What Do We Know About Deeper Learning?

In September 2014, American Institutes for Research (AIR) released The Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes. Recently, I sat down with Catherine Bitter, the deputy project director for the study, to learn more about deeper learning.

CCRS Center: What is deeper learning?

Catherine Bitter: Deeper learning has been an evolving concept, but there has been a common, growing recognition that just academic knowledge and skills are not enough for students to be successful in today’s day and age. There’s a growing recognition that students need to develop communication skills, need to be able to work with others, and need to learn how to learn. They also need to develop what’s been termed “mindsets” in order to do well—things like motivation and perseverance. In addition, they need to apply what they learn to new and different situations and problems. Essentially, deeper learning is considered to be a combination of the deep content knowledge that students still need to develop; the ability to apply that content knowledge to new and different situations; and then the development of additional competencies, such as communication and collaboration skills, an understanding of how to learn, and these mindsets.

For the purposes of AIR’s study on deeper learning, we focused on the Hewlett Foundation’s six dimensions of deeper learning (identified through research on the literature surrounding the concept of deeper learning):

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

CCRS: If someone visited a classroom, what would they see that would tell them it is a class focused on deeper learning? Are there different expectations for the students?

CB: We looked at this during the study by visiting 19 schools focused on deeper learning and talking with administrators, teachers, and students. We learned that schools are implementing deeper learning in many different ways. There’s not just one way to do it, but we did see some common features:

  • Project-based learning: Students work on short- or long-term (semester-long) projects that may have a lot of different facets. Students may be doing some fieldwork, they may have speakers come to the school, or the students may give presentations to audiences outside of the school. Much of the project-based work we heard about enabled students to make real-world connections by focusing on real-world problems and providing opportunities for students to engage with the community. This work also aimed to help students develop skills such as communication and collaboration, in addition to content knowledge and problem-solving skills.
  • Collaborative group work: We heard a lot about students working together with assigned roles within group projects, focused on both learning academic content and developing teamwork skills.
  • How students are assessed: In addition to formative assessments, teachers reported using longer term, cumulative assessments such as students’ creating portfolios of their work over the course of the semester to demonstrate what they learned. In some schools, students have exhibitions where they present on projects that they worked on throughout the year.
  • Internships: We focused our research only on high schools, and 14 of the 19 schools we visited had some sort of internship program with the community. Some internships were more intense than others, but all worked toward developing interpersonal and intrapersonal skills and provided students with real-world experience. 
  • Structures that support deeper learning: Many schools had advisory classes that were focused on personalizing instruction and creating a community feeling at the school. For example, some schools made sure that each student had an adult that knew him or her well and could help him or her focus on the skills they needed to develop. Other types of structures we saw were flexible schedules that allowed for fieldwork and block schedules, so students had more time for in-depth project work.

CCRS: Do schools that institute deeper learning have different report cards that give a grade for perseverance, teamwork, communication, and other “soft skills”?

CB: That’s a good question. Our research didn’t focus on grading policies, but we did hear from some schools that they’re starting to set goals for students related to some of these skills. For example, one school instituted a “Habits of Work” goal. If students exhibited good work habits, for example, time management, they received additional flexibility to revise and perfect some of their assignments.

We also saw that the longer term projects mentioned earlier were typically graded on a rubric, and the rubric could include measures such as communication skills, teamwork skills, how well students collaborated with each other, etc. Therefore, we did see evidence that these different types of dispositions and soft skills are working their way into the assessment process.

CCRS: What did AIR’s Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes report show in terms of the impact of attending a school focused on deeper learning?

CB: We looked at two areas for impact: opportunities that students experienced in the classroom and outcomes based on several different measures.

Opportunities: The Hewlett Foundation identified ten networks of schools that implement different approaches to deeper learning, and we selected schools that were considered to be moderate to high implementers within these networks (which we call “network schools” in our reports.)[1] We investigated whether students were actually experiencing more opportunities to develop these six dimensions of deeper learning than would likely have been the case if they had not attended a network school.

We conducted a survey of students in both network schools instituting approaches to deeper learning and comparison schools in the same geographic location that were not part of a deeper learning network. Specifically, we asked about opportunities for things such as complex problem solving, collaboration, communication, learning how to learn, assessments aligned with deeper learning, among others. We saw across the board that students in the network schools reported more opportunities to engage in deeper learning than similar students who attended comparison schools. Now that we see that students are experiencing something different, we asked, is this translating into differences in student outcomes?

Outcomes: We looked at a few types of outcomes. First, we analyzed on-time graduation rates (within four years of entering ninth grade), and we found that students attending deeper learning network schools had higher rates of on-time graduation compared to students at the comparison schools. In fact, the graduation rate for students in network schools was approximately nine percentage points higher than the graduation rate for similar students who attended comparison schools. We consider this to be a fairly substantial difference in graduation rates, so that was pretty exciting.

