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Opinion & Analysis

How to improve student learning outcomes

A report by McKinsey reveals that the student mindsets have greater impact on student performance than any other factor—and double the effect of socioeconomic background. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A report by McKinsey reveals that the student mindsets have greater impact on student performance than any other factor—and double the effect of socioeconomic background. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Past research on student learning outcomes indicated that students from low socioeconomic status were slower in acquiring academic skills than their counterparts from a higher socioeconomic status.
Such findings were considered gospel truth, to the detriment of the students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Indeed American Psychological Association concluded that low socioeconomic status in “childhood is related to poor cognitive development, language, memory, socioemotional processing, and consequently poor income and health in adulthood.”

With big data analytics and machine learning, it has emerged that socioeconomic status isn’t a major factor anymore and can be mitigated if the student has the right motivation.

McKinsey just published the first of a series of reports titled: How to improve student educational outcomes: New insights from data analytics. The reports cover four different regions of the world.

They took a data-driven approach to consider what is debated most in education including: Do mindsets matter? If so, to what extent? What teaching practices work best? Does technology help?

Their data was obtained from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

They applied machine learning and advanced analytics to the OECD PISA assessments and student, teacher, and parent survey results, the first time that such analysis has been undertaken.

Whilst each regional report covers a set of findings specific to its context, their global paper highlights two patterns that are universally consistent across all regions, that is, student mind-set and teacher-directed instruction.

The report reveals that the student mindsets have greater impact on student performance than any other factor—and double the effect of socioeconomic background.

Not only is this the first time that the impact of mindsets on student outcomes has been quantified, but they have also identified which mind-sets matter the most.

Some of the mindsets that matter most include: ability to identify what motivation looks like, and believe that they can succeed if they worked hard which they refer to as “growth mind-set.”

These “mindsets made the most difference for students either in low performing schools or in lower socioeconomic quartiles.”

On mindsets, the report concludes that students in schools with low outcomes or from low socioeconomic status, but having the right motivation to succeed, is equivalent to springing up into a higher socioeconomic status.

In retrospect this finding is consistent with local learning historic facts. In the 70s and 80s, majority of Kenyan students were largely from low socioeconomic status but they could outperform students from higher socioeconomic status.

The differentiating factors were that poorer students were highly motivated and believed that education was the only driver to a better life in the future. Although we were not able to explain the phenomenon then, there were no studies to satisfy the curiosity.

The students with the best outcomes receive teacher-directed instruction in most or all classes, together with inquiry-based teaching in some classes. However, inquiry-based learning seems to work only after students have a base level of learning already through teacher-driven instruction.

Whilst past research has often highlighted the importance of quality of classroom instruction, this report facilitates further thinking towards being more granular about which pedagogical styles results in high student outcomes.

The report identifies several other factors that were region-specific. Some of the factors with significant impact on learning outcomes include; use of information technology, hours of instruction, and early childhood education, have not reached their potential.

Although there was no survey for sub Saharan Africa (SSA), the findings strike a chord with the undocumented knowledge that has existed in Africa for many years.

It is upon the SSA policy makers to seek to validate these findings that are critical to the success of emerging educational systems. It may be useful to those countries like Kenya that are in the process of educational reforms.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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