President turns MIT’s research might to study of how people learn

‘If we don’t know how we learn, how on earth do we know how to teach?’ says L. Rafael Reif, who tells Ellie Bothwell how the research giant is working to improve teaching practice

March 23, 2017
MIT classroom
Source: Getty

Just months after L. Rafael Reif became provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005, he encountered a significant problem: appreciable numbers of students were no longer attending classes.

On investigating the issue, he found that groups of them were eschewing formal study to work together on their own projects using materials from OpenCourseWare, the university’s online library of course content.

“I saw the future – that’s it,” says Reif, who is now president of the renowned private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The discovery led to MIT’s current teaching model and the launch of MITx, its massive open online course programme. To this are uploaded whole courses, featuring lecture segments interwoven with interactive, instantly graded quizzes and problem sets.

MIT now uses a flipped classroom model whereby undergraduates use these materials to study and learn on their own, so that time in class with a professor can be devoted to deeper questions and team projects based on the new concepts that the students have got to grips with.

A key aspect of MIT’s approach is that study groups are made up of students from a variety of disciplines, who are able to “bring knowledge from different areas”. “People use the word ‘interdisciplinary’ like it’s a big deal, [but] that’s [the way] we do everything,” Reif says. “Problems are problems. You have to solve them with whatever knowledge you can get.”

Blended learning courses – which combine online delivery with face-to-face interaction – have become increasingly common in recent years, and they have been hailed by Warren Bebbington, the vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, as a “great revolution in university teaching”.

However, a Times Higher Education survey of 100,000 students at US universities last year found that those on blended learning courses were generally less engaged with the teaching at their institution than their counterparts taking purely online or purely face-to-face degrees.

When the results were revealed, Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the UK’s Open University, said that the survey results did not show that “blended learning is a failure”, but rather demonstrated that universities did not yet know “how to blend properly” or that “there is a difference between what students say they like and what they do better at”.

This underlines another revelation that Reif had in 2005: namely, that MIT “doesn’t know beans about learning” – and thus that it is essential to constantly conduct more research in the area, and to incorporate the findings into teaching practice.

The explosion of research centres devoted to teaching and learning in the past few years suggests that Reif is not alone in his concerns. In 2000, Georgetown University launched a Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, which researches technology-enhanced learning and aims to understand how people learn on open online courses.

Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Research through Online Learning also conducts research on teaching and learning in higher education, while five Western Australian universities have launched the Australian University Teaching Criteria and Standards framework, with the aim of recognising the ways in which quality teaching can be identified, supported and rewarded.

Similar moves have been made at MIT. In 2013, just six months after he began his presidency, Reif launched the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education. This led to the creation of several initiatives. One was the Office of Digital Learning, which aims to ensure that “the magic of MIT…creates opportunities to harness the knowledge of a global community to address the world’s great challenges”. Another was the Teaching and Learning Laboratory, which intends to foster “an educational environment where students are academically challenged, actively engaged, and personally supported”. And a third was the Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively programme, which is known as Relate. Current research includes experiments on the average length of a student’s attention span while watching an online lecture, and MRI scans of students’ brains to discover “how learning occurs”, Reif says.

This “very scientific approach” to learning, he continues, will allow MIT to answer vital questions such as what is the ideal ratio of online to face-to-face study, and what types of learning can be integrated when it comes to blended courses.

The impact of MIT’s research on learning will be felt not only by students on its Massachusetts campus, but also by the 1.7 million people worldwide who have registered for MITx courses delivered through Mooc provider edX, Reif notes.

A pressing question for him is “how to offer the opportunity to people anywhere in the world to access our kind of content, and how to do it [with] high quality. Access to education is extremely important – it changes lives – so I want to make that available.”


Universities in some countries are also under pressure from their governments to improve in this area.

Up to a quarter of the total public funding that Norwegian universities receive is determined by the quality and internationalisation of their teaching, for example.

Meanwhile, last year, the UK government launched its teaching excellence framework to assess the quality of teaching in England’s universities, based on measures of graduate employment, student retention and student satisfaction. Institutions will receive a rating of gold, silver or bronze in May, and these awards will eventually be used to determine the level of tuition fee increase that universities are allowed to introduce.

What does Reif think of such utilitarian attempts to measure teaching quality?

While he recognises that information is “always good” and that the exercise “may lead to some interesting conclusions”, he comments diplomatically: “I do things differently.”

Although MIT students do “grade [their] lecturers every semester”, Reif warns that such exercises should be used “carefully” and should be seen only “as a guide” to the performance of teachers.

“To me, it’s much more about how we learn than how we teach. If we don’t know how we learn, then how on earth do we know how to teach?” he says.

Returning to the theme of teaching and learning, Reif notes that a key advancement for universities will be to offer teaching styles that genuinely cater for different learning styles. This is a subject that has received a lot of attention of late. For instance, interviews with 34 students at a large, diverse US public university recently revealed that lecturers are unaware of the different learning strategies used by poorer students. A paper, “The unwritten rules of engagement: social class differences in undergraduates’ academic strategies”, published in November in the Journal of Higher Education, demonstrates that first-generation students – who are often poorer – employ strategies that emphasise independence, which are “largely ignored” by lecturers. By contrast, the paper’s author, April Yee, programme officer for the James Irvine Foundation, a Californian philanthropic organisation, found that middle-class students also emphasise interaction, which is “recognised and rewarded” by university authorities. This contributes to the relatively low scores of first-generation students, she suggests.

Reif is well aware of the differences there can be between individual learners. His daughter “goes to class, sits down for 90 minutes, and remembers everything the lecturer says”. By contrast, “I go to a lecture and after 10 minutes I’m gone,” he admits. “I get distracted: I hear something [the lecturer] said [that] makes me think of something else…By the time I get back, I don’t know what the lecturer is talking about.”

Because of his short attention span, Reif had to “study like a brute” each evening when he was at university to catch up. And he is aware that he “could have been branded as completely distracted and hopeless” and told to “go do something else” other than work in academia.

“People reach conclusions like that. So are you going to penalise the teacher for not catching my attention for an hour when I’m hopeless at that?” he asks.

Traditionally, he continues, teaching has consisted of: “I say something in class, I check if you understood what I said, and then I grade you on that.” But that model has to change, he is convinced.

“What matters to society is not so much how quickly you understood what I said, but how well you used it,” he says. 

Wealth audit: funding sources compared


Table: Funding sources compared

Notes: *Excludes revenue from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, sponsored by the Department of Defense; † Excludes revenue from Oxford University Press

MIT is renowned for being one of the most innovative and agile universities in the world. Does its wealth and private status mean that it is shielded from the types of political restraints around tuition fees and funding that, for instance, UK universities face?

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, respectively receive 45 per cent and 56 per cent of their funding from public sources, while this figure is 27 per cent for MIT and just 13 per cent for its near neighbour, Harvard University.

L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, acknowledges that being private has its advantages. But he adds that “because we’re on our own, nobody is going to bail us out”. And MIT “cannot charge any tuition [fee] we want because market forces dictate how high you can go”. Moreover, “even if we charge at the market rate, we don’t collect [all] the money because we have to give financial aid to recruit students”.

Still, while the leading universities in the US and the UK receive similar amounts of research funding (when both research grants and funding council grants are taken into account in the UK), endowment figures show that US institutions are in a far more stable financial position. While Oxford and Cambridge sit on £3 billion and £4 billion of funding respectively, MIT and Harvard have endowments of nearly £11 billion and more than £29 billion respectively.

Reif adds that while the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are “clearly the best in the world…from a distance it looks like they are organised very much the same way we were organised years ago”. Now, however, “things are different. You have to be a bit more nimble these days.”

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Print headline: ‘If we don’t know how we learn, how on earth do we know how to teach?’

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