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The Experimental University (Part 1)

Properly preparing learners for their careers means dismantling higher education and reimagining it completely. An Experimental University uses data and research to analyze its student body and faculty and adapt their offerings to meet their needs.

Our entire higher education system is dreadfully inefficient. As a result, too many students fail to acquire adequate college-level knowledge and analytic skills or drop out. The United States needs to create a handful of new, transformative and experimental universities to remedy these deficits. These new institutions should be based on the model of the medical research university. The experimental universities will constantly and rigorously experiment to create best practices for learning and teaching and share those practices with the broader education community. This article applies to education at all levels but will focus on initial reforms in higher education.

COVID-19 Pulls Back the Curtain

The chaos induced by the COVID-19 epidemic has made visible the deep-seated flaws in American education. The inability of hundreds of colleges to set up workable distance learning programs for their students highlights the failure of teachers and administrators to understand how students learn and how they can be effectively taught either online or in the classroom.

The Dimensions of Failure in Education 

The overall dimensions of education failure are obvious. The bleak numbers are reported year after year: 20% of high school students don’t graduate in four years and the majority of high school students who graduate are not academically prepared for college-level courses. At the same time, college completion rates are dismal. Somewhere between 40 to 60% of incoming first-year college students fail to graduate. In the California Community College System, which enrolls 25% of the nation’s community college students, 40% of the students in remedial courses don’t successfully complete their coursework. For students taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, almost half flunk or drop out.

Aside from elite colleges, our higher education system reeks of failure.

We need to break from tradition and construct a new education model, one that confronts, analyzes and overcomes failure to build on a foundation of hard, new evidence that drives teaching and learning—a model that produces the kind of progress we see in medicine.

Medicine and Education: Adapting the Medical Model to Education 

The Wall Street Journal reports that the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas annually runs over 1100 clinical trials on cancer drugs and related treatments. Such trials are a familiar yet stunning example of how organized medicine relentlessly conducts research in the quest for new knowledge related to its core mission of improving health.

This research is based on an established model and carried out as a commitment to the scientific method wherein researchers try numerous experiments to see which succeed and which fail. Science is both curious and humble in that it makes hypotheses or assumptions about how things should work, then it tests them. If the data support the hypotheses, new drugs, diagnostic techniques or treatments become part of medical best practices.

In contrast, most face-to-face and online teaching and learning at American colleges and universities neglect to employ the scientific method. The result is that too many students fail in one way or another.

Yes, our great universities are driven by research agendas, but those agendas rarely include research about their core responsibility: teaching and helping students learn. Nowhere at the university level in the United States is there even a closely comparable effort to that at MD Anderson Cancer Center in which a major college or university relentlessly runs hundreds of high-quality trials (A/B testing) to determine how its students learn or how the full range of academic subjects might be both taught and learned more effectively.

If one accepts the argument that interesting solutions to common problems can often be found by stepping outside one’s profession to see how people in other disciplines approach similar issues, then perhaps traditional academia should look closely at the enormous successes achieved by organized medicine over the past century.

Although the United States spends close to $1 trillion on public education at all levels, the effort and funds spent on high-quality research to understand and improve the learning process is a pittance. And it is a sad truth that, with more than a few notable exceptions, the educational research that does take place tends to be of such marginal significance that its medical equivalent would never be published.

It is perplexing that academics, even serious and well-qualified scholars, are remarkably uninterested in promoting the most effective understanding of their disciplines and have few incentives to do so. Collegiate faculty assume they know enough about the pedagogical process to teach their students and that these students are capable enough to learn the course material. There is a general notion among the professoriate that if their students are sufficiently intelligent and disciplined, they will simply pick it up.

Today, almost two-thirds of all science, math and engineering courses are still taught by the traditional lecture method; to that extent, nothing much has changed in teaching methodology since Aristotle’s Lyceum in 350 BCE. 

Despite pedagogically supportive tools such as learning labs, tutors, mentors, online learning modules, school-promoted study groups and the currently voguish learning communities, American higher education is surprisingly Darwinian. Efforts to assist students in mastering complex concepts are often dismissed as spoon-feeding and quickly forsaken if even tried.

A critical observer of American education might rightfully ask whether the United States should continue to place the great responsibility of educating its children in the hands of a professoriate so lacking in curiosity about how their students learn. 

That same critical observer might also ask whether a significant fraction of that $1 trillion we lavish on education would be spent more efficiently if college professors (and their K-12 counterparts) knew considerably more about how students actually learn and taught using scientifically based best learning practices. If education took some lessons from the medical profession, it might examine itself and become markedly more effective and efficient.

Imagine for a moment a reconstituted college and university system (online, hybrid or classroom-based) where all teaching and learning is based on high-quality, data-driven research on how students learn and a solid understanding of how humans acquire knowledge.

What features might such a new higher education system adopt for education to operate more like medicine?


