Let's Improve Learning. OK, but How?

December 31, 2011

Does American higher education have a systematic way of thinking about how to improve student learning? It would certainly be useful, especially at a time when budgets are tight and the pressure is on to demonstrate better results.

Oh, there's plenty of discussion—bright ideas, old certainties, and new approaches—and a rich discourse about innovation, reinvention, and transformation. But the most powerful ideas about improving learning are often unspoken. Amid all the talk about change, old assumptions exert their continuing grasp. For example, most of us assume that expanding the number of fields and specialties in the curriculum (and of faculty to teach them), providing more small classes, and lowering teaching loads (and, hence, lowering student-faculty ratios) are inherently good things. But while many of those ideas are plausible, few have been rigorously evaluated. So maybe it's time to stop relying on assumptions about improving learning and start finding out what really works best.

A genuine theory of change, as such a systematic evaluation of effectiveness is sometimes called, would be grounded in knowledge about how students learn, and in the best way to put that knowledge to work. The theory should also be educationally robust; that is, it should not just help colleges expose students to certain subject matter, but also challenge institutions to help students develop the long-lasting survival skills needed in a time of radical and often unpredictable change. And it must also have its feet on the ground, with a sure footing in financial realities.

Above all, those who would develop a truly systematic way of thinking about and creating change must be able to articulate their purpose. Given the great diversity of institutional types, student demographics, history, and mission among American colleges and universities, it's hard to discern a shared sense of purpose. But when faculty members, senior ad­ministrators, alumni, and business leaders were questioned in some depth about this by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a basic consensus emerged. Indeed, developing a consensus about the purpose of a college education isn't the problem; the challenge is to articulate it, clearly and cogently, and to embed it in educational practice. Without that, a theory of change remains just that—a theory.

Finally, a true theory of change has to be verifiable. That is, it has to include plausible ways to determine whether the claims it makes and the goals it sets are being realized. Until recently the gap between ideas about the purpose of higher education and day-to-day practice had been almost insuperable. Fortunately, things are changing, in part because we are learning more about how students learn.

In fact, one of the benefits of the assessment movement is that rigorous analysis of data about student engagement and learning is showing precisely what works and what doesn't. For example, data from the National Survey of Student Engagement have led to the identification of 10 "high-impact practices" that demonstrably increase student engagement, retention, and graduation rates. They are: first-year seminars and experiences; common intellectual experiences; learning communities; writing-intensive courses; collaborative assignments and projects; undergraduate research; diversity/global learning; service and community-based learning; internships; and capstone courses and projects.

What's happening inside these programs, and inside the classroom? The Wabash National Study has tracked the cognitive and personal growth of more than 17,000 students at 19 institutions, public and private, large and small, selective and not so selective. The study looked at such things as critical thinking, academic motivation, moral reasoning, and personal well-being.

Preliminary results show only modest gains in many areas and backsliding in others, while some of the practices that we might expect would work very well have at best mixed results. For example, the frequency with which students interacted with faculty members or the extent of peer or group learning benefited some students on some outcome measures but had no or even a negative effect on others.

The study found, however, four clusters of practices that make a drastic difference to students' growth in both academic and nonacademic areas: good teaching and high-quality interactions with faculty; academic challenge and high expectations; diversity experiences; and higher-order, integrative, reflective learning.

If one looks more closely at the components of these clusters, one finds not the usual bromides about accessible teachers and a supportive educational environment, but specific forms of interaction that evidence shows are truly effective. These practices, moreover, are not the exclusive domain of prestigious and affluent institutions, nor are they especially expensive to adopt. Much depends on the expectations institutions set for their students and for themselves, and on their determination to allocate time and other resources where they make a demonstrable difference, and pare them back when they don't.

Emerging from such studies is a new approach to learning, explicit about its pur­poses, intentional in the way departmental and class requirements link to those purposes, and evidence-based in classroom practices and in the way resources are allocated. Does it add up to a full theory of change? Maybe not yet, but it's a start.

W. Robert Connor is a senior adviser to the Teagle Foundation.