Academic journal article Peer Review

Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education

Academic journal article Peer Review

Connecting Beliefs with Research on Effective Undergraduate Education

Article excerpt

In support of its mission, AAC&U's projects and publications, institutes, and network meeting all focus on improving undergraduate student learning. Both the recent Greater Expectations initiative and the current Liberal Education and Americas Promise (LEAP) campaign advance the belief that higher education should strive for higher levels of learning for all students. But reports of low graduation rates and of graduates with inadequate knowledge and skills may cause some people, both on and off campus, to question whether holding idealistic beliefs such as those associated with Greater Expectations and LEAP is reasonable. Some skeptics ask whether higher education is hopelessly out of touch with a world in which some students are "college material" and others simply are not.

Faced with difficult choices, we often rely upon deeply held beliefs, attitudes, or philosophies to help us make decisions. When our decisions affect other people, as decisions in education often do, it is important that the beliefs behind those decisions are conscious and have been examined in order to avoid both unwise and arbitrary choices. From setting goals and expectations for learning to addressing the hard realities of the classroom, our beliefs about teaching, learning, and the purposes of education have a profound influence.

AAC&U's advocacy for higher levels of learning for all students is not misplaced. Education research demonstrates that we can improve student learning - sometimes dramatically - and that maintaining idealistic and inclusive beliefs about and goals for higher education is perfectly reasonable.


Far-reaching global, economic, and technological developments have converged to make postsecondary learning an imperative for almost everyone.


Through efforts like Greater Expectations and LEAP, AAC&U has argued consistently that all students should have access to excellence in higher education, regardless of background or intended field of study. But questions arise, both on and off campuses, about whether all students can learn at the college level and whether everyone should attend college. Based upon an extensive review of education research, Gardiner (1994, 98) concluded that all students can be educated to high levels.

Research ... coupled with modern educational methods and quality improvement principles, can enable us for the first time in human history to educate all of the people to a high level. We will, however, have to use, rather than ignore, research.

Studies Gardiner reviewed also showed that "Using mastery learning... the researchers consistently achieved a full one-sigma increase in assessed learning over conventional instruction." (98) A full standard deviation increase (i.e., one sigma) is very significant, equivalent to moving from the 50th to the 84th percentile. (With mastery learning, students and teachers focus on current topics until students reach a high level of achievement, moving to subsequent lessons only after "mastery" is achieved. Mastery learning is supported by careful curricular sequencing and feedback from frequent assessments that helps students reach the desired level of learning.)

Additionally, Gardiner (97) reported that mastery learning techniques were especially helpful to students with the lowest initial achievement: all students improved, the lowest achievers improved the most, and the learning gaps among students decreased. George Kuh (2008, 18-19) showed a similar differential boost for initially low-achieving students who experienced engaging pedagogies such as learning communities, internships, and senior capstone seminars.

Two of the practices used in mastery learning include pretesting and monitoring students' progress during a cycle of learning-powerful instructional practices deserving of more consistent use in higher education. Other effective practices suggested in Walberg and Paik (2000) include graded homework and cooperative learning. …

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