Studying How Students Learn

An $8 million gift to develop best practices in learning and instruction—and improve student outcomes.
Students in an engineering course

Students participate in an engineering course. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Half of college students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) end up dropping those courses and switching to another major, according to the National Science Foundation. That’s bad news for the U.S. economy given that STEM-related jobs are projected to grow to more than nine million by 2022. Could the solution to this potential skills gap come from advancing the science behind learning and teaching? The family of James S. McDonnell thinks so.

With an $8 million gift to Tufts University, the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation is supporting the establishment of the Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), an effort that will elevate the university’s standing as a national leader in improving student learning outcomes. IRLI will be one of the first research centers to focus on better understanding how students learn at the collegiate level.

The gift will enable Tufts to contribute to discipline-based education research by developing and testing scientifically validated teaching methodologies, as well as innovative educational tools for boosting learning outcomes at the university and beyond. IRLI will initially focus on learning in STEM fields across Tufts’ School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences, and eventually expand to the humanities and social sciences. IRLI will also inform teaching and learning across the other schools at Tufts.

Yesterday’s one-size-fits-all pedagogies no longer meet the needs of today’s students, who have varied learning styles and diverse personal backgrounds, said President Anthony P. Monaco. “It is tremendously important that we develop evidence-based educational methods to give students the skills and knowledge they will need for the future,” Monaco said. “The institute will help us understand how to teach more effectively and how to help our students learn better.”

The new institute will build on extensive educational programs at Tufts that are already contributing to discipline-based education research and improving student learning outcomes, including the STEM Education program in the Department of Education, the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), and the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO). The McDonnell gift will let IRLI establish a new bridge professorship as well as recruit two additional tenure-track faculty members to the schools of Engineering and Arts and Sciences. IRLI also will include research professors and other non-tenure-track faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students focused on education research.

Catherine Rogers, president of the James S. McDonnell Family Foundation and a member of the McDonnell family, noted the family’s long-held interest in brain science, particularly cognitive neuroscience and its interaction with learning. “We are pleased to make this commitment to such an exciting endeavor to advance teaching and learning,” Rogers said. “With IRLI, Tufts will enhance its ability to develop students to their full potential by elevating its learning and instruction.” Previously, the McDonnell Family Foundation was a generous donor to the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, which focuses on integrating engineering into K-12 education and understanding how children and adults learn engineering.

“We are deeply grateful to the McDonnell Family Foundation for supporting our shared goal of helping all students realize their full potential,” said David Harris, university provost and senior vice president. “The gift will help Tufts make exciting advancements in understanding how we learn and teach, and how doing so more effectively can enable students to solve the most pressing challenges facing the world today.”