Science is a collaborative activity and requires shared measures, techniques and concepts. Affiliates are developing a common vocabulary to enable communication and cooperation among researchers from a wide range of disciplinary traditions.

Even while many or even all of the terms below may be familiar, we define them here in the interest of precision and clarity.

As with any language, ours is a work in progress. We encourage you to suggest additions to our vocabulary, and revisions to the definitions you see here. We also welcome links to additional resources. Write to Antoinette Aragon to begin your contribution, or raise your hand at the beginning of a Pathways Seminar session.


The iterative negotiations between individuals, schools/credential brokers, and employers that accumulate into resumes. Careers are path-dependent, in that early accomplishments create conditions for some subsequent opportunities while foreclosing others. In this way careers betray the phenomenon of cumulative advantage/disadvantage. More.

distributed cognition

Describes the phenomenon in which sense-making is accomplished through the coordination of multiple parties, not resident in the head of a single person. Naval navigation is a classic case of distribute cognition, in which the party steering a ship into harbor relies on many others — mapmakers, tug pilots, sonar technicians — for success. Academic course selection may be a function of distributed cognition when students rely on input from peers, advisors, and online information systems to weigh and choose options. More on naval navigation here. More on course consideration here.

elective curriculum

In academic programs, curriculum that enables a high degree of  discretion to students to choose (“elect”) particular courses. Elective curriculums are common to undergraduate education in the United States. They bring considerable variance and complexity to movement from college entrance to degree completion. The challenge of parsing this complexity was the founding motivation of the Pathways project at Stanford University in 2016. More.

fixed curriculum

In academic programs, programs of study that are set by administrators and official rules, offering little choice or discretion to students.


People engaged in pursuit of a learning goal. Learners should be distinguished from students, who have contractual relationships with formal organizations (usually, but not always, schools) that often entail payment of tuition and the conferral of official credentials. The distinction between learners and students became normalized in the wake of massive open online courses (MOOCs), after 2012, when many people participated in instructional offerings purveyed by established schools, but schools did not officially classify MOOC participants as students.


Measurable change in a capacity, skill, or understanding. Learning should not be confounded with progress through a curriculum or program of study, which may or may not entail learning. Learning has only occasionally and episodically measured in postsecondary education, despite ongoing efforts to do so.


The processes through which individuals gather information, consider options and make decisions as they navigate academic and employment options. Navigation often entails enlistment of human and technological third parties and blur into the phenomenon of distributed cognition. More.

path dependence

In social science, the term used to denote the sequential and contingent character of a phenomenon. A phenomenon is said to be path-dependent if it could only have been realized subsequent to particular priors. For example, enrollment in advanced courses that have fixed prerequisites is “dependent on” completion of those prerequisites. More.


The intersection of individual selections and available choices. Academic pathways emerge at the intersection of available coursework and students’ navigation of them. Pathways can be understood, described and measured either as idiosyncratic to individuals (“What specific coursework did I take?”) or summarized into aggregates (all pathways leading to an economics major at School X, for example). A research priority of Pathways Network is to develop shared heuristics for specifying and comparing aggregate pathways in undergraduate programs with elective curriculums. More.

predatory inclusion

Describes activities in which people, organizations or entire industries provide access to valued goods in in exploitative formats. Residential redlining, in which Black home buyers were given access bank financing at exploitative rates in segregated markets, is a hallmark case of predatory inclusion.  Some social scientists warn that financing postsecondary education through debt is another important form of predatory inclusion. More.


Forward movement in a sequence toward a specified goal: mastery of a technical skill or undergraduate degree completion, for example. Progress may, or may not, entail learning. For example, students may complete a course of study with passing grades, whether or not they have learned something. This is why progress through a curriculum and progress toward a learning goal often require separate measures.

responsible use

Connotes ongoing international dialogue about how to take advantage of the affordances of large-scale, integrated data describing persons and organizational processes in ways that serve functional improvement and human flourishing while mitigating risks of harm. Responsible use has come to replace terms like ethical use because the latter implies a fixed and knowable category of ideal or non-negative use cases. More.


Identifies a category of persons enrolled in an education organization that conveys broadly recognized credentials. Students typically enter into a contractual relationship with schools, and they often pay tuition. In these ways they are distinguished from learners, who may have a broad range of relationships, including voluntary and non-contractual ones, with instructional providers.