Why Improving Student Learning is So Hard

A few thoughts about why improving student learning in the US higher ed context is so hard to do. (These ideas may apply elsewhere, but I’m thinking specifically about US higher ed.)

1. Improving student learning requires changing student behavior – changing the things students do in order to learn.

Students learn by doing – by playing, interacting, manipulating, reading, watching, listening, reflecting, arguing, summarizing, etc.

Faculty can promote student learning only by influencing what students do. Faculty exercise this influence in two ways: through the specific activities they assign students to do, and through the ways they support them as they engage in those activities.

If faculty want to improve student learning above current levels, the only mechanism for doing that is helping students engage in more effective learning activities than the ones they currently engage in. For example, they might encourage them to abandon less effective study techniques like highlighting and rereading, and help them adopt more effective study techniques like spaced retrieval practice.

2. Student behavior will normally change only in response to changes in faculty behavior – specifically, the assignments faculty give and the support faculty provide.

For many students, the things-they-do-to-learn are all located within the relatively small universe of things their faculty assign them to do – read chapters, complete homework assignments, etc. For a variety of reasons, and many of them perfectly good reasons, “students don’t do optional” – they only do what they’re going to be graded on.

Therefore, students will likely engage in more effective learning behaviors ONLY IF their faculty assign them more effective learning activities. Faculty can further increase the likelihood of students engaging in more effective learning activities if they support them appropriately throughout the process.

One example of a change faculty can make is assigning students interactive courseware that has more effective learning activities embedded within it, rather than assigning students traditionally-designed textbooks (whether print or digital), as their required course materials. Another example of a change faculty can make is having students engage in active learning activities during class time rather than passively listening to lecture the entire period. Another example is actively monitoring student learning and proactively reaching out to students who are struggling

3. The difficulty of making meaningful improvements in student learning is therefore something like (the difficulty of helping students change the way they study) multiplied times (the difficulty of helping faculty change the way they teach).

People are famously change-averse. And because students and faculty are people, they are likely to be uncomfortable with – and even resistant to – change. Change is so complicated and messy there’s an entire discipline dedicated to trying to understand how to successfully support and manage change.

We said above that the only way to improve student learning is to help students change their learning behaviors. We also said that the best way to help students change their learning behaviors is to help faculty change their teaching behaviors. Unfortunately, taken together, this means that in order to meaningfully improve student learning two groups of people have to make meaningful changes to their behavior. (My example of multiplying one difficulty times another isn’t meant to be mathematically accurate. It’s meant to be conceptually useful and directionally correct.)

4. The process of improving student learning is first and foremost a human change process. 

This state of affairs reflects a very real tension. On the one hand, if we don’t encourage enough change in student and faculty behavior, there won’t be meaningful improvement in student learning. On the other hand, if we try to encourage too much change in their behaviors, their natural inclinations to resist change will likely prevail, preventing any meaningful improvement in student learning.

The change process must be managed artfully, paying careful attention to students’ and faculty’s attitudes, beliefs, interests, and motivations. If we truly want to improve student learning, we have to move beyond thinking about “textbook adoptions” or “courseware implementations” or “course redesigns” and begin seeing the core of our work as managing a complex human change process. From this perspective, courseware, supplemental materials, learning technologies, professional development, and all the other resources at our disposal can be seen as tools that support students and faculty as they navigate the change process toward better student learning.

5. Designing with students and faculty, rather than for them, increases the likelihood of change happening successfully.

When we design content, activities, assessments, platforms, technologies, and other resources with students and faculty (rather than for students and faculty), we increase the likelihood of finding the elusive goldilocks zone where we prompt enough change to positively impact learning without overwhelming students or faculty with too much change. This isn’t just stakeholder engagement – it’s co-design with an eye toward catalyzing change.