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AIR Research: Deeper Learning Approach Shows Positive Student Gains

The idea that students need to develop a deeper understanding of content and the ability to apply what they learn in one area to another area are major premises of new learning standards, such as the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. A new study now shows that schools promoting the practices of what's called "deeper learning" are getting better results from their students. For example, those students are more likely to graduate on time, are more likely to attend four-year colleges and achieve higher test scores.

The research was undertaken by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) and sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation.

According to AIR, deeper learning consists of three elements: a "deeper understanding of core academic content"; "the ability to apply that understanding to novel problems and situations"; and "development of a range of competencies," such as communication, collaboration, "learning to learn," development of an academic mindset and self-control. The bottom line, say proponents, is that deeper learning helps students prepare for real life.

The organization examined outcomes for students attending schools that participate in a deeper learning network community of practice. Researchers compared 13 "network" schools against non-network schools with similar levels of incoming student achievement rates and comparable levels of federal, state and local funding. All are public high schools with student populations that include students of color, English language learners and students from low-income families.

The study found that the network schools tackled development of deeper learning competencies in different ways. Most used project-based learning to help students master core academic content areas and critical thinking skills, but the structure of those projects varied across schools. Students at these schools reported "greater opportunities" to engage in deeper learning than the students in non-network schools. The network schools, for example, put a bigger emphasis on internship opportunities, study groups and student participation in decision-making.

AIR found that students attending those network schools graduated on time at "statistically significantly higher rates." Also, after graduation, they were more likely to attend a four-year college and to enroll in "more selective" institutions.

Students at network schools performed better on state assessments and the OECD PISA test, both of which are intended to assess content knowledge and problem-solving skills in core areas.

Researchers also found evidence of stronger inter- and intra-personal skills among learners at network schools, along with higher levels of academic engagement, collaboration skills and motivation to learn.

"This study is the first comprehensive look to understand if there were differences in what students experienced and learned by attending a school in the deeper learning community of practice instead of a nearby school serving similar students," said Jennifer O 'Day, AIR institute fellow in education. "The results are very promising, and we need to invest more time and energy to further understand what appear to be early indicators of success."

Added Barbara Chow, program director for education at the Hewlett Foundation, "Until recently, the evidence base regarding deeper learning's impact was limited. The AIR study is among the strongest evidence yet of deeper learning's promise to help students master the learning necessary to succeed and to keep pace with the seismic environmental and social changes that are recalibrating America's future."

Links to the three reports published by AIR are available on the AIR Web site.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.