One of the foundations of modern medicine is effective diagnosis. While acknowledging that even the best-trained physician cannot diagnose every disorder, one of the contemporary physician’s most essential skills is the ability to diagnose a patient’s condition through observation and batteries of standard and specialized tests.

A doctor will routinely test for basic information like body temperature, weight, heartbeat and blood pressure. In addition, physicians learn to understand the meaning of posture, gait, eye movement and demeanor as well as skin color and tone. A good diagnostician will ask patients to describe their symptoms as well as their work environment, family life, level of exercise, diet, alcohol use, smoking behavior and the general state of their health. The doctor will also consult historical records of patient illnesses, family history, tests and medications.

Depending on the results of the initial evaluation, the well-trained medical practitioner might request a detailed analysis of the patient’s blood or urine or order specialized x-rays, magnetic scans or even genetic testing. (Stanford University Medical School, for example, has a course called the Stanford Medicine 25 that focuses on 25 scientifically advanced diagnostic procedures for the internist to use.) Physicians also use readily available internet-based support to guide the diagnosis.

In short, the physician typically creates and consults reams of hard data about their patient before deciding if the patient has a problem and what should be done about it. 

The physician also has a storehouse of information about specific drugs, therapies, dietary changes, exercise regimens, rest or medical procedures that will affect his patients. After generations of research and the gradual accumulation of reliable evidence, modern medicine has assembled a broad range of reliable diagnostic tools that lead to effective treatment.

In higher education, by contrast, faculty members know shockingly little about their students other than the fact that every student has been granted admission to their college and that the campus computer system will have likely screened them for appropriate course prerequisites.

This typical professor enters the classroom on the first day of class with, if they are lucky, a relatively accurate grade roster and not much more. Thus, although they often know better, the professor assumes each student has the basic skills and willingness to succeed in the class. 

All students in a course are typically assigned the same textbooks, readings and assignments, and their tests, projects, papers and assignments are generally due on the same scheduled dates. This is the rigid and uninformed orthodoxy of the current mass education model. It is the opposite of the medical model.

Education Prescribes Undifferentiated Treatment Without a Diagnosis

But critics might argue that faculty members have too many students compared to doctors; faculty couldn’t possibly know enough about each student to tailor their instruction. Such detailed information simply isn’t available, or if it were faculty members have few incentives or are too burdened to manage such information. 

But consider the typical doctor, who deals with a very large number of patients each year. An average doctor might see 1400 to 1700 patients annually. This number is far higher than the number of students a typical faculty member teaches during a year. And yet, we know that medical patients are certainly not all treated alike. Each patient has a paper or increasingly an electronic record listing symptoms, test results, medications and often notes about general health, past illnesses, family, psychological disposition, etc. 

The physician, therefore, treats the individual patient based on this individualized record as well as the current best practices dealing with the patient’s need, be it the flu, a broken bone, a weak heart, hypertension or diabetes.

By comparison, what detailed information do colleges and instructors have about their students? Yes, many colleges have some individual information on student preparation from standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT and TOEFL (for English language competency).  But rather than being used as diagnostic tools, these tests usually function as gatekeepers for admission and sometimes for courses. Faculty rarely look at these data, much less make use of them. Indeed, they have little incentive to do so. At the same time, many colleges, particularly those serving high-need students, such as community colleges, have done away with such admission screening tests. For most community colleges and a number of four-year institutions (particularly for-profits), the simple possession of a high school diploma or the alternative GED, TASC or HiSET (high school equivalency exams) is sufficient for admission.

Recently, colleges appear to be increasing their use of one or more screening tests for academic competency (such as Accuplacer) to place students into the appropriate level of English or math courses. But many students skip such testing or ignore the results and place themselves in whatever courses pique their interest or fit their schedule. And even with institutional use of large collegiate data management systems such as Ellucian or Jenzabar, most professors are unlikely to review these limited diagnostics for their students.

When colleges do use the results of placement tests, many campuses compel underprepared students to take a semester or two of remedial math or writing when the students might only need to upgrade their skills in a few well-defined areas. One-size-fits-all rules the day. This process is the educational equivalent of prescribing two Aspirin to all patients and sending them home.

A revised and refreshed higher education system should include significant changes in the diagnosis and use of student-related information to drive educational and learning decision making. 

What additional diagnostic tools might a reformed college and university system adopt?

Diagnostic Student Profiles       

A reformed collegiate system could and should develop a student diagnostic system that incorporates baseline student achievement as well as demographic, behavioral, aptitude and personality profiles—the student’s equivalent of the patient’s medical record. Then, over time, as its research knowledge base expands, the new collegiate system would enlarge that student profile to incorporate unique traits, attitudes, behaviors and accomplishments that contributed to or impeded the learning process. 