We also collected data from the National Student Clearinghouse, which compiles data on postsecondary enrollment at two- and four-year institutions for more than 90 percent of colleges and universities across the country. We found similar rates of enrollment at postsecondary institutions overall between the network and comparison students, but we found that students who attended the deeper learning network schools were more likely to enroll in four-year institutions. They also were more likely to enroll at selective institutions.

We also administered the OECD PISA-based Test for Schools (PBTS) to students in both the network and the comparison schools, which measures math, reading, and science content knowledge and complex problem solving. We found that students attending the network schools had higher levels of achievement—across all three subjects—on the PBTS compared to similar students at the comparison schools. We also looked at the state test scores—the regular high school achievement tests—and we saw a difference there as well, with higher levels of achievement among the students at the network schools versus the students at the comparison schools.

The last area of impact we looked at was interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies. Interpersonal competencies are things like collaboration skills and communication skills, while intrapersonal competencies include the “mindsets” we considered: academic engagement, motivation to learn, perseverance, etc. and an understanding of how to learn (i.e., self-management). Using student survey data, we found that students in the network schools reported higher levels of collaboration skills, academic engagement, motivation to learn, and self-efficacy than similar students at the comparison schools. There were other measures for which we did not see a difference, including self-management, creative thinking, perseverance, and locus of control.

CCRS: What are the implications for learning strategies or curriculum based on the results of the study? Does a focus on deeper learning provide flexibility in how and what teachers teach? Is this a way to get away from just “teaching to the test”? And are teachers more satisfied when they’re able to teach in a deeper learning style?

CB: In terms of flexibility, the schools approached deeper learning in many different ways. Some schools focused more on personalized instruction and worked with individual students to develop personalized learning plans, while other schools incorporated more collaborative work or strategies to develop communication skills. Some schools offered intensive internships, some focused on long-term project work, some incorporated interdisciplinary projects. The range of approaches used for deeper learning indicates that there is a lot of flexibility.

Regarding your question about “teaching to the test,” we did hear some reports from teachers and administrators of the tension between preparing students for state assessments versus focusing on deeper learning. In some cases, it was a balancing act for teachers to engage students in in-depth project work and cover the breadth of topics associated with the state test. That may evolve over time, particularly as assessments become more aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

CCRS: You mentioned earlier that the students in the deeper learning network schools demonstrated higher achievement levels on the state assessment tests than those in comparison schools. But deeper learning is not about “teaching to the test.” What did you see in terms of the relationship between a focus on deeper learning and the higher state assessment test scores?

CB: Many of these schools did report that they were not focused solely on preparing students for the state test. For example, one school I visited had just received its state test scores. The school had done quite well, and the principal said that he had actually prepared teachers and parents ahead of time for the worst-case scenario because they had not been focused on test preparation. We did hear reports at some network schools that teachers were making sure students were prepared for state tests. But overall, the main goal of these network schools wasn’t to do well on these state tests. The fact that they still did well demonstrates the broader outcomes of these approaches.

CCRS: Did you look at the diversity of the student body to see whether a focus on deeper learning has similar effects for all students, for example, students from low-income families?

CB: We examined the effect of deeper learning approaches on subgroups of students to the extent possible given the data we had available. We chose schools for the study that served traditionally underserved student populations, including many urban, high-poverty schools. For all the schools in the study, at least 30 of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. We then looked at differences in the effects of attending a network school on opportunities and outcomes among subgroups of students. For example, we asked, “Were the effects of attending a deeper learning network school similar for those who did or did not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch?” We saw similar positive effects on opportunities for deeper learning, graduation, state test scores, and postsecondary enrollment for both subgroups of students. We also observed similar positive effects on opportunities for deeper learning, on PBTS and state test scores, and on graduation for students who entered school with lower and higher prior achievement. In addition, we found that the effects of attending a network school on postsecondary enrollment were stronger for students who entered with lower achievement than for those who entered with higher achievement. These results demonstrated that deeper learning isn’t an approach just for high-achieving students from high-income families; it has the potential to benefit many groups of students.

CCRS: What more do we need to understand about deeper learning to use it effectively as a strategy to improve student outcomes?

CB: There is more work that can be done to better understand what helps to make a school’s approach to deeper learning successful. We are currently digging more deeply into the case study data we collected to better understand what conditions, supports, and school features (such as teacher collaboration, leadership, and school climate) facilitate or challenge the implementation and sustainability of deeper learning. We’d also like to understand which approaches to deeper learning seem to have more impact on students’ opportunities because there are multiple approaches educators can take to develop deeper learning mindsets and skills.

The Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes is available through AIR.

Jenny Bushaw is the Dissemination Lead for the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at AIR.

Photo credit: Flickr

[1] “Network schools” refers to schools that were identified as moderate to high implementers of deeper learning and were associated with a set of networks that participate in the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Community of Practice. These networks embrace the goals of deeper learning and promote instructional practices that their member schools believe are likely to lead to deeper learning competencies. Schools in the network serve a diverse and traditionally underserved group of students, including substantial populations of students living in poverty and, in some cases, large populations of English language learners. 


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