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A Qualitative Study of Student-Centered Learning Practices in New England High Schools

April 1, 2016

In early 2015, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation (NMEF) contracted with the UMass Donahue Institute (UMDI) to conduct a qualitative study examining the implementation of student-centered learning (SCL) practices in select public high schools in New England. This study extends lines of inquiry explored through a prior (2014) project that UMDI conducted for NMEF. The 2014 study employed survey methodology to examine the prevalence of student-centered practices in public high schools across New England. The present study builds upon the investigation, using a variety of qualitative methods to further probe the richness and complexity of SCL approaches in use across the region. Specifically, this study was designed to address what student-centered practices "look like" in an array of contexts. The study also addresses the perceived impacts that SCL approaches have on students, staff, and schools. Additionally, it highlights the broad array of factors within and beyond school walls that reportedly foster and challenge the implementation of SCL practices. This study seeks to help NMEF understand the intricacies of SCL and provides strategic considerations for how Nellie Mae can promote the adoption and development of student-centered practices in the region.Nellie Mae organizes student-centered learning by four tenets: (1) learning is personalized; (2) learning is competency-based; (3) learning takes place anytime, anywhere; and (4) students take ownership.Specifically, the study addresses five research questions:What are the characteristics of student-centered practices in relation to the four SCL tenets? How are SCL approaches implemented?What are the salient contextual factors (e.g., systems, structures, policies, procedures) associated with the implementation of SCL practices? How do they support, impede, and otherwise shape the adoption, development, and implementation of SCL approaches?How are schools with moderate and high levels of SCL implementation organized to foster SCL practices? What mechanisms are in place to promote student-centered learning?What is the role of SCL approaches in schools and classrooms? In what ways, if at all, are they embedded in the goals and practices of schools and classrooms?What is the quality of SCL instructional practices in study schools? What relationships, if any, do administrators and educators perceive between these approaches and student learning?