The Experimental University would focus on and develop a rigorous evaluation of its students’ academic competency and potential, then provide each instructor with a complete diagnostic record for each student. Along with the traditional placement, achievement and aptitude exams, the reformed system would carefully measure a broad range of each student’s so-called soft skills. 

Effective teachers understand that student success takes more than high test scores and promising high school preparation. Student success is based on an extensive tool kit of personality attributes. Such personality traits and behaviors include persistence, ambition, career goals, a strong work ethic, a positive attitude, promptness, emotional literacy, strong communication skills, efficient time management, a knack for problem solving, sociability, active listening, teamwork, family and peer group support, persuasiveness, a sense of humor, self-confidence, flexibility, ability to work under pressure, networking, politeness, integrity, common sense and leadership. 

As its understanding of the role of soft skills matures, the Experimental University, using its database and ultimately those of other institutions, would gradually be able to analyze and demonstrate how particular skills and student attributes relate to academic achievement. Then its faculty and staff would begin to nurture and reinforce those relevant soft and hard skills and personality attributes. Finally, faculty researchers would determine what techniques work best in online, hybrid and face-to-face classes. This careful measurement of student learning and its drivers would become a core competency of the new university. 

Once students are carefully assessed along a range of academic, attitudinal and behavioral attributes, their progress can be accurately evaluated. The factors connected to that progress can be understood and employed to enhance student success. 

One additional link or partnership is needed to place the physiology of learning on a firm evidentiary basis.

Neurological Knowledge 

A fundamental understanding of learning will take place as we gradually identify its neurological bases. For example, which parts of the brain are used in learning different mathematical, language and scientific concepts, and which learning techniques appear to solidify these concepts in long-term memory?

To capture this new understanding of the brain, the Experimental University needs to be affiliated with a major medical research institution where the precise physiological processes of student learning would be mapped and understood.

In addition to its emphasis on student diagnostics and profiles and a firm scientific grounding, this new collegiate system would focus on the many malfunctions of contemporary education.

Failure Analysis: Medicine and Engineering 

Many contemporary institutions outside of education are vitally concerned with security and reliability and place a high premium on safe and effective operational standards. Many of these institutions are particularly concerned with failure and the factors that underlie it.

In the field of medicine, physicians examine their errors and failures in Mortality and Morbidity Rounds, where factors that lead to a mistaken diagnosis, improper medication, defective devices, faulty procedures, systems errors and the like are examined in detail to prevent future errors. Such Mortality and Morbidity Rounds, or failure analysis, are at the core of improving health care.

In the field of engineering, special attention is given to the detailed analysis of products, systems and human failures. At the same time, thousands of contemporary for-profit, non-profit and public-sector organizations regularly use various forms of failure analysis to safeguard quality, identify breakdowns and constantly improve their organizations’ value, safety and productivity. 

For example, the United States National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) specializes in the post-accident analysis of aircraft failures. In addition, Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is constantly used in product developmentsystems engineering and reliability operations throughout the industrial world. For example, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Administration employ FMEA in their regular operations. Indeed, Duke Professor Henry Petroski, an expert in contemporary failure analysis, notes that even in the cultural realms of music, art and literature, we have institutionalized a kind of failure analysts in the guise of critics.

Sadly, higher education is insufficiently concerned with failure analysis. It routinely accepts failure.

In the academic setting, failure takes the form of poorly educated and demoralized students, dropouts, faculty burnout, excessive costs, wasteful overhead, low productivity, student debt and lengthened time-to-degree.

College administrators and faculty might argue that understanding the lack of student success in a lower or upper-division course on literature, history or anthropology requires a sophisticated understanding well beyond the grasp of contemporary failure analysis. But the argument that the understanding necessary to evaluate failure in the classroom is more complex than the failure analysis of complicated human and technical systems in an urban hospital, a national power grid, a commercial aircraft, a deep-drilling oilrig, a space shuttle or a nuclear power plant is certainly debatable.

By using the tools and examples of engineers and doctors, education must scientifically analyze its own failure. Such analysis will point the way to long-term reform.

Treatment – The Role of an Experimental University 

A new educational model can only begin to take shape by creating an institution that we call the Experimental University (ExU). The ExU would appropriately adopt the successful experimental methodology and data-driven decision making used in evidence-based disciplines, medicine in particular. The ExU’s goal would be to fundamentally transform the postsecondary educational process, accelerate learning, dramatically increase student success and time-to-degree, lower costs and improve productivity in American higher education, much as medical research institutions enhance the practice of medicine.

The ExU would create, refine and make available both scientifically based model courses as well as complementary teaching and learning best practices that all teachers could use to prepare students to reach their maximum potential.

To bring the ExU into being, a visionary philanthropist like Stanford, Carnegie, Allen, Gates, Bezos or Rockefeller, a DARPA or an existing university would have to create a new institution resembling a top-ranked medical research university. This institution would focus on generating new knowledge about how students learn and, crucially, how faculty can maximize their own pedagogical effectiveness.

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