What Helps Students Learn?


The push for doing education on the cheap has led to a number of “innovations” nearly always touted as ways to “do more with less.” But the data on these experiments increasingly present a more complicated picture of their efficacy.

For instance, more and more research suggests that MOOCs, which stormed the higher education scene a couple of years ago, just don’t work well for most students.

One recent study of MOOCs, which found that students learned in a very “passive” way, adds to this assessment.

The researchers looked at the experience of 400 students enrolled in a high-level course for health professional offered by the Harvard Medical School and came to these conclusions:

Students started off with high hopes that they would gain new skills to do their jobs better and boost their careers, explained Colin Milligan, a research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University and co-investigator on the project.

But when they were questioned during their course, the students simply wanted to complete the programme or get good marks, he said, rather than actually put their knowledge into action.

In contrast to the claims that MOOCs facilitate vigorous interaction and collaboration among students taking the course, this study found that even eager students wound up doing “as little [interaction] as possible.” [See more details on the study]

What does work to help students get engaged and actively learn? For anyone who has been to college, the answer is pretty obvious; and it’s corroborated by a recent Gallup poll about engagement and success of college students. According to the researchers, it’s real interactions like those with “a professor who cared about them, made them excited to learn and encouraged them to follow their dreams” that makes all the difference for most students.

As the report points out, not enough students have those experiences; but more MOOCs, fewer faculty, and less time for them to work with students aren’t trends that are taking us in the right direction.

Read more in Inside Higher Ed

See a recent New York Times Opinion piece on why and how nurturing matters to college students.