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Deeper learning improves student outcomes

By Tiffani Razavi

The core of the concept of deeper learning cannot but resonate with an educator. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, “Deeper learning is simply what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn and then apply what they have learned.” It is an approach that prepares students to know and master core academic content; to think critically and solve complex problems; to work collaboratively; to communicate effectively; to be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback; and to develop the academic mindsets necessary for learning. While the term may have gained popularity in educational circles in recent years, the Alliance comments that “The basic concepts of deeper learning are not new to education; indeed, they are routine educational practice for many accomplished individual teachers and educators and some high-performing schools.”
These successful practices are now being confirmed by a growing body of research indicating the benefits of deeper learning in relation to a range of student outcomes. University of Stanford Professor Carol Dwek’s research on the impact of the growth mindset is a case in point. For the past decade or more, Dwek and her colleagues have been gathering evidence that indicates that the growth mindset – the understanding that intelligence and abilities are qualities we can develop – has significant implications for student motivation and learning, and school success, based on a wide range of measures, including grades in math, scores on standardized reading assessments, and grade point averages. Teaching students about the growth mindset has also been shown to narrow the gender gap in math, as well as the racial achievement gap. According to Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a non-profit started by Dwek based on this research, “The key is that we can develop in students that inner drive, that motivation for them to make the most out of those learning experience. We have to be deliberate about creating environments that foster those beliefs and strategies in students so they take ownership of learning. There is not one way to create deeper learning, different schools can design themselves in different ways to create deeper learning experiences and outcomes for their students” (
On that note, a recently reported study funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and carried out by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the Study of Deeper Learning: Opportunities and Outcomes (, sought to examine “whether the concept of deeper learning – applied across a variety of reasonably well-implemented approaches and a diversity of students – has potential merit as a means for educational improvement.” The study included 19 high schools that were part of the Hewlett Foundation’s deeper learning community of practice, as well as 11 schools serving similar student populations focused on college and career readiness that were not participating in the deeper learning networks. Participants from 11th and 12th grade completed surveys and the OECD PISA-based Test for Schools (PBTS). Researchers also collected samples of mathematics and ELA assignments and student work for 10th and 12th grade students. They conducted site visits to network schools, and principal interviews with non-network schools. In addition, student demographic data, state test score data, graduation data and postsecondary data were collected.
Among the key findings of the study are that students from network schools reported greater opportunities to engage in deeper learning than did similar students who attended non-network schools, and that these differences in opportunities existed among schools serving diverse student populations, including substantial subgroups of traditionally underserved students, and initially high- and low-achievers. In relation to educational outcomes, the researchers found that on average, students from network schools achieved higher scores on the PBTS, reported more positive interpersonal (such as collaboration skills) and intrapersonal (such as motivation to learn) outcomes, and were more likely to graduate from high school on time (within four years) than similar students from non-network schools. While there was no difference in the rates of enrollment in postsecondary institutions, students from network schools were slightly more likely to enroll in four-year and selective institutions. Deeper learning particularly benefitted students who entered a network school with low achievement, as indicated by increased postsecondary enrollment.
Results such as these are encouraging, and perhaps begin to allay the fears of critics of deeper learning. Tom Loveless of the Brown Center on Education Policy, for example, was skeptical of the deeper learning trend and troubled by the guise of a term that may lead to educators throwing out the baby with the bath water, that the academic rigor of what might be described as more traditional approaches to education may be lost ( In comments made in 2013, he classified deeper learning as an “anti-knowledge movement”, and warned educators to be on guard because “This virtuous sounding term means much more than its two words imply.” His concern was that disparaging the academic content taught in public schools would exacerbate social inequality. “If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else. Poor kids won’t.”
In contrast, Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath’s recent book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools Are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century, featuring eight public schools (including one magnet school and three charter schools) with minority populations 30% and above, and free and reduced-price lunch eligible student populations ranging from 32% to 100% reinforces the view that deeper learning approaches are beneficial across the board. “Our purpose here is to show that the rich experiences and the foundation for success offered through Deeper Learning can and should be afforded to all students,” state the authors. Martinez and McGrath explain that most public schools in America are 20th century institutions trying to cope with 21st century students, and they are failing to give students high quality, individualized education. They believe that deeper learning is the solution.
And as evidence continues to mount, it looks like it might be true.

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