Guest blog post by Dr. Huda Makhluf, Interim Director of the Precision Institute at National University

I think of the act of teaching as scientific research, and each assignment as a hypothesis. When I teach biology, I hypothesize that the work I ask students to do will help them learn a key concept. If they do, my conjecture is confirmed; if students find the assignment—a reading passage, a simulation, a video, or some other task or activity—to be confusing or unenlightening, then I have to re-evaluate my approach and figure out if a different tact might work better. Over time, I have learned to anticipate what will work and what won’t, and my students learn more biology, with less trial and error.

Dr. Huda Makhluf, Interim Director of the Precision Institute

I am a microbiologist and immunologist, and have spent much of my career working with teams of scientists to understand viruses, including Zika and the virus that causes Dengue Fever. In that research, we also start with a hypothesis, design an experiment to test the hypothesis, gather data, analyze them, and reach a conclusion. Each conclusion leads to more questions and more cycles of inquiry. That’s the scientific method.

At National University, we’re asking a critical question: how can we design instruction and instructional supports, at scale, to help each one of our students reach their educational goal? Selective colleges and universities choose students whom admissions officers predict are likely to benefit from the type of education they offer. Students are expected to keep up with the demands of their classes, no matter the nature of the instruction. The institution does not customize its approach to fit the needs of its students.

National University was founded to make a quality education accessible to a wide range of students, meaning that our students choose us to help them reach their educational and career goals.  Given the diversity of our students, we need to understand each student’s educational needs with great precision and then offer precisely calibrated instruction and support, which is also the mission of the Precision Institute at National University.

Our overall hypothesis is that, if we use advances in technology to collect and analyze enormous amounts of data about a large number of students and their experiences with learning, the data will help us customize the learning opportunities we provide to individuals. To test that hypothesis, we’re conducting about 20 experiments to maximize the benefit to students of every component of the learning process. We’ve redesigned a few classes, converting them for use on a new learning platform called Learning Navigator that we’re engineering. Students are volunteering to use the redesigned courses and the data we’re gathering in real time are giving us insights into which learning activities help advance students’ understanding, and which ones get in the way. We’ll use that information to make adjustments to the class and then we’ll test the new version. The more students who choose to take these redesigned classes, the more data they will generate, the more precisely we’ll understand their needs, and the more precisely we’ll be able to design alternative learning activities and pathways.

We’re also experimenting with a redesigned student dashboard, which will have in one place students’ classes, assignments, grades, progress toward a degree, performance relative to other students, and steps they can take if they are falling behind. Another experiment is testing students’ reactions to two different approaches to what is called “nudging,” reminders of assignments due and tests coming up.

These and other experiments are being overseen by National University’s Precision Institute, which is, in a sense, a laboratory to research ways to improve students’ educational outcomes.

The scientific method is the foundation of science, but we’ve not used it to optimize education. Instead of using it to research genes and cells, we’re using it to better understand students’ experiences and how to make them better. When we were working on a vaccine for Zika, and trying to understand how the virus was transmitted, it kept surprising us. In science, a critical mind, systematic thinking, and curiosity lead to breakthroughs. It’s the same in education. We expect our experiments will lead to powerful instructional practices that we will be able to share with educators not just at National University but across the field. Our students have many talents and we want to help them make the most of their abilities. Right now, we’re asking questions; but, soon, we hope to have answers.

Dr. Huda Makhluf is the interim director of the Precision Institute at National University. She earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from American University in Beirut, Lebanon and a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the Medical University of South Carolina. She was a post-doctoral Fellow at Harvard Medical School and Baylor College of Medicine. Since 2007, she has been a visiting scientist at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and has worked in the division of vaccine development for Dengue Fever and the Zika virus. She has taught at National University since 2004. Learn more about the Precision Institute’s work at: https://www.nu.edu/precision