind; actively meeting the real societal needs within society; displaying active and critical world citizenship. 
  • Integrating ethical and normative aspects in scientific work
    • Decision making: involving societal questions and innovation needs in one’s own research or design. 

The Ghent University skills model also refers to the societal aspects of education in other competence fields. These are marked in the illustrated Ghent University skills model

What are some examples of programme and final competencies related to societal impact?

Each programme must translate these Ghent University competencies to more concrete competencies, be that programme competencies (at the programme level) or final competencies (on the level of the regular course units). 

At the level of the programme

  • Integrating a societal sense of responsibility, engagement, cultural sensitivity and respect for diversity in moral scientific and ethical research (Master of Arts in de moraalwetenschappen)
  • Recognising societal discussions on the applications and ethical implications of the field and discussing these with peers and non-peers (Bachelor of Science in de biochemie en de biotechnologie)
  • Forming an opinion on societal problem definitions, giving particular attention to a sustainable society. (Bachelor of Science in de bestuurskunde en het publiek management)
  • Showing awareness of the societal and economic role of the bio-engineer in society. (Bachelor of Science in de bio-ingenieurswetenschappen)
    On top of this, the homepage of the bio-engineering programme explicitly mentions the importance of societal impact: “being an engineer means that you use your knowledge to come up with solution for societal problems. How do we tackle climate change? How can we make sure there is enough food for a growing world population? How can we deal with environmental pollution?”

On the level of the course units

These course units have societal impact as one of their sub-themes, and formulate the following final competencies regarding societal impact:

  • Have an insight in the relation between law and society. (final competence in BA criminologie, course unit Grondslagen van het (straf)recht (B001625))
  • Have an integrated vision on the relation patient-medicine-healthcare provider and on the relation healthcare provider – pharmaceutical industry (final compentence in MA farmacie, course unit Geïntegreerde medicatiebegeleiding en medicatiebewaking (J000433))
  • Have experience with handling a complex urban sustainability issue.  (final competence in Master of Science in de ingenieurswetenschappen, politieke wetenschappen, en stedenbouw en ruimtelijke planning, course unit Duurzame steden (E084580))

A specific and powerful working form to create societal impact is Community Service Learning. The following course units apply CSL as their format. If you click the links, you will find more final competencies related to societal impact for each of these course units:

How can you work at societal impact in educational and learning activities?

Via approachable formats

Creating societal impact via the study programme can be done in many different ways. Approachable formats that can easily be integrated in one course unit are, for example: 

  • Inviting a guest speaker or experts by experience,
  • Visiting an organisation that works with societally vulnerable youths,
  • Working on a case study from the social profit,
  • Giving a reflection-exercise on ongoing judicial issues on which multiple views exist. 

Via a learning trajectory on societal impact

Make no mistake: societal involvement is not necessarily an automatic reflex. Can young students, often from a privileged background, be blamed for not having an accurate view on the impact of poverty or a language deficiency for school children? Allowing students who have not had adequate preparation to work with target audiences they have never encountered before, can lead frustration and resistance. A too rough confrontation can even result in more friction than that present in the original situation. 

As such, it is recommended to think, together with the study programme committee, about how students can learn the competencies on societal impact in a gradual, step-by-step manner. One way to do so is via a learning trajectory on social impact. Here, you can find how you can create a coherent learning trajectory that is supported by, and feasible for, all lecturers. After all, a learning trajectory does require more time, (financial) space, and staff. 

Examples from practice in which societal impact has been integrated in education and learning activities

General examples

From the course description file of the course unit Grondslagen van het (straf)recht (B001625)

“The traditional lecture and response college transition into each other seamlessly. Next to the traditional teaching on the syllabus, via “environmental law in action” teaching is done in a more interactive manner. Booklets containing jurisprudence, accompanied by questions, on judicial problems on which multiple views exist, are spread through the website. Via Kahootquizzes, these materials are discussed in class. In addition, the lecturer demonstrates a scientific attitude, and critical eye towards environmental law, and its societal factors, and maintains a positive attitude towards sustainable development. 

Community Service Learning (CSL)

CSL is a form of education that has students in a given course unit engage with a societal engagement, in a real societal context (e.g. a vulnerable target group, an NGO, a societal civil society organisation, a health care organisation, …). During this engagement, students apply the theory, and reflect critically (an organised reflection b.m.o. a portfolio, intervision, …) to make the link between theory and practice and to trigger societal and personal learning (e.g. a sense of citizenship, learning to deal with diversity, …).

As such, Community Service Learning is comprised of three interconnected components:

  • The theory
  • The practice
  • Critical reflection

A typical aspect of CSL is “reciprocity”: both the student and the community can profit. The student acquires academic, personal and societal attainment targets, and the stakeholders from the real societal context (the vulnerable target group, the NGO, …) receive answers to real questions. 

Would you like to get started with CSL in your course unit? These examples of good practice and the step-by-step plan can help you in doing so.  

Learning trajectory in the programme Dentistry 

The student population of the Dentistry programme is not very diverse in terms of prior education (almost 100 percent of the students stems from General Education) and in terms of family or origin (privileged families of which both parents are Belgian). As such, it is not self-evident dat these students have knowledge of, and feeling with, underprivileged target audiences. Because of this, a step-by-steep build-up in the curriculum via the course units “Mondgezondheid en maatschappij”  (I, II and Praktijk). 

In the first bachelor year, children from a local school visit the University Hospital. Often, it is a first meeting for both parties: these children are not used to going to the dentist, and, for students, it is the first time they get to look inside a patient’s mouth. 

In the second bachelor, care structures are given particular attention. The central issue is: how can the learning environment of the child be made healthier? In their turn, students visit the school. They will teach about oral health, and look for elements in the environment that affect oral health. Based on this, they can formulate recommendations for the school. 

In the first master’s year, finally, students apply their knowledge to practice. Students can independently choose a welfare organisation (residential care facilities, refugee centres, poverty associations, …) that help a target audience that has a given vulnerability. The students analyse the situation on site, and, after this, develop a plan to structurally improve the organisation’s oral health. The course ends with a presentation for their fellow students, the lecturer, and the organisations involved. 

Transdisciplinary examples

While interdisciplinary points to cooperation between different academic disciplines, transdisciplinarity focusses specifically on the cooperation between students and teachers, and non-academic actors.

Working in a transdisciplinary manner: the Stadsacademie, and Living Lab Campus Sterre

The Stadsacademie is a platform that focusses on socio-ecological problems faced by the city of Ghent and Ghent University. Academics, students, policy makers, civil society organisations, … cooperate in inter- and transdisciplinary research processes in order to define and resolve problems, conduct (living lab) experiments and work at scale-up initiatives, (policy) reports and scientific articles. Tasks are explored via student research – course, internship, bachelor’s paper and interdisciplinary master’s thesis workshops. This involves the organisation of field trips, expert panels, consultations of stakeholders, etc. In a master’s thesis workshop, students work in an interdisciplinary setting, although always in the context of their programme. There are opportunities for students to work together physically in the Green Hub, and discussions between students of different disciplines is facilitated. The results are shared with the central administration, and with a larger public via presentations and conferences. The theses are published on the website of the Stadsacademie and are taken up in the communication of the Sustainability office.

The living Lab campus Sterre is a project of the Stadsacademie, in which the campus serves as an experimentation space for students, university staff, academic staff and external actors who, together, develop innovative measures to make the campus more sustainable and climate friendly. 

Find a real-life challenge via Durf Ondernemen (DO!)

Each year, Durf Ondernemen launches a call to organisations and companies to submit challenges, for which they are in search of a solution. These challenges are then dealt with by the students during the next academic year. This call is also open, although not specifically, to the non-profit sector. DO! then searches for course units or projects that feel up for the challenge via the Design Thinking-method. 

How can you test societal impact?

Have a look at, next to the general testing principles of Ghent University, these extra tips to evaluate the competencies on societal impact: 

Involve Stakeholders 

If students have to carry out an assignment, or have to gain practical experience with an external stakeholder, it’s a good idea to incorporate the stakeholder’s experience in the evaluation. As such, have the student create an end product that is also immediately accessible to those externals: a summary, recommendations, a clip, a lecture, …

For example:

From the course description file of the CSL-course unit Diversiteit en inclusie (H001894):

Clarification on continuous assessment (15%)

This involves exercises in the professional field that, depending on the assignment and the partner involved, can take different forms. The investment in the exercises is set in conversation with the students and the professional field. The evaluation can happen on the basis of a workpiece, or on the basis of a presentation. Participation and involvement will be considered, among others, via a system of peer evaluation. The partner from the professional field will also be included in this.”

For the programme as a whole, it is, one way or the other, also of interest to maintain contacts with these stakeholders, and to ask them about specific feedback on the programme

Ensure a sufficient number of evaluation moments and a good spread within the programme

  • Each programme competence societal impact must be tested at least twice within the programme (cf. testing principle 3). A handy instrument to check if this is the case, is the skills model. This model charts which programme competencies are present, in which course units, and how they are present in terms of the education and learning activities and the testing of the programme as a whole; 
  • Align the evaluations of the societal competencies within one programme. Programmes that have a learning trajectory on societal impact should incorporate these competencies gradually throughout the programme and should align the evaluation of this carefully. Does the programme not have a learning trajectory? Then, the evaluations can be aligned via a common set of evaluation criteria, or a rubric, among different projects or course units. 

Create a good mix of evaluation forms

Employ an appropriate mix of evaluation forms to cover the broad range of societal competencies (going  from knowledge on societal problems, to skills like critically analyzing a complex situations, to attitudes such as willingness for engagement) in the programme’s testing. 

Use rubrics

  • Societal competencies often have an important skill and attitude component. That makes them harder to test with traditional means of evaluation, but easier to test via observations, papers, presentations and portfolios. 
  • Employ somewhat broader evaluation criteria, based on your attainment targets, supplements by levels or standards by which you indicate to what extent each criterium has been achieved. Rubrics allow for an easy way to display the combination of evaluation critera and levels or standards. For example: from the course description file of the CSL-course unit Zorg, coaching en begeleiding in het onderwijs (H002048): “Clarification continuous assessment:
    • Form: evaluation of the exercises during the field work + evaluation of the finished portfolio
    • Frequency: at least 1 periodical evaluation of the exercises during the field work + evaluation of the finished portfolio
    • Feedback: feedback on the exercises will be given via individual progress conversations, intervision and supervision conversations. Feedback on the portfolio is organised via individual discussions.”

Include societal orientation as a criterium in the evaluation forms for the master’s dissertation or internship

In the master’s dissertation, and in the internships, graduates-to-be demonstrate that they have been able to apply the acquired knowledge and skills in an integrated manner. Because of this, both evaluation formats offer an excellent starting point to reflect on their future role  in society. 

Want to know more?

Contact Education Support:

Read the sources on which this page is based:

  • Ward E., Hazelkorn E. (2012) Engaging with the Community. In: Leadership and Governance in Higher Education, Volume 2.

UGent Practices

Last modified Oct. 16, 2023, 1:53 p.m.