The Research Behind the SAIL Initiative

SAIL’s learning framework and tools evolved at Northeastern from decades of research on how people learn. Four concepts are key.


As we develop as learners, we shift from passively absorbing knowledge to reflecting upon what we know, how, and why, and we make choices about the knowledge we value and apply based on our experiences and relationships with others. This idea is central to SAIL’s vision of Northeastern as a community that equips lifelong learners to shape their own future and become ever more capable and agile.

Integrated learning

SAIL stresses the importance of deep learning. SAIL also recognizes that the key to becoming an agile learner in today’s complex, changing world is the ability to transfer and apply knowledge acquired in one context to new contexts and situations. Also pivotal to SAIL is the acknowledgment that learning happens everywhere—and that, like the faculty, co-curricular educators play major roles in helping students become more sophisticated thinkers. When everyone uses SAIL’s shared language, learners can practice transferring knowledge gleaned from everyday experiences with ease to the classroom, playing field, and beyond.

Self-directed learning

A chief aim of SAIL is to enable learners to set goals and drive their own learning. To navigate our complex world, learners must learn to assess a task or goal, take stock of their capabilities, craft a plan, apply a strategy, reflect on the result, adjust their strategy accordingly, and repeat the cycle as needed. SAIL creates an environment that prioritizes self-directed learning and offers tools to support that learning.

Educational transparency

Educators know the value of making instructional goals and processes explicit to learners, as well as the challenges. SAIL values the importance of educators and learners making learning goals and processes explicit, so that every experience can be connected to and mined for its learning potential. Research shows that, beyond helping learners acquire content and skills, transparency is powerful for helping students acquire employer-valued skills such as communication and teamwork, and for motivating underrepresented populations to persevere in college.

Learn more about the four concepts:

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., & Bloom, B. S. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York, NY: Longman.

Barber, J. P. (2012). Integration of learning: A grounded theory analysis of college students’ learning. American Educational Research Journal, 49(3), 590-617.

Baxter Magolda, M. B., & King, P. M. (2012). Assessing meaning making and self-authorship: Theory, research, and application. ASHE Higher Education Report (Vol. 38, No. 3). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bloom, B. S. (1969). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, Cognitive domain. New York, NY: McKay.

Fischer, K. W., Bullock, D., Rotenberg, E. J., & Raya, P. (1993). The dynamics of competence: How context contributes directly to skill. In R. Wozniak & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Development in context: Acting and thinking in specific environments (pp. 93-117). Hillsdale, NJ: ErIbaum.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

King, P. M., & VanHecke, J. R. (2006). Making connections: Using skill theory to recognize how students build and rebuild understanding. About Campus, 2(1), 10–16. doi:10.1002/abc.155

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Winkelmes, M.-A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18(1/2).

Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (Eds.). (2001). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Explore the general higher education landscape:

Astin, A. W. (1985). Achieving educational excellence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bass, R. (2012). Disrupting ourselves: The problem of learning in higher education. EDUCAUSE Review, 47(2), 23-33.

Brown, J. S., & Adler, R. P. (2008). Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(1), 16-32.

Eyler, J. (2009). The power of experiential education. Liberal Education, 95(4), 24-31.

Friedman, G. (2014). Workers without employers: Shadow corporations and the rise of the gig economy. Review of Keynesian Economics, 2(2), 171-188.

Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling short? College learning and career services. Retrieved from

Kuh, G. (2008). High impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Kuh, G. D., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., & Associates. (1991). Involving colleges: Successful approaches to fostering student learning and development outside the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Maguire Associates Survey of Employers. (2012). Retrieved from

Manpower Group. (2013). 2013 Talent Shortage Survey Research Results. Retrieved from

Morrison, N. (2015). Higher education “is failing students and employers.” Retrieved from

National Association of College Employers. (2015). NACE job outlook 2015, Spring update report. Bethlehem, PA: National Association of College Employers.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Savitz-Romer, M., Rowan-Kenyon, H., Zhang, X., & Fancsali, C. (2014). Social-emotional and affective skills landscape analysis: An executive summary. Unpublished Manuscript. Retrieved from

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes of student attrition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.