Wick Sloane on Fixing College Completion

At the 100th annual meeting of the American Council of Education, Wick Sloane, a former Chief Financial Officer in higher ed, proposed a serious challenge to attendees: fix college completion by the year 2040.

According to Mr. Sloane – supported by research presented by a UN report detailing the extreme poverty facing Americans – students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds have been overlooked by the American education system for far too long. Sloane unapologetically urged leaders in higher education to move past the basic planning stages of mending our completion problem and take real action – or any action for that matter – now.

One of the major concerns presented by Sloane is an insurmountable faculty workload. A faculty member covering five classes, capped at 22 students per class, during a typical 37.5 hour work week has only nine minutes to spend with each student on an individual basis, according to Sloane. For non-traditional, low-income students, this is often simply not enough time to tackle the curriculum with one-on-one support. This is in addition to the difficulty in juggling academics, part-time jobs, and family responsibilities experienced by many low-income students that may interfere with their ability to reach their goals. Ultimately, it has become a daunting challenge to support the millions of non-traditional students learning in America.

Realistically, what can we do to help improve completion rates, specifically for non-traditional, low income students? One possible answer is the increased use of personalized learning systems. Adaptive learning platforms have the potential to improve student outcomes, and are particularly important for those students who struggle to make ends meet.

Adaptive learning helps students learn by doing, rather than just reading and attending lectures. An advantage to using this kind of platform in addition to traditional lectures is in the opportunity for students to work on a flexible schedule that works best with their lifestyle, while also giving instructors the ability to monitor each student’s individual progress in real time. This kind of technology allows instructors to make targeted interventions with students who are at risk of failing, ensuring that what little time they do have to spend on an individual basis is spent with the students who need the most help tackling the material.

Not only does data generated by adaptive learning platforms help instructors get a bigger picture of who needs help and when, it also gives them a better idea of what concepts being taught are being understood by the class. If after a specific lecture has been taught, the students are unable to apply what was taught to the online lesson, the instructor will know that the concept should be revisited.

Adaptive learning technology is increasingly showing evidence that it can be a key tool in solving the completion problem for many post-secondary schools. While not a silver bullet, by implementing more adaptive courses that also provide actionable analytics on individual student performance, educators can more quickly identify at risk students, and provide more effective learning interventions that help keep students on track to graduate.

To read the complete transcript of Wick Sloane’s speech to the American Council of Education, visit Inside Higher Ed.

Learn By Doing


In 2015, cognitive scientists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) sought to better understand whether “watching to learn” using video lectures — a popular approach used in many Massively Online Open Courses — produced differences in learning outcomes when compared to courses that stressed interactivity (a “learn by doing” approach).

“Learn by doing” is a course design methodology that emphasizes giving students frequent practice opportunities and feedback to help master learning objectives. In their research results, published in the Proceedings of the Second (2015) ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale, CMU researchers concluded that having students “watch to learn” offers limited value. The key takeaway was that students who do activities in fact learn more than students who only watch video or read pages. The researchers summarized their findings as “The Doer Effect” — more doing yields better learning.

What does this research tell us about digital learning? First, engagement matters. The research out of CMU shows that “learning by doing” has six times the effect size over reading aloneSecond, increasing engagement by using formative practice activities does lead to student learning gains.

Using learning science research like “the doer effect” to better understand which learning methods yield the best learning gains has clear application for course designers, educators, and students. By designing courses that provide students with more opportunities to practice as they learn, and by enacting good course policies that encourage and motivate students to “do” the practice, educators (and course designers) can significantly improve learning outcomes.