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Deeper Learning Found to Boost Student Achievement

By Lorna Collier


  “Deeper learning” sounds like something all schools should teach as a matter of course, like critical thinking. But it refers to an educational approach that approximately 500 schools have adopted throughout the US. It's a growing teaching strategy and has been judged as effective by recent studies.


So what is “deeper learning”?


The Alliance for Excellent Education defines it as “delivering rigorous core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn, apply what they’ve learned, and demonstrate mastery.” 


Six key components of this approach, according to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, are:


Ten networks of schools in the U.S. are part of an overall Deeper Learning Network. Together, they represent about 500 schools in 41 states, serving more than 227,000 students, many of whom are low-income minority students. 


Each of the member networks has its own guidelines and emphases, with varying ways to meet deeper learning goals. For example, Envision Education offers college prep curricula; small, personalized learning environments; and real-world experience in workplaces. Internationals Network for Public Schools is designed to accommodate immigrants. ConnectEd California combines academics with technical education for Californian students. 


A set of three recent studies by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), released in September 2014, compared deeper learning with traditional schools. The research, funded by the Hewlett Foundation, found that deeper learning students performed better academically and had stronger “people skills.” 


On average, 11th and 12th graders who were given PISA tests (Program for International Student Achievement) for math, reading and science scored in the 54th to 55th percentile if they had received deeper learning instruction, versus an average of the 50th percentile if they hadn’t (results were adjusted for demographics and prior achievement). Deeper learning students also performed better on state tests, had had a higher on-time graduation rate and were more likely to choose four-year post-secondary schools and selective programs.


As part of this study, students from both deeper learning and traditional schools not only were given standardized tests, but also were interviewed. Researchers found deeper learning students to be more motivated and engaged and to have better collaboration skills. 


A principal researcher for AIR’s study, Jennifer O’Day, told MindShift that she was struck by how the Deeper Learning Network students discussed their own learning process, particularly when compared to students in traditional schools.


“The teachers and students were constantly engaged in thinking about what students were learning, and the students were reflecting on their learning and trying to improve it,” she said.


This focus on “learning how to learn”—one of deeper learning’s core principles—can help students become more involved in their education. They are ultimately more engaged and better prepared as lifelong learners in college and careers.


For more information about deeper learning, visit Deeper Learning 4 All and consider contacting or visiting schools in the Deeper Learning Network.


Lorna Collier’s articles about education and technology have appeared in US News & World Report, the Chicago Tribune,, AARP Bulletin, and many other publications. She is the former online editor for Reach her at