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Innovations Designed for Deeper Learning in Higher Education

August 2014

The Potential: What Is Deeper Learning?

Within higher education, there is an increasing focus on what and how students learn; historically, these issues have rarely been discussed in policy and funding circles, given the deep roots of academic freedom. Starting in the 1990s, groups such as the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, through its Measuring Up series, and other entities began to shine a light on student learning in postsecondary education—making clear that we knew surprisingly little about what students learn and retain. Currently, with the focus on 21st century knowledge and skills, workforce readiness, low completion rates in developmental education and core gateway classes, and low rates of certificate and degree completion, there is an increased emphasis on helping postsecondary institutions examine, define, and improve student learning.

In addition, there is growing interest in the nonacademic knowledge and skills required to succeed in all academic areas. Habits of mind (such as persistence and self-efficacy) and key cognitive strategies (such as the ability to hypothesize, analyze, strategize, and evaluate) are critically important attributes to foster throughout students’ K–12 and postsecondary education pathways. In the classroom, deeper learning is the result of students’ learning core knowledge along with the utilization of nonacademic dispositions. It focuses on the interaction between nonacademic knowledge and skills and the acquisition of academic content. For its deeper learning grant making, Next Generation Learning Challenges has adopted the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation definition of deeper learning.

Deeper learning does not have a one-size-fits-all approach or model. At its core, deeper learning is about providing opportunities for students so they can become self-motivated, competent learners (and view themselves as such) who are able to retain and apply knowledge in a variety of contexts, work effectively with others, and exhibit the other dimensions of learning described here. Students learn academic knowledge while using effective skills and behaviors, with habits of mind and key cognitive strategies supporting students’ abilities to learn deeply. This mutually reinforcing relationship is at the core of sound teaching and learning, but it has not been explicitly encouraged through large-scale policy and practice in recent years. Many of these ideas harken back to American education reformer John Dewey’s philosophies on engagement, interaction, communication, experiential education, problem-based learning, and going beyond academic content to reach one’s full potential (for more, see Dewey’s profile in the PBS series Only a Teacher).

This report presents information about the development, adoption, and scaling of technology-enabled innovations created by seven postsecondary institutions in NGLC’s Building Blocks for College Completion grant program. The innovations were designed to promote and support deeper learning and engagement. This report is geared toward helping those who are interested in improving deeper learning and engagement through educational innovations—and often classroom-based innovations—that incorporate technology.

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Authors: Andrea Venezia

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