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Deeper learning has significant impact, study finds

What is deeper learning, and how can it transform education?

deeper-learningNew research reveals that students who attend schools with a focus on deeper learning are more likely to graduate on time and demonstrate higher achievement and test scores, as well as an increased likelihood of college attendance.

The research from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), packaged in a series of three reports, also examines deeper learning’s impact on educational opportunity and 21st-century skills including critical thinking and problem solving.

Deeper learning, as defined in the report, focuses on educational outcomes involving “a deeper understanding of core academic content, the ability to apply that understanding to novel problems and situations, and the development of a range of competencies, including people skills and self control.”

(Next page: What the reports reveal about deeper learning in schools)

The study examines students in high schools that implemented deeper learning measures and compares them to “matched” students in the same district in schools that did not pursue deeper learning in order to determine if students in deeper learning schools did in fact experience greater achievement, educational opportunity, and educational attainment.

As recently as the Common Core State Standards, policymakers have focused on the need for students to develop deeper understanding of the concepts they learn in school, including the need to understand the “why” and the real-world relevance behind core academic lessons.

Deeper learning, the study claims, is important because academic knowledge alone is not enough to help students succeed in today’s global economy, and students need diverse communication skills to collaborate with others and expand their own knowledge. This holds potential for how today’s students learn and how they can achieve success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which funded the AIR study, outlines six dimensions of deeper learning:

  1. Mastery of core academic content
  2. Critical thinking and problem solving
  3. Effective communication
  4. Ability to work collaboratively
  5. Learning how to learn
  6. Academic mindsets

The National Research Council defines deeper learning as “the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it to new situations.” Those competencies are grouped into three domains, which the AIR report notes easily categorize the six dimensions from the Hewlett Foundation:

  • Cognitive Domain: Deep content knowledge; Critical thinking and complex problem solving
  • Interpersonal Domain: Collaboration; Communication
  • Intrapersonal Domain: Learning-to-learn competencies; Academic mindsets

The findings are all statistically significant, noted Jennifer O’Day, the co-principal investigator for the study and a managing research scientist and policy analyst in AIR’s Education, Human Development, and Workforce Program.

“Deeper learning network school students graduated on time at a 9 percent higher rate than their counterparts, were more likely to attend four-year colleges and enroll in the top 20 percent of colleges and universities in the country than were their counterparts,” she said.

“Students in networked schools reported higher levels of engagement, motivation to learn, self-efficacy, and collaboration skills. These particular sets of skills are believed to be predictive of attainment and achievement.”

The first report focuses on the strategies and methods educators used to support deeper learning in their schools.

Key takeaways identified by researchers include:

  • Schools in the deeper learning network approached deeper learning competencies in a variety of ways
  • Most schools employed project-based learning, though their approaches to that method varied
  • The majority of deeper learning network schools made interpersonal skill development a goal
  • Network schools used internships, projects, study groups, and more in order to encourage and support academic mindsets
  • Most of the schools established guidelines and school culture to help implement instructional strategies aligned with deeper learning

The second report highlights opportunities deeper learning opportunities available to students in the deeper learning network schools.

Researchers identified five main points:

  • Students attending schools in the deeper learning network said, on average, they had more opportunities to engage in deeper learning than their counterparts in non-network schools
  • Those opportunities appeared in diverse student populations, including underserved students
  • The effects of attending an in-network school offered positive opportunities across all student subgroups
  • Teachers’ most challenging assignments in the in-network schools offered more chance for independent math learning and real-world connections English/language arts than non-network schools
  • Students’ opportunities for deeper learning, whether or not they attended a network school, were associated with those students’ deeper learning outcomes

The third report investigates whether students in deeper learning schools had higher educational outcomes than their “matched” counterparts in schools that did not focus on deeper learning.

Some of the top takeaways include:

  • Students attending deeper learning network schools achieved, on average, higher scores on the OECD PISA-Based Test for Schools, which assesses problem-solving skills and core content knowledge, than their counterparts in non-network schools
  • Students attending in-network schools were more likely to graduate from high school on time than students in non-network schools

“Deeper learning provides us a new North Star for education. The positive outcomes found by this study confirm that we are on the right path. Our teachers have embraced deeper learning and, as a result, our students are receiving an education that engages them and enables them to master the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed,” said Ron Berger, chief program officer of Expeditionary Learning, a member of the deeper learning network.

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Laura Ascione

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