One Reason It’s So Difficult to Move the Needle in Higher Ed

Using the “learning onion” to understand where to target efforts for change

I’ve been working in the education research field professionally for a bit now, and my day-to-day work focuses on evaluating the impact of new education tools and interventions on student experiences and academic outcomes. The dirty secret of education intervention research, however, is that most interventions don’t work, and those that do typically have small impacts (you can see my review of this body of work in a previous newsletter of mine and in other essays here.)

Why? How can billions of dollars per year invested in new initiatives, technologies, and labor result in tiny average effect sizes and limited impact? My thinking on the issue focuses on what I’m calling the “learning onion” (or half onion) shown in the figure below. Many, if not most, educational initiatives focus primarily on the outer layers of the onion, with much less focus on the educational and learning experiences at the core of higher education institutions.

Don’t believe me? Visit a teaching and learning center event on campus and notice how low the attendance is. Visit the center’s website and notice the under-resourced staff dedicated to helping the entire university or college teach better. Walk into your average campus classroom and notice rows upon rows of unengaged students while a professor lectures at them for two hours.

Even at elite universities with large teaching and learning centers, like University of Michigan or UCLA, the focus of the university is still not specifically on education and learning, but maximizing impact on society. And, the lack of pedagogical focus at our research institutions is glaringly obvious by the lack of professional equity teaching and teaching-focused faculty experience.


Institutions of higher education have as a key interest (and incentive) to increase retention and graduation rates of their students. They have a key interest (and incentive) to create inclusive campus environments for their students. Yet, the mechanisms by which institutions work to achieve these outcomes are, in my opinion, misguided and yield minimal impact because the areas they focus on are not where the students are.

Recently I had the privilege to speak with Vincent Tinto who developed an influential model of student retention. The core of his framework is that for institutions to have maximum impact on students, institutions need to focus on where the students are and build up those communities. Where are the students? Where are ALL the students?

They aren’t in student clubs. They aren’t in the student union. They aren’t in their email.

They are in the classroom, with faculty.

If institutions want to have maximum impact on student outcomes, they need to focus efforts on where students ALL are – in the classroom. Put differently, the core educational experience is what is most likely to drive change for students. Change the educational experience at the institution, and the student experience and outcomes should also improve.

Why most educational interventions don’t work is because they focus on outer layers of the onion. All the emails from official offices sharing presidential perspectives on current events, campaigns about their mission and vision for the future, and communicating to students that they care. These are not bad things for the institution to do in an effort to create an inclusive and welcoming climate for their students, but the majority of students don’t notice these efforts (have you noticed how bad students are at checking email?), and therefore are unlikely to be impacted by them. Moving the needle at this outer level is hard.

Moving down a layer to “groups, clubs, and orgs” we find niche communities for students to participate and be involved with. These, like the above, are good things for a university, overall. Part of the delight of college is to be exposed to a variety of interest groups where students can find a niche with others like them. These are an important contribution to student belonging. But, as with the above, not all students engage in campus clubs or organizations – I never did! Again, the point here is impact – by focusing on increasing niche groups, we’re still missing out on large swaths of students that don’t participate because they don’t have the time, energy, or interest.

At the next layer, “specific classes and departments” we begin to see where a wider impact can be made. Dedicated teaching faculty reside here, and do departmental leaders who work to make the majors or programs within their departments feel like a broader learning community for their students. The limitation here, however, is that most students will go through their educational journey encountering just a handful of all-star faculty in the classroom. Maximum impact needs to go to the core.

The core educational experience is the powerhouse of a university, and where maximum impact can be noticed. Every student at a college or university engages with courses, so it’s imperative that every course provide an exceptional learning experience for students. Rather than small interventions (that have minimal impact, if any), change needs to be targeted at the core educational experience of the university as a whole. These won’t be interventions, but continued change to ensure that colleges and universities are dedicated to the educational experience above all else (which currently, they are not), robust, evidence-based pedagogy at all levels (we have a solid idea of what works), and proper systems in place for teaching to thrive (which is currently not the case, especially at research institutions).

Because the solution is not a simple intervention, making it happen isn’t going to be easy. There are some radical solutions that have been put forth, like those from John Warner who argues for a fully publicly-funded higher education system to re-focus institutions on education and learning (read my review and response). Others are striving to build mega-universities that show surface-level good metrics but whose teaching operations are still a black box. There may not be a single way in which higher ed can improve, but I firmly believe robust pedagogy and an unwavering focus on the learning experience is the best path forward. It remains to be seen, however, who will be able to achieve the quixotic outcomes that higher ed strives for.

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