Although many educators have implemented deeper learning approaches in their classrooms and schools for years, the research about the effects of these approaches on student opportunities and learning has lagged. To address this research gap, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to conduct the Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes. AIR aimed to test the concept of deeper learning across a range of school models, and focused on high schools that had been at this work—using at least a moderately well-implemented approach—for a minimum of four years. Did students in these schools actually experience greater deeper learning opportunities and outcomes than they likely would have had they attended other schools serving similar students in the same district or locale? Here, AIR briefly summarizes its five-year longitudinal study to answer this question.
Advocates of deeper learning argue that academic instruction is not enough to enable students to successfully navigate a rapidly changing world, participate in a complex and increasingly diverse democracy, and engage fully in the ever-evolving 21st century workplace. Students must be able to communicate their ideas effectively, think creatively, work collaboratively to solve problems, and manage their own learning. They need to develop dispositions—or mindsets—that empower them to confront new challenges, take initiative, and persevere through difficulties and setbacks.
This combination of (1) a deeper understanding of core academic content, (2) the ability to apply that understanding to novel problems and situations, and (3) the development of competencies such as people skills and self-control, is called “deeper learning.”
For the Study of Deeper Learning, our research team examined a set of selected high schools associated with 10 established networks from across the country (“network schools”). 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 study serve a diverse and traditionally underserved group of students, including substantial populations (between 25 percent and 100 percent) of students living in poverty and, in some cases, large populations of English language learners.
To examine whether students in these high schools experienced greater opportunities for deeper learning and better outcomes than they would have experienced in other schools, we also included students from a set of comparison schools that served similar student populations and were in the same geographic locales as the network schools. Matched pairs of network and comparison schools were located in California and New York City. Each comparison school was purposefully selected to be similar to its matched network school in terms of the academic and demographic background of the students enrolled, but network schools (particularly in California) tended to be smaller in enrollment, reflecting the school membership of the ten networks. In addition, six of the sixteen matched network schools were charter schools, also reflecting the membership of the ten networks, while none of the comparison schools were charter schools. We conducted exploratory analyses revealing that school size and charter status did not account for the positive impacts of network schools.
Deeper learning network schools were more likely to implement specific strategies to develop deeper learning skills than were comparison schools.
Our research showed that deeper learning network schools applied a range of strategies to foster deeper learning competencies. These strategies, reported through interviews with school administrators and staff across 19 network schools, included the following:
Interviews with the principals in comparison schools suggested that some of the comparison schools employed these strategies as well, but that they were more common in the network schools. For example, the principal interviews indicated that project-based learning was implemented at nearly all 19 network schools to some extent, while it happened at 6 of 11 comparison schools in some classes, depending on the teacher and classroom, Network schools also employed school structures such as advisory classes and alternative scheduling to a higher degree than the comparison schools.
Students attending deeper learning network schools reported significantly greater opportunities for deeper learning in their classes than did students who attended comparison schools.
To measure students’ opportunities to engage in deeper learning during high school, we administered a student survey to 1,762 students in 12 network and ten comparison schools in spring 2013. This survey included the following opportunities for deeper learning measures that students may have experienced in the classroom.:
For each measure, students in these network schools reported experiencing significantly more opportunities to engage in deeper learning than did similar students at comparison schools. These findings were evident among a diverse group of students, including students who entered high school as either low or high achievers and students who did and did not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Across deeper learning network schools, certain teacher beliefs about teaching were strongly related to students’ reports of experiencing opportunities for deeper learning in their classes.
We also examined which school features facilitated network schools’ ability to provide deeper learning opportunities for students. Using data from the study’s teacher and student surveys, we explored how teachers’ beliefs about teaching, their sense of the professional culture among teachers (e.g., teacher collaboration, common expectations for teaching and learning), and their assessment of the principal as a leader were related to students’ reports of experiencing opportunities for deeper learning in their classes.
Across the network schools, student-centered beliefs about teaching and teachers’ sense of self-efficacy for teaching were most strongly and consistently related to students’ deeper learning opportunities. The teacher survey measured student-centered beliefs about teaching using questions that asked about the extent to which teachers agreed with statements such as, “My role as a teacher is to facilitate students’ own inquiry” and “Students should be allowed to think of solutions to practical problems themselves before the teacher shows them how they are solved.” A student in one network school using a student-centered approach described the experience this way:
[The teachers] give us time to think about how something works. You have to think and figure out why… how it works, and figure out the answer by yourself [in] different ways as much as you can… Sometimes you figure it out by yourself and sometimes with other students. Once you figure it out, it’s kind of exciting.
Teachers’ sense of self-efficacy for teaching was measured using questions that asked teachers how much they felt in control of various aspects of student learning, such as getting through to the most difficult students, getting students to work together, and getting students to do their homework.
Our measures of teacher professional culture and leadership, on the other hand, were not strongly related to student opportunities. However, case study data suggested that some of these features, specifically teacher collaboration, shared leadership, and support received from the deeper learning networks might affect student opportunities indirectly through their influence on teachers’ beliefs about teaching.
Students attending network schools demonstrated significantly higher levels of deeper learning outcomes than students who attended comparison schools.
Two primary goals of deeper learning are to develop complex problem solving and mastery of core content. To measure these competencies, we administered the OECD PISA-based Test for Schools (PBTS)—a test that assesses core content knowledge and complex problem-solving skills—to a sample of 1,267 students in 11 network schools and nine comparison schools.
On average, students in deeper learning network schools achieved significantly higher scores on the PBTS than similar students in comparison schools in all three subject areas: reading, mathematics, and science.
We also measured the following interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies using data from the student survey.:
Overall, students in deeper learning network schools reported significantly higher levels of collaboration skills, academic engagement, motivation to learn, and self-efficacy. However, we found no significant differences between students who attended network schools and similar students at comparison schools relative to reported creative thinking skills, perseverance, locus of control, or self-management. Students attending deeper learning network schools also showed more positive outcomes on traditional measures of achievement than students who attended comparison schools.
Although many practitioners, researchers, and policy makers argue for the need to develop deeper learning competencies or 21st century skills, critics contend that more traditional measures of achievement, such as standardized test scores and on-time graduation rates, still matter because they have real consequences for students. Does a focus on deeper learning competencies necessarily detract from student performance on these more traditional measures of achievement?
Our study found that, in addition to demonstrating higher levels of deeper learning competencies, students who attended deeper learning network schools also earned significantly higher scores on state-mandated English language arts and mathematics tests. In addition, using updated data through the spring of 2014, we found that network school students had significantly higher rates of high school graduation than students who attended comparison schools by approximately eight percentage points.
Although our study demonstrated that students who attended deeper learning network schools experienced greater opportunities for deeper learning and higher levels of outcomes on nearly all measures than did similar students at comparison schools, more research is needed in this area. Important questions remain: For schools that are not members of deeper learning networks, what can teachers and schools do to promote deeper learning in their classrooms? What has enabled practices that focus on deeper learning to emerge in pockets of classrooms in some comparison schools, and how can the work these teachers are doing be supported and expanded? Do experiences with deeper learning at the elementary and middle school levels have similar positive effects on student outcomes? In addition, how do experiences with deeper learning in high school affect long-term student outcomes, such as college degree completion and workforce success?
As instruction focused on deeper learning becomes more widespread in the American education system, it is important that research continues to document how, and for whom, experiences with deeper learning affect students’ educational experiences and outcomes.
Established in 1946, American Institutes for Research (AIR) is an independent, nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research on important social issues and delivers technical assistance, both domestically and internationally, in the areas of education, health, and workforce productivity.
For more information on the Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes, visit