Despite Mixed Outcomes, Deeper Learning Holds Promise

Teacher with high school students in classroom

Many educators are exploring new approaches to preparing students to thrive in college, careers, and civic life. One such approach across the country is deeper learning, which is an integration of content knowledge, applied skills, and academic mindsets.

In a longitudinal, quasi-experimental study that spanned more than a decade, AIR found that attending a high school with an explicit focus on deeper learning resulted in positive short-term outcomes, but few longer-term outcomes. In this Q&A, AIR Principal Researcher Kristina Zeiser and Senior Researcher Catherine Bitter share insights about the study—and the silver linings in the findings.

What Is Deeper Learning?

Deeper learning differs from what might be considered traditional learning in its emphasis on making connections between the academic content that students learn in class and real-world problems outside the classroom. Deeper learning also explicitly cultivates interpersonal competencies and academic mindsets, such as self-management and perseverance.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which led a national initiative on deeper learning, identified six dimensions of this approach that proponents believe are crucial for success in college, careers, and civic life:

  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 Study of Deeper Learning, sponsored by the foundation and conducted by AIR, involved 20 high schools in California and New York City that had a schoolwide focus on deeper learning. The schools included in the study (referred to as “network” schools) were associated with 10 established networks from across the country that embraced the goals of deeper learning.

These networks all participated in the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning Community of Practice, which provided an opportunity to learn, collaborate, and leverage effective strategies and practices. The study examined high school, college, workforce, and civic engagement outcomes for students in network schools, as well as students in a matched sample of comparison schools with similar student populations without an explicit deeper learning focus.


Q. What evidence of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes did you find for high school students?

Zeiser: We found significantly higher levels of student self-reports of opportunities for deeper learning in the network schools, including higher levels of collaborative group work and opportunities to connect what they are learning to life outside of class. At one school, for example, students completed a project focused on water safety after the state budget reduced funding for water testing. Students worked with outside organizations to learn how to do basic water testing, identify relevant locations in their community to do water testing, and conduct testing for bacteria. Students generated a variety of “nonfiction products,” such as newspaper articles published in local newspapers, articles published on the collaborators’ websites, and documentary videos.

In addition, we found that achievement test scores were higher for students in network schools on both state assessments and the PISA-based Test for Schools (from the Programme for International Student Assessment). Students in network schools also reported greater collaboration skills and higher levels of academic engagement, motivation to learn, and self-efficacy.

Q. How did deeper learning affect high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment?

Zeiser: We found significantly higher on-time graduation rates of almost eight percentage points for students in network schools. When we examined college enrollments through the fall of 2014, although enrollment in two-year colleges did not differ, students in network schools were more likely to enroll in four-year institutions and selective institutions than students who attended matched comparison schools.

Q. What are the key findings about longer-term outcomes of deeper learning?

Zeiser: We didn’t find a whole host of significant differences between the network and comparison groups in terms of college, workforce, or civic engagement outcomes. There was a positive effect of attending a deeper learning network school on bachelor’s degree completion in New York City, but the impact was negative in California.

Bitter: Regarding workforce and civic engagement outcomes, it may be too early to detect this. Students were still in a phase of transition, finishing or going back to college or changing jobs, when we conducted the study.

Q. Why do you think the positive effects of deeper learning faded in the postsecondary years?

Zeiser: We can’t make conclusive statements. Regarding college degree outcomes, our best guess is to ask, “What is the counterfactual? What was the comparison group experiencing in high school?” In New York City, both network and comparison schools were smaller in size, which may have limited advanced curricular options. In addition, the required Regents Examinations in New York City exposed students in both network and comparison schools to the types of standardized assessments that they are expected to take at the college level. In this environment, when other school experiences were similar between students who attended network and comparison schools, deeper learning opportunities may have had a stronger influence on students’ college success.

One of the most important takeaways is that deeper learning opportunities do have some longer-term benefits and they should not be restricted to a subset of students in a school.

- Kristina Zeiser

In contrast, the California comparison schools tended to be large, traditional schools with more Advanced Placement classes, dual enrollment opportunities, and other more rigorous college-related curriculum. Most students in California who enrolled in college went to a community college, where having some advanced course-taking may have had a stronger benefit than deeper learning alone. In addition, students who attended deeper learning network schools might have felt less comfortable in the community college setting than students who attended comparison schools, since network high schools had smaller class sizes and provided a more personalized environment.  

Bitter: There’s a contrast between the deeper learning model and education in community colleges and larger colleges. Deeper learning schools are focused on strong relationships between teachers and students, personalized learning, and group work. Then students are put in a college situation where they’re sitting in a lecture and having to manage on their own. When we interviewed teachers, they sometimes raised some concerns: “Are we helping the students too much? Will they be able to handle college?”

Zeiser: When it comes to degree attainment, critical thinking skills and perseverance matter, but so does an understanding of how to pay for college and which courses you need to complete your degree. The deeper learning network schools in our study did not focus explicitly on college advising.

Q. Are there any silver linings in the findings?

Bitter: Multiple deeper learning opportunities and short-term outcomes correlated significantly and positively with some longer-term outcomes—no matter what type of high school students attended:

  • Students with higher self-reported levels of perceived control over their own learning, perseverance, self-efficacy, and self-management, and more opportunities for feedback and learning how to learn during high school, were more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years after expected high school graduation.
  • Students who reported greater opportunities for complex problem-solving, creative thinking, collaboration, and real-world connections in high school were significantly more likely to report having a job that aligned with their career goals six years after expected high school graduation.
  • Opportunities for interdisciplinary learning and connecting course material to real-world problems had the most consistent positive relationships with civic engagement outcomes, such as valuing community service and political participation, volunteering, and donating or raising money for charity.

Q. What are the implications of this study for states and districts?

Bitter: The positive associations we found between certain deeper learning opportunities and long-term outcomes, regardless of the type of high school students attended, suggest that there may be benefits from integrating deeper learning practices within the curriculum and instruction, even if it is not a whole-school model. There is evidence that integrating content knowledge, applied skills, and competencies may lead to some positive outcomes.

Multiple deeper learning opportunities and short-term outcomes correlated significantly and positively with some longer-term outcomes—no matter what type of high school students attended.

- Catherine Bitter

There is a lot of alignment between deeper learning and other approaches thought to better prepare students for the future, including competency-based education, student-centered and personalized learning, and a focus on 21st century skills. It’s no longer just how much content students know for a test, but can they think critically and address new and challenging problems? That concept of thinking more broadly about what students need to learn is very much alive.

Zeiser: One of the most important takeaways is that deeper learning opportunities do have some longer-term benefits and they should not be restricted to a subset of students in a school. Some states have initiatives grounded in issues of equity, trying to reengage at-risk students, individualize learning, and make learning more engaging to keep them in school.

There’s also a lot to be said for college advising in terms of improving college persistence and degree completion, especially for students whose parents did not go to college. Since the study ended, at least one deeper learning network is now helping students navigate the transition from high school to college, making sure they select the right college and enroll in the right courses, and providing ways for them to seek help if they need it. 

It's also worth considering how colleges can adopt more of the individualized approach that is beneficial at the high school level. While many high schools have adopted this focus on deeper learning, colleges generally have not been as innovative and flexible.