Surface Learning vs. Deep Learning

Today’s post stems from a seminar that I participated in this morning. The seminar was sponsored by the Center for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching, and University Assessment at Miami University and was titled, Deep Learning: Getting Beyond, “Will This Be on the Exam?” The presenter was Keith Roberts from Hanover College, a sociology professor who has been studying the way that students learn since the 1980s. In short, the seminar was great. Keith actively conversed with the room and got us thinking about how to foster a more engaging classroom environment. Using well-known learning theories, it was easy to relate the topics on-hand with specific disciplines. Enough about the seminar itself, here’s my take on the topic of surface learning vs. deep learning.Learning is hard. No one said it was easy and if anyone told you that when you were a child, then they were merely trying to protect you. It’s a lie. The students of this generation fall within the confines of basic dualism. It’s you versus them, right versus wrong, and so forth. There is no in between or grey area, and there is definitely no critical thinking. This is, more or less, a generalization of college students (primarily first-year, but holds true for students all the way through advanced degrees). The challenge that instructors of higher education face is that focusing on these surface topics and teaching to the test is what’s expected by students. (click here to see my thoughts on this topic) As I learned from today’s seminar, learning is only done when the 4 different parts of one’s brain is being utilized. Lecture and spoonfeeding doesn’t cut it. What needs to be done, from day 1, is to promote and foster an environment of critical thinking. Critical thinking is what forces students to use multiple (if not all) of parts of their brain.One of the methods in which critical thinking can be taught is to use perspective- (or role-) taking. Having students assume the role of another individual or audience forces them to view a situation from a different perspective. This “other viewpoint” can help students make conclusions about why something is the way that it is. Effective in theatre, chemistry, history, and virtually every other field, perspective taking can interest students and foster critical thinking, at the same time!There are 2 common questions about fostering critical thinking / perspective-taking that were raised during today’s seminar:

  1. How do you get students engaged to begin perspective-taking?
  2. How do you assess perspective-taking?

The answers were pretty simple, actually. And if you’ve spent anytime in professional development for higher education, you probably already know the answers…How do you get students engaged to begin perspective-taking?The primary answer to this question is to involve a topic that they are already familiar/engaged/invested in. For example: If talking about gravity, begin with an example about skydiving. You have to hook them to begin engagement, and then it’s another task to keep them engaged. Many instructors think that it’s not their job to do this. And no disrespect if you are one of them, but this demographic would be wrong. If you don’t relate the topics to real-life and interesting concepts, students aren’t going to care and therefore won’t remember what you’re trying to teach them. There are studies that prove that students who have authentic learning experiences, learn more. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because this type of learning uses all 4 parts of the brain. Summary: use real-life examples to hook students’ interest.How do you assess perspective-taking?Assessment is always a buzzword that has instructors re-evaluating their teaching methods. The short answer is that the assessment should follow the in-class learning activities. If the class discussion has students relating concepts to real-life ideas, tests should do the same. And for God’s sake, stop using multiple-choice tests! By having students write about topics in an authentic way, they have more of an opportunity to show off what they know and there’s less chance for cheating,Today’s seminar had great information, some of which was new and some not-so-new. But nonetheless, it’s important to understand the difference between surface learning and deep learning. Critical thinking and perspective-taking are examples of deep learning, forcing students to do more than just regurgitate facts. By teaching critical thinking, students move from the realm of dualism to formal operational thinking, having the ability to test different theories to make determinations. Don’t be a surface learning instructor, force your students to be engaged.